Review of The Great Reversal


The election of the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition in 2010 brought about a relentless series of attacks on English education (devolution means that the situation is different in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). For the most part these attacks are understood as the commodification and marketisation of education. While Allen & Ainley do not dispute that these two things are happening, this short critical book – really, three extended essays – takes the analysis a step further to argue that the effect is an emerging education system designed to teach everyone their place; that is, the goal is a reassertion of education for social control.

Now, the old school Marxist part of me responds with a d’oh, education has always been about social control, but there two unsettling things that Allen & Ainley do well. First, they argue that the Tories in charge of education policy (Gove & Willetts) recognise that supply side policy responses that govern debates about education policy are inadequate; that is to say that these government ministers recognise that skills development alone is an inadequate response to the problem of youth unemployment and economic development. There has been a powerful line of critique from the left for nearly 30 years now the neo-liberalism’s supply-side focus is inadequate. The Tory response to the recognition that this analysis is correct is, according to Allen & Ainley, a set of changes that seem destined to take us back to the ‘50s or further. This argument is convincing, and is best summed up by the title – The Great Reversal – and the case that we cannot educate ourselves out of recession.

The second compelling strand of the argument is the case that conserving responses – a defence of public comprehensive education – are important but insufficient. To make this case they draw on analyses of the shape of the labour market that see the emergence of precariousness as the defining characteristic but then point to the lack of recognised common interest between those ‘selected’ for the ‘option’ of improvement – that is young people in further and higher education – and those ‘selected’ for failure – that is, those whom the system has failed. These two groups are represented by the 2010/11 anti-fees and cuts protesters on the one hand and the 2012 ‘rioters’ on the other. However much these two groups have in common, equally important is what lies between them.

Allen & Ainley argue that campaign groups, such as the Campaign for the Public University, for all their strengths have no real way of engaging with these fractions of the youth population while trade unions’ defence of their members has been at the expense of reaching out to wider coalitions. In short, their case is that the current responses, although important, are inadequate and we need a new more general political programme dealing with forms and distribution of work, with forms of remuneration and with credentialisation and its effects (and then go on to sketch aspects of that programme.

This is a timely and challenging short book that should be taken seriously; I hope it is.

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