Britain - Public education under attack

Jan/Feb 2000

In the run up to the 1997 election, Labour promised that they would "make education their number one priority".

Education, said Labour, was the Tories' biggest failure. At the time of the election, they argued, Britain had fewer 17 and 18-year olds in full time-education than any major industrial country. Classrooms were overcrowded, schools understaffed and many school buildings were crumbling. Standards were at an all-time low: nearly half of all 11-year olds in England and Wales could not reach expected standards in English and maths. Two-thirds of the workforce had received no vocational training whatsoever.

Given this dire state of affairs though, the electoral promises Labour made were extremely modest: to cut class sizes to 30 or less for unde-7's; provide nursery places for all 4-year olds; provide schools with computer technology; launch a University for Industry; spend more on education ... but only as "the cost of unemployment" fell.

On the other hand Blair made significant departures from Labour's traditional stance. For instance, while claiming in his manifesto that "there will be no return to the 11-plus" exam, he did not propose to end selection in the remaining grammar schools: it would be up to the parents of children in those schools to decide.

Nor was there any question of getting rid once and for all of the bureaucratic nightmare and competitive lunacy of the league tables for schools. Reversing the trend set by the Tories by shifting the allocation of school places from the Local Education Authorities (LEA) to "parental choice" was not on the agenda either. No, for Labour, this vote-getter aimed at the middle-class was there to stay.

As to the list of "things to do", including retaining and developing further "public/private partnership" in schools, performance targets, progress tests, etc.. - this was nothing but a smooth continuity of the policies of previous governments, both Labour and Tory. The fact that most of these policies were bound to increase rather than narrow the divide between rich and poor pupils and entrench social privilege in education, was simply hidden behind Labour's rhetoric against "social exclusion".

Today, the government claims to be on track and making good progress. By now, however, it is clear that Labour has not simply continued where the Tories left off. In only 30 months it has already gone much further than the Tories ever dared during their 18-year tenure. But before going into the implications of current Labour policy, it is worth recalling how and why education was in such a bad way.

Labour's past record

By the time Wilson's Labour government came to power in the 60s, state education was run, from primary level to further education, by local government, through the Local Education Authorities (LEAs). Teachers decided what they taught and controlled the content of exams through the Schools Council. There was no real centralised control by the state, except through the overall budget granted by the government to each LEA.

Secondary education was a "two tier" system. Well-funded selective grammar schools, which recruited pupils through the 11-plus exam, educated only 20% of children to a higher level. The other 80% received a substandard education in secondary modern schools, many leaving with no qualifications at all. These two parallel systems reflected a deep social divide in education which excluded a majority of working class children.

However, it was in that period that the 11-plus exam came under extensive criticism, based on research evidence. This began, at last, to discredit a much-accepted British establishment view that somehow intelligence was determined at birth, and IQ tests, on which the 11-plus was based, could be used to determine this apparent "natural intelligence". The selective grammar school system was seriously put into question, and the establishment of non-selective comprehensive schools, which would offer all pupils the chance to gain the "A" levels necessary to get into university became the government's stated aim. A circular to LEAs was issued in 1965, which "requested" a shift to comprehensive schools. However, Wilson stopped short of producing legislation imposing this shift. There was a predictable clash with grammar schools, some of which were bound to be made redundant by the development of comprehensive schools. But in the end, it was lack of government funding that solved the problem. Retaining the 11-plus became a way for the state of "rationing" the true comprehensive secondary education that it was not prepared to pay for.

Ironically it was under the next Tory government, in 1970-74, with Thatcher as Education secretary, that the shift to comprehensive really gathered momentum. Not that Thatcher was in favour of it - her first act had been to cancel the 1965 circular! - but legally she had no other choice than to endorse the decisions made at LEA level. As a result she presided over more schools changing to comprehensive status than any other minister, before or afterwards.

Shortly after returning to power, Labour embarked on an austerity policy. The issue of comprehensives versus grammar schools was no longer on the cards since the shift had already been almost completed. The question rather was that of central state control over education. Without such control, how was the government to prevent its planned cuts from causing total mayhem in the schools? All the more so as cuts had to be targeted so as to avoid antagonising the layer of middle class voters who most benefited from free state provision.

To divert attention from the impact of the cuts while strengthening the case for central state control over education, Callaghan blamed teachers for the decline of standards - proof that Blair's "New" Labour uses old tricks when pointing a finger at "failing teachers"! At the same time a call for a "core" national curriculum under central direction was made, although the hostility this provoked, particularly among teachers, meant it was not included in the 1978 Education Bill. What was included however was the right for parents to have choice over which school their children attended, ending zoning and making this the key factor in the allocation of pupils to schools.

The draft Bill which was meant to implement these ideas was never enacted. But it set the agenda for what was to come in the successive Tory reforms after 1979: parental choice (the sop to the middle class vote), links to industry, more central control and therefore a reduction of local government powers, as well as an attempt to weaken the teachers' unions.

The ground is cleared for GERBIL

The election of the Conservatives in 1979, to be followed in 1980 by their first Education Act with its £280m worth of cuts, is nevertheless taken as a starting point of the roll-back in state education.

The underlying aim of all the so- called reforms over the next 18 years was to continue to cut state expenditure on education and to reduce the role of the state as much as possible. Paradoxically, however, in order to achieve this, greater central state control over the education system was first required, due to the historical role of local government (LEAs) - and teachers - in determining policy and where and how funds were allocated and spent. The continuity between Callaghan and Thatcher was thus established.

Tory strategy was therefore to centre around three main planks: removing powers from the LEAs and teachers; introducing the idea that education should not necessarily be free, nor state-provided; then, once the LEAs had been side-lined, "decentralising" schooling by allowing individual school management and financing as a step towards privatisation.

The Tories chose to go for the easier targets in their first term. Privilege in education, and the selection of pupils via the 11-plus for grammar schools, had already had a "rationing" effect on state expenditure on secondary education but this was less and less the case. However "selection" was in line with the Tories' politicking towards their electorate, as was parental choice of schools. Accordingly, the first Education Secretary, Mark Carlisle, symbolically abolished Labour's 1976 Act which required LEAs to plan for comprehensives and introduced parental choice of school along the lines of Labour's 1978 proposals. The abolition of the 1976 Act was symbolic, because it could and would not halt conversion to comprehensive schools under the control of LEAs, and Carlisle knew this. By 1982, 90% of schools had been reorganised as comprehensives, leaving only 185 grammar schools in existence. And while legislation on parental choice was seen as a first step to "opt-out schools" and so-called parental control in education, LEAs still had the power to obstruct this.

The issue of central control of education was therefore an urgent item on the next Tory agenda. The minister who now took over education, Keith Joseph, reopened the debate on a national curriculum and abolished the teacher-dominated Schools Council to facilitate future governmental direction of what and how was taught in schools.

He also reignited an old debate, over a voucher system for education, thereby reintroducing the idea that the right to education might involve some form of payment. A voucher system had been suggested as long ago as the fifties by Geoffrey Howe (inspired by Milton Friedman, the famous Chicago monetarist). Parents would surrender a state-provided voucher, to "pay" for a child to attend a state school, but the voucher could be used in part- payment for fees at a private school. While this finally saw the light of day only in the form of a nursery voucher scheme in the 1990s, it is an idea which remains in reserve today, and may well resurface "even" under Labour.

GERBIL's sharp teeth

It took Kenneth Baker's 1988 Great Education Reform Bill, the "GERBIL", as it was nicknamed, to put the Tories three main objectives firmly in place.

GERBIL, when it became law, allowed schools to opt out of LEA control and become directly funded from central government - or "grant- maintained". Parental choice was linked to a new funding system for schools which meant the budget of each school was tied to the number of children it could recruit. It set up a range of City Technical Colleges funded jointly by government and industry. It proclaimed a "core curriculum" in which the basics of every child's education would be laid down by the state (which recalled Callaghan's "Great Debate" proposals for such a curriculum in 1976). New funding councils were set up for universities and polytechnics in which the DES would have reserve powers to direct their use of such funds, and award competitive contracts.

At last, the government was in a position to by-pass local government and determine fully where rationing and cuts were to fall. Ironically Thatcher's administration, which was busy rolling back the state from industries such as coal, the utilities, the NHS, etc., was rolling its powers forward in education. As Professor John Ashworth, vice- chancellor of Salford university said, "They are privatising everybody else and nationalising us".

But the reason to increase central powers over education was precisely to enable the "rolling back" process to take place all the more easily. The Tories were merely preparing the ground for withdrawing state funding of education as far as possible and allowing profitable parts of the operation to become accessible to their friends in business.

Indeed, decentralisation went hand in hand with centralisation. While LEAs were stripped of control, individual schools were turned into self- managing units (called LMS or Local Management of Schools) with headteachers and their management teams expected to handle their own budgets. If they wanted to opt out of the LEA consortiums supplying stationery and equipment and negotiate locally, they could. However the price of a budget shortfall could mean sacking teachers and increasing class sizes.

But to ensure that schools were "maintaining standards", and to allow "parental choice" to mean something, the means to judge school performance were also devised in the form of comparable tests - based on the common curriculum. Indeed while Britain had been one of the few industrial countries without a national curriculum it now became, for a time, the one with the most prescriptive. A National Curriculum Council as well as a School Examinations and Assessment Council were created, which came up with "key stages" and targets for attainment of learning goals, and a plethora of required tests at various ages, which had the effect of tying teachers, pupils and parents in complex bureaucratic knots.

These tests (in English, maths and science - known as SATS) were simplified by following education ministers, since they proved so impossible to manage. But even in the simplified form they still burdened teachers with bureaucracy at the expense of the "quality" of education that these tests were supposed to measure. Clarke's final legacy as education minister was the introduction of "league tables" for exam results in 1993, to implement a more extensive "parental market" for schools.

The consequences of these "reforms" however were to allow schools to be labelled as "failing", and teachers to be targeted as "bad". They were singled out to be cut, though many took early retirement out of plain demoralisation. A vicious cycle of a shortfall of teachers, large classes which made teaching impossible, poor results and funding cuts pushed many schools into a downward spiral. This affected the schools in the poorest areas the most - those which could least afford it. School maintenance suffered, as did the "extras" that schools had provided like outings, but even school libraries had to be closed. More and more, parents found themselves having to organise fund- raising or even make contributions to their children's schools. And all of this was happening in the general context of growing social deprivation, unemployment and the dereliction of housing and services which only made matters worse for children in the poorest areas. Truancy and "exclusion" from schools increased exponentially.

The drawing to a close of 18 years of Tory government, had seen schools on the receiving end of 16 education acts. The state had indeed "rolled back" its funding of education and selected where it was going to target this diminished budget. Education was now overtly failing the poor; teachers were demoralised and so were many parents. But schools, which could never have compensated for the social deprivation of children, no matter how hard they tried, were now the main target for blame over the growing number of children who "failed".

This was the balance sheet before Labour's takeover. So what precisely has changed since Labour came in, particularly as regards secondary education and what consequences do these changes have?

The Labour way - the market expands

In terms of its election promises, Labour has been boasting of its progress. Since these promises did not amount to much in the first place, that is not too difficult. But even then there is a sleight of hand involved.

For instance, Michael Barbar, the head of the government's "Standards and Efficiencies Unit" claimed in November 1999 that the government was well on the way to achieving its target of cutting class sizes to 30 maximum for 7-year olds and under. But not through increasing the number of teachers or building classrooms. "Bussing" of pupils has come back without the buses being provided. Because schools have just refused to take new pupils once their classes are full. So parents just have to find another school where the classes are still under 30, even if it is two bus-rides away for their six-year old and little brothers and sisters now go to different schools.

Barbar also claims that standards are rising. 70% of 11-year olds now meet expected standards in English and 60% in maths - "up" by 13% in the case of English and 6% in the case of maths. But statistics are not the whole story. These two areas were prioritised as a show-case. Indeed Labour has shown itself even more interested than the Tories were in providing league tables and statistics for everything, which they can then use to demonstrate "improvements". Even 5 year-olds are meant to be tested weekly according to new guidelines. Of course Blunkett has promised to resign if results are not raised sufficiently by 2002. But as that is the year when an election has to take place, he is not risking much!

As for league tables and progress tests, such a method of gauging improvements, similar to that imposed on the NHS, puts education on a par with the assembly line. But if the statistics claiming to show Nissan in Sunderland to be so much more productive than Rover at Longbridge are farcical because they say nothing about the level of investment, how much more is that true of schools where the product - "educa tion" - is so much harder to measure? Even an adjustment is to take into account the different starting levels of pupils, the schools in poor areas are still going to have worse results. This leaves them in the vicious circle they were already in. Bad results mean falling intakes, which means less funding, even fewer resources and teachers, which means, bad results.

Labour has, however, abolished "Grant Maintained" school status brought in by the Tories. So now the responsibility for most schools returns to LEAs. But in return for this additional responsibility, LEAs do not get any control over the funds they supply to schools. Heads and governors of schools (now mainly "parent governors", in line with Labour's parent empowerment rhetoric) will have most of the say in allocation of places in the schools, activities, etc,.

As for the remaining 142 grammar schools, with their selective 11-plus entry exam - which Labour claimed to oppose on principle - parents will be allowed to vote "for" or "against" the retention of selection, on a school by school basis over the next year. And since one option for these schools is to go private some of them may do so. But this certainly does not abolish selection, even if it applies to so few schools. There is plenty of room for state schools already to impose all kinds of "selection" criteria given the autonomy parents and governors have. And anyway, some parents are more able to choose where their children go than others - like the Blairs' themselves, for instance, who sent their sons to the Roman Catholic London Oratory School (among the top 50 best state schools) rather than to the local Islington comprehensive.

Another abolition which might look like an egalitarian measure by Labour was that of the Assisted Places Scheme which by 1997 placed 96,000 children in private schools. The £180m per year saved thereby, is according to Labour's manifesto, intended to pay for the cutting of class sizes for 5, 6 and 7 year-olds in state schools. Quite why this means of funding the cutting of class sizes was asserted is very hard to comprehend. After all, how would one know it was used for this? It is pure politicking.

There is another insidious phenomenon that crept in under the Tories which Labour proves quite happy to endorse - that is, charges for state schooling. Of course Labour has already underwritten the Tory proposals for university tuition fees. But today, many parents are paying school "fees" (of course they are called "voluntary contributions" for the time being, anyway) over and above paying for "extras" such as outings. This has been the case in most grammar schools for a long time - where parents pay a "covenant" of £25 per month. But the London Oratory, which Blair's two sons attend, has just asked parents to pay "monthly contributions" of up to £45! And Blair has certainly not appeared in public remonstrating with this school and others, advocating that parents refuse such requests since it goes against the fundamental principle of free and universal education. What next? Vouchers?

For teachers, Labour's strategy is a carrot or stick approach. The carrot is the bribe of "performance related pay", which, if the teachers "perform", will give them an extra £2,000 per year. Salaries of head teachers, previously on average around £48,000 will go up to £70,000. A new category of "advanced" teachers will be given £40,000 per year. This is meant to attract more "quality" graduates who would otherwise have shunned teaching because they could get better pay in the private sector. The only snag is that "performance" will be measured via inspection, school league tables and progress tests, regardless of the fact that it is the teaching of the most deprived children which tests the performance of teachers, and when they achieve a "pass" rather than a "fail" this is success. Such children will not be getting the top marks. Their teachers therefore will not either. They may well even face the sack or obligatory retraining - this is the stick. Of course, there is always the fall-back position if teachers have disappeared: Blair's technological revolution whereby 90% of secondary schools and 60% of primary schools are now linked to the Internet. Are children supposed to teach themselves by surfing?

The label of "failing schools" and "bad" teachers has been an easy way for the government to abrogate its responsibility even further. It does not need the many reports and studies which have appeared over the years, but again of late, to "prove" that it is poverty which undermines education. Every government has acknowledged this so far, and Labour has made sermons out of its "inclusion" policies. Early last year the Treasury itself published a report which said: "Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to succeed in education... On 'difficult to let' estates, one in four children gain no GCSEs (the national average is one in 20) and rates of truancy are four times the average.... There is considerable evidence that growing up in a family which has experienced financial difficulties, damages a child's educational performance."

The report goes on to say that disadvantaged children already show differences in their attainment at 22 months of age and that going to school does not reduce the differences in early development between advantaged and disadvantaged children. Of course, this does not mean that children cannot be rescued, at least to an extent, from a blighted future, by tackling the way in which they are educated. But this requires resources. And other studies show that it is precisely those schools most in need of such resources that are being attacked for "failing" and therefore faced with further cut-backs. This government is not stupid. Just as its predecessors knew very well, it knows too that unless social deprivation is abolished, children who are poor will continue to get a poor education. After school homework classes (with national guidelines to "establish minimum periods" for this activity) will not change this. Nor will the Premier League Football ground's "study support centres" which Labour is piloting in "partnership" with the clubs. But these schemes, as well as the many others Labour has launched, provide a cover for the real intentions of this government, which is to continue what the Tories began - the reduction in the role of the state in education - and therefore further cutbacks.

Breaking new ground for profiteers

There is one area where Labour has broken new ground - in the sphere of privatisation. Schools' management, and indeed school services provided by LEAs, if not whole LEAs, have been put out to tender. Of course the political smokescreen used for this move is that these LEAs and their schools are "failing", and need stern management to get them up to scratch. This goes one step further than Labour's manifesto proposal for failing LEAs to have their powers suspended and "improvement team" sent in.

In the London borough of Hackney, school improvement services were contracted out to Nord Anglia last July in a £250,000, three year contract. In Islington, all the services previously provided by the LEA are now to be provided by Cambridge Education Associates (CEA). This amounts to abolition of the LEA which will now be no more than a rump. It follows a programme of national inspection of all LEAs by the government's Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), whereby four of the 50 inspected so far have had some of their functions contracted out to the private sector.

The School Standards minister, Estelle Morris has announced that up to 10% of all LEAs will be contracted out to private companies. Indeed savings by the state on school management can only really be made if the LEAs are privatised in conjunction with the privatisation of individual school managements, which has already happened in Hackney and in Islington. The example of Sheffield illustrates the reason: there, the LEA keeps back £442 per pupil per year for its central administration and activities. This means that for an average secondary school of 1,000 pupils, over £500,000 is spent purely on these functions. If the LEA still funds overall administration, there will be little advantage for the treasury in terms of cost savings or for a private company managing a school in terms of profit-making. On the other hand, if the US model is used, whereby an "education company" takes over a school, "invests" money in it (for teachers, technology, equipment) and then gets the government's funding based on the number of pupils, the more schools it manages, the more economies of scale it can implement. This allows it to return a share to investors. Nobel Learning Communities in the US manages 140 schools on unit costs which are much lower than the equivalent state schools by keeping its central administrative cost to only 40% of that of the state.

This is the charm of privatisation of school management. It is cheap for the government because state funding of administration can be cut, while at the same time it opens new territory for private capital's profiteering.

The setting up of "Education Action Zones", meant to attack low standards has also been a cover for allowing private finance initiatives into areas they were excluded from before. Schools in deprived areas are meant to engage in partnerships with business to improve their resources, school buildings, etc. Presumably one of these partnerships is that with Ford, but the advantage is that this is "free". Ford sends workers who are temporary laid off production due to cuts in schedules, to paint school benches and fences, or help with reading classes. A large team of Halewood workers is meant to be going into schools in Liverpool to do maintenance! Of course it is all very well to make use of this publicity-seeking "benevolence" on the part of multinationals like Ford, but in reality it can only paper over the cracks.

Labour's education policy is being implemented at a time when the gap between rich and poor had never been so wide and is widening further and at when 4 million children live in poverty. This accounts for its elaborate disguise in terms of emphasis and rhetoric - the "inclusion" of excluded children, the tackling of failing schools, the aim of giving all children the opportunity to succeed. As such, it follows the same track as welfare and public service policies, which are clothed in the language of social concern.

But behind all this copious hype, is the same fundamental aim, and one which was at least expressed more overtly by the Tories. That is to shift social responsibility away from society, and onto the individual. Thatcher famously said: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. ...and people must look after themselves first..."

Blair has certainly taken these words to heart. Working Families Tax Credit, is after all, meant to allow the very low-paid to pull themselves out of the poverty trap. Local councils are meant compete with each other by demonstrating they provide the "best value" according to a league table which will decide allocation of funding; even hospitals are meant to be judged according to individual performance.

This is where the targeting of individual schools, individual teachers and individual pupils through endless tests, targets and tables, comes in. Funds will be rationed accordingly. Education will become less free and less accessible for those at the bottom of the social ladder, thereby widening the social gap even further.

But this is the logic of a policy which, by cutting the state's social expenditure, is really aimed at increasing the share of the wealthy in the national income. And this can only be done by reducing the share that goes to working people and the jobless and by widening social divisions - whoever implements this policy, Tory or Labour.

4 January 1999