Socialist Worker

Schools policies fail young people

by Alasdair Smith
Issue No. 2069

Children have returned to school after a summer which has seen an increased demonisation of young people.

If you listen to politicians and the media you would think that children are more badly behaved than ever and that there is a lack of discipline in schools.

Much of the debate tries to lay the blame for these problems on the young people themselves or on their parents or “bad role models”, especially in the black community. It has created a toxic discourse that wilfully ignores the reality.

The United Nations (UN) reported early this year that Britain is the second worst place in the western world to grow up.

The UN looked at a wide range of factors. One factor focused upon was how the experience of school impacts on children.

This is important because people assume that schools are an essential good. In the first half of the 20th century, socialists raised demands for compulsory schooling. And even though the ruling class might control the system, universal free schooling has been a liberating force.

Yet in the first decade of the 21st century it feels that there is little left of that liberating force.

Gordon Brown wants to extend compulsory education to 18, a measure which we oppose on the grounds that children should be free to choose. If schools were places that they wanted to come to, they would choose to stay on.

Children often see school as boring, oppressive and futile. Trivial rules, dull and irrelevant subjects and poor facilities are among the most frequent complaints.

Redefined

In the last two decades, the combined pressure of “raising standards” and developing a “market in education” have redefined the aims of education.

The relentless regime of target setting and performance management have turned our schools into education factories.

The bell, uniform and obedience become more important than knowledge and understanding, let alone thinking or questioning.

A crucial and necessary part of this system is the creation of failure.

I teach in a secondary school that has re-introduced streaming. The bottom stream is called a “nurture” group and has a primary school teacher and classroom layout. On the first day back, a teacher overheard kids talking about the “dumb” group.

The kids in this class may or may not feel ashamed of the label. Years of testing and failing in primary school have probably hardened them. Most likely they have internalised it and believe it is their own fault.

Worse still they will carry it through adolescence into adulthood. Something like 75 percent of the prison population experienced this sort of “failure” at school.

And don’t believe for a minute that this sense of failure is confined to a minority at the bottom.

The exam system and competitive ethos in school means most school children live in fear of failure. The market in education also creates fear among parents and teachers.

The result is that schools become sites of oppression not liberation. “Poor behaviour” is sometimes the child’s response to the system.

Policing

Traditionally people talked of the “carrot and stick” approach. But with years of exams and £20,000 debt on finishing university, what motivation is there?

That’s why the government and school managements increasingly rely on Asbos and Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABC) to control behaviour. Policing schools is their answer.

Class inequality intensifies all these problems. No wonder then that people talk about the problem getting worse.

It is not our young people or parenting that is worse – it is obscene record levels of inequality.

Neoliberalism has limited the aims and purposes of education to a narrowly defined treadmill in preparation for work. No wonder some children kick back.

Alasdair Smith is a teacher in north London


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Tue 18 Sep 2007, 19:15 BST
Issue No. 2069
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