Socialist Worker

New Labour’s Education White Paper — an end to comprehenssive education?

The government unveiled its education white paper last week. It sets out a Victorian vision of three-tier schooling subordinated to business needs, writes Terry Wrigley.

Issue No. 1941

The Tomlinson report into education won widespread praise when it came out last October.

It wasn’t without faults, but it was a genuine attempt to end snobbery over qualifications by setting up a unified diploma system for 16 and 18 year olds.

The new diploma would have included academic and vocational studies, giving equal weight to both.

A proposal to encourage student centred learning instead of exam cramming won support from many universities. But Ruth Kelly, Tony Blair’s new education secretary, has now scuppered the Tomlinson reforms.

Instead of a unified system she is keeping GCSE and A levels as they are, and setting up vocational diplomas alongside them.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the NUT teachers’ union, notes that Kelly’s white paper “uses the language of Tomlinson but has a fundamentally different meaning: the academic/vocational divide has been widened rather than narrowed”.

This is at the heart of Blair’s policies for education. In the poorest neighbourhoods, many 11 year olds will go to a specialist school for catering or construction skills.

The lucky few will attend a “city academy” providing higher level vocational skills for business or engineering.

We are fast going down the road of lowering the school leaving age to 14 for many young people. In Knowsley, for example, 300 teenagers are on a “work based programme” with up to five days a week in the workplace.

At one of its schools, 21 pupils have full time placements at garages, hairdressers, and painting and decorating firms.

This is supposed to be the answer to disaffection. But there are many different ways to engage young people, such as fewer tests, less sense of failure and active learning across a broad curriculum.

All young people need to learn about science and history as well as acquiring useful skills for work.

Educating for democracy should involve learning about the environment, the mass media and the causes of poverty. Now the very principle of a “broad and balanced” curriculum has gone out the window.

Abandoning the Tomlinson reforms has created widespread anger, from universities, the chief inspector of schools and all the teaching unions.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a wider project to dismantle comprehensive education. Blair is returning us to the Victorian principle of educating people “to fit their station in life”.

Under his plans, so called “young apprenticeships” will be expanded to include a third of 14 year olds, who will spend large parts of their week out at work.

Vocational diplomas are also likely to involve about a third of 14 to 18 year olds. They too will be “employer designed”, so altogether the education of two thirds of young people will be determined by employers.

Nobody is safe under this reform. Everything is geared towards employers’ short term demands. English will be focused on “functional literacy”—no time for reading for pleasure, or for critical studies of the mass media.

New Labour’s plans are far worse than anything the Tories did to education. Margaret Thatcher’s government failed to break up the comprehensive system. Keith Joseph introduced GCSEs, providing a school leaving qualification for all 16 year olds.

Blair’s crowd always hated the idea of their own children going to comprehensive schools. Their project now is to end comprehensive schooling altogether.

The purpose of schooling has also been completely narrowed down, so all that matters is skills for work. Blair’s “education, education, education” slogan now means “business, business, business”.

Terry Wrigley is a lecturer in educational development at Edinburgh University. He writes here in a personal capacity. Terry will be speaking at the Rethinking Education conference this Saturday in London. See Coming events for full details.

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Sat 5 Mar 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1941
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