Crisis in the UK education system

In today’s Guardian, columnist Deborah Orr proclaims that there is a literacy crisis in the UK. Her method is not particularly scientific; it is based on the observation that rioters failed to loot   a branch of a well-known chain of bookshops, her own (admittedly sad) experience of a local school, and something some bloke said.

However, there is a constant message through public media and from the Coalition government that the UK education system is failing. No evidence to the contrary can be admitted: even continuously improving public examination results are themselves further signs of this decline, because they only prove that the examinations are being made easier every year to allow for the increasing idiocy of our young people.

Employers, meanwhile, complain frequently that “school-leavers” do not come equipped and ready to start work. (But then, when were employers ever proclaiming otherwise?)

Perhaps this widespread view is summed up by the following quotation:

“… [comprehensive] education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. [Comprehensive] schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, … is escape from [comprehensive] schools, especially to [free] schools, which are … funded by the government but controlled by private organisations.”

This statement follows the neoliberal logic closely. Firstly, it demands deregulation by removing trades unions. It does this because unions interfere with the “market” rate for labour and protect employees from management, and in the neoliberal world management must be free to dismiss “bad” employees without restraint and to use pay to reward “good” employees.

Secondly, public services can only be improved by privatisation. Public service management cannot control money (they already spend too much) and too many public service employees are bad, hiding under union protection.

Poor performance of any organisation is not systemic, and can only have one cause: bad people. Such people are to be anathematised and rooted out (not professionally supported and retrained). A previous Conservative government set up a body to enable this: it is called Ofsted. A successor neoliberal government, New Labour, implemented a complex mechanism of testing and grading students which can be used to measure schools and teachers. Secretary of State Michael Gove has already announced changes to make it easier for Head Teachers to fire “under performing” teachers.

Given the neoliberal logic of small government and privatisation, it might seem counter-intuitive that it is the purpose of government to fund private organisations. However, this is where the ideology and practise of neoliberalism separate. Government is made “small” by removing welfare and public services; it is not made small by removing government purchase of private services. This is obvious in the trillions of $US spent by the government on purchasing on military and security products and services, including privatised prisons.

The neoliberal project has concerned itself with public education to the degree that some would argue that the battle to remove public education was a major factor in its creation. The histories in the US and UK have parallels: in the US the demonisation of public education began with desegregation of schools in the 1960s, where in the UK it began with the removal of Grammar Schools. Both precipitated the transfer of prosperous white students to private schools.

In both the US and the UK, attempts have been made to undermine public education by introducing competition and choice; in both cases through the use of “vouchers”. In the UK the notion simply flopped, but in the US it continues (and is even becoming more prevalent under Republican administrations). The subtext of the message “choice” and of  vouchers is unsubtle and has undertones of racism as well as social stigmatisation: use a voucher to get your child to a school without (physically dangerous) black kids and other underachievers. “Choice” also returns us to the “individual responsibility” logic of neoliberalism: you are being individually responsible for removing your child from your neighbourhood school if it is not good enough for you, but it is not your responsibility to take on a governance role in that school to improve it.

The alternative method pushed by neoliberal politicians (and as always, propounded by neoliberal thinktanks and funded by the super-rich) to vouchers is to fragment the school system by allowing the creation of publicly funded (but privately run) schools, called “charter” schools in the US and “free” schools in the UK. These remove local government accountability, and are typically granted freedom to teach what they like, how they like. Creationism is not unusual: and indeed any religious bias is not so much permitted as encouraged.

Below is the original passage from which I quoted earlier in this blog, translating terminology only. It was written by Diane Ravitch, who writes and talks on education and is a mighty campaigner against the privatisation and fragmentation of the US “public” school system – the equivalent of the UK’s community schools.

“The message … has become alarmingly familiar: American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.”

Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove is closely linked to the “charity” The Atlantic Bridge, which was used to establish strong links between neoliberal politicians, organisations, and sponsors in the UK and the USA. It is as plain as the nose on his face that his education agenda of removing national pay agreements, reducing the power of unions, stigmatising “bad” teachers, making it easier to dismiss teachers, removing local government responsibility for education services, cutting education spending on community schools, and introducing publicly funded “free schools” (which may eventually be allowed to make profits) is what is being done in the USA.

It’s as patently obvious where Mr Gove got the ideas.

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