Tory attacks on education, and resistance to them, reflect a sharp debate about what education should be for.
Under capitalism, education plays an economic and an ideological role. For some bosses and politicians, education should be strictly concerned with meeting the needs of the economy. The education system should churn out what the bosses need—and anything more is a waste of money.
The logic of this is that when the economy is contracting, and needs fewer educated workers, the state should cut education provision.
But education also has an ideological role. It is a mechanism for instilling the norms and values of capitalist society into people from an early age. In school, children learn what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. They learn about power relationships and hierarchies.
School work is usually undertaken individually instead of in groups, and so the idea of competition is portrayed as natural.
The economic and ideological needs of capitalism shape what education looks like.
In Britain, the state extended education provision during the Industrial Revolution because the bosses needed a better-educated workforce so that they could compete in the global economy.
But the ruling class was terrified that education could have adverse side effects, such as workers becoming articulate and independent minded. It has always sought to exercise control over the education system—and stop too many working class people from getting ideas above their station.
In Britain, schools used to be divided into three categories: grammar, secondary modern and technical. These reflected class divisions.
Some poorer children could get into grammar schools on scholarships—but really they were for rich kids. The move to comprehensives was good, but it hasn’t ensured equal education for all.
Elite private schools, like Eton and Harrow, and grammar schools remain.
Poorer children are more likely to be in underfunded, overcrowded schools. And education can’t overcome the poverty, inequality, oppression and exploitation that blight the lives of millions of working class people.
The Tories and the bosses like to scapegoat individual teachers and schools for the poverty, inequality and oppression that are really to blame for educational “failure”.
The culture of incessant testing backs this up. It sends the message to children that everyone had the same test and an equal chance to do well—and if you don’t, it’s your own fault.
Today there is an ideological attack on the “right” to education. The rich ask why everyone should have the chance to go to university or college.
What they really mean is—why should all these working class oiks be in university? Only a minority can do well under capitalism—and the rest should be in routine, low-paid jobs.
There are a number of problems with this, apart from the obvious class bile.
Firstly, “cleverness” or ability isn’t an objective measure. The way that “intelligence” is measured and the structure of education favour middle class and white people, who are more likely to have been brought up with this kind of learning.
And capitalism limits potential. Poverty, discrimination and oppression all have an impact on educational ability.
The myth is that intelligent people get to the top of society because they work hard in the education system and are bright.
In reality working class people hardly get a chance to develop their ability—because they are turned off education from the start. How well you do in the system depends on class—not innate intelligence.
Socialists defend the right of everyone, whatever their background or age, to a decent education. We want to extend education, not cut it back.
Why shouldn’t anyone have the right to take an art class, learn computer skills, do a history course, or whatever else they are interested in—whether it is to get them a job or not?
The ruling class tells us such things are frivolous extravagances that “we” can’t afford. Meanwhile the real frivolous extravagances—the second and third homes, the stylists and the rest—are quietly forgotten.
Battles for education raise ideological questions. They show up class division, the priorities of the system and its limits.
We want a better, broader and more equal education system. But we also need to fight to overthrow a system that distorts the lives of millions to prop up a rich few.