The central aim of Tony Blair’s education policy is the abolition of the state comprehensive system.Education privatisation was not a New Labour invention. Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government set in motion processes to create a new world of competition between schools.
League tables, SATs tests based on the national curriculum, the Ofsted inspectorate and local management of schools were Thatcher’s favoured tools.
When Labour came to power in 1997, it launched a raft of initiatives that it claimed would improve teaching standards, but genuine educational success proved elusive.
The government pointed to improvements in SATs scores and GCSE results, but it was clear that this was primarily the result of Òteaching to the testÓ.
The stubborn reality of social class remains the key factor determining educational attainment – and this has been the rock on which New Labour’s initiatives have foundered.
A recent attack on comprehensive state education is the academies programme. This allows any businessman with a couple of million pounds to spare to get their hands on a school.
The academies programme is itself part of a wider reorganisation of secondary education. Under Labour’s plan any school can apply for trust status allowing it new freedom over admissions policy and curriculum.
There has always been a patchwork of different sorts of schools – private fee-paying schools, faith schools, grammar schools and secondary moderns.
The government has superimposed another tier of schools. This will further increase the tendency towards social segregation.
For the children of working class families, a new generation of vocational schools will open by 2008, targeting specific service industries. A broad and balanced education until the age of 16 just isn’t what business wants.
It makes children too uppity, too concerned with art, drama and music, or – even worse – able to question the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the impending catastrophe of climate change.
In 1984, an internal circular from the department for education and skills was leaked to the media. It argued children Òmust be educated to know their placeÓ. Part of Tony Blair’s legacy will be to try to set that in concrete.
But none of this is inevitable. Over the past two decades there have been a series of campaigns over these issues – at best involving parents, teachers and the wider education community. These campaigns show what is possible.
In the past two years the Anti-Academies Alliance has emerged as groups of parents and teachers have sought to learn campaigning strategies from each other. It is holding its second annual conference on 25 November at London’s Institute of Education.
We need a mass campaign. Fred Jarvis, a former general secretary of the teachers’ NUT union and staunch New Labour supporter, recently spoke at a TUC fringe meeting of the need to go back to the campaign of 1963.
This was the year Labour adopted a policy of support for a comprehensive state education system that would end the gross inequality and waste of the two-tier system made up of grammar schools and secondary moderns.
In the run up to 1963, several Labour-controlled authorities, especially in the northern metropolitan areas, experimented with new forms of organisation with comprehensive schools at the heart.
There were many successes, but despite favourable noises from both Tory ministers and leaders of the opposition no one seemed prepared to make the change.
Then in 1962 Sweden switched to a fully comprehensive system. Activists in organisations such as the National Association of Labour Teachers carried the arguments forward and in 1963 the dam burst.
Recognition of the superiority of comprehensive education swept through society, with parents, academics, governors and eventually teaching unions coming on board.
When Labour won the 1964 general election one of its first measures was to initiate Òcircular 10/65Ó. This called on local education authorities to submit proposals for the reorganisation of education along comprehensive lines.
No legislation was ever used to establish a comprehensive system, as it was so universally regarded as superior to what had gone before.
Indeed Thatcher, as education secretary in the 1970s, was responsible for turning more schools into comprehensives than any other minister before or since.
Faced with the onslaught of neoliberalism in education today, we would do well to heed Jarvis’s words.
But there is a problem. The very notion of comprehensive education has been smeared, and in some people’s minds it is associated with failure.
Today campaigners such as Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, authors of a recent book defending comprehensive education, talk of the need for a Ògood local school for all our childrenÓ.
This is a good demand to unite behind. Within a mass campaign around this question we can argue that Òanother education is possibleÓ.
Conference against academies and trust schools, Saturday 25 November, Institute of Education, London. Speakers include Clyde Chitty, Melissa Benn, Terry Wrigley, Tony Benn.
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