Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen
The Blob Strikes Back! A review of Schools at Risk! Gove’s School Revolution Scrutinised edited by Trevor Fisher for the Socialist Education Association
Gove has characterised his critics in ‘the academic educational establishment’ as ‘The Blob’. If there is an academic educational establishment, some of the authors of this pamphlet were certainly members of it. Now they have come out fighting and furious at the damage Coalition policies are doing to schools and, especially, the teacher training many of them have long defended.
Geoff Whitty, for example, formerly Director of the Institute of Education, draws attention to the consistent and repeated attacks on teacher training throughout his career and originally emanating from Thatcher’s guru, Sir Keith Joseph. In his contribution Geoff quotes himself from 1991, ‘One of the reasons why some members of the New Right can believe,’ (just like today) ‘at one and the same time, in permitting the entry into teaching of people with little or no training, while imposing increasingly stringent criteria upon the content of established routes into teacher training, lies in its belief that there are “enemies within”.’ In otherwords , the ‘Marxists practising subversion’, as Gove also abused the 100 Professors who signed a letter protesting his policies.
Tim Brighouse in his statement as Chair of the New Visions for Education Group, a think-tank on schools made up of some of the UK’s leading figures on education, shows the ‘haphazard’ consequences of Gove ‘giving up the need to plan teacher training places nationally’. As Tim concludes, ‘The question of the partnership between schools and universities is ever changeable but to divorce them completely is a mistake and to suggest that teachers need no training at all is a grave error.’ Where this is coming from is the dominance of the private schools where no training is demanded of those who are ‘born teachers’. Where it is going is indicated in Richard Hatcher’s contribution.
Richard points out there are at least two ways to make profit out of public education. One is to sell off the institutions and allow the private investment that Gove favours in the chains and trusts of academies and free schools that have already been created in competition with residual ‘council schooling’. The other is to sell schools on-line individually bespoke teaching materials already available through the growing industry of home schooling and private tutoring. Richard details some of the corporate interests involved, including Murdoch and Pearson, to show again how ‘The foundations, the preconditions have been put into place’ and are ‘well suited to the so-called knowledge-based curriculum favoured by the Tories…’ Most importantly, ‘online-based education doesn’t need qualified teachers’!
Michael Bassey also describes the ‘bewildering array of “non-local authority” arrangements: philanthropic start-up sponsored, charity/ university sponsored, converter, multi-academy-chain’ that make up, as his title indicates, ‘The Willing, the Pressurised and the Forced’. On the basis of research evidence, Michael contests whether these multifaceted arrangements are doing anything to ‘raise standards’, especially for ‘the “Tail” of underachievement which is rightly seen as a major problem for the English educational system’.
Against these, David Pavett’s contribution on Finland describes the way in which the education system there reflects the more general values of the society. As he argues, Finland is relatively egalitarian in terms of income distribution but this is also reflected in the willingness of the country’s population to pay higher levels of taxation in the interest of the public good. Austerian EU policies also affect Finland however, even without the free market policies unleashed on neighbouring Swedish schools.
Greta Akpenye also offers a spirited defence of the comprehensive ideal which she describes as ‘a work in progress’ that contributed to ‘the transition from apparent mono-culturalism to acknowledged multi-culturalism… raising the consciousness of our children beyond narrow academic and economic achievement’. While Trevor Fisher lambasts ‘the Westminster consensus’ supported by a Media so ‘besotted with Gove’s anarcho-syndicalist belief in school autonomy’ they hardly question its contradiction in ‘a highly centralised system’.
As Trevor rounds off the collection, there are ‘Two years to go to an election whose outcome is unpredictable’. The Socialist Education Association offers these essays as a stimulus to focussed and purposive debate to come up with ‘A better future for our schools’ that the Labour Party launched earlier this month. Its recommendations however rely upon taking back control over all state-funded schools by the local authorities, not recognising how these too have been changed by outsourcing and unbundling under relentless pressure of punitive funding cuts while Gove only accelerates the Adonis brief for schools.
For the pamphlet does not contextualise its criticisms within a wider analysis to show, for example, how comprehensive schools were introduced in a period of economic expansion when a changing occupational structure allowed some limited upward social mobility (without people having to move down as they generally do today). Both the continued ‘professionalisation’ of teachers, particularly the increased role played by university education departments and the major step forward in pedagogy and curriculum were also important positive developments from this period.
In contrast, the Gove agenda – like Willetts in HE, a sector where inequalities are as pronounced as schools – is designed to correspond with economic flat-lining and falling living standards; but also a more general crisis facing young people in terms of employment opportunities. With attainment levels in schools producing a generation ‘overqualified and underemployed’ exams need to be made ‘harder’ to more clearly differentiate success from failure and numbers going on to university need to be restricted by the tripling of tuition fees. This means that we need to develop a wider programme of reforms in the interests of young people that go beyond reforming the school system. Nevertheless, this pamphlet is an important contribution and should be widely circulated.
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