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An education fit for human beings?

Micky Coulter analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the LU policy

For all the changes wrought to the education system under capitalism, whether as a result of the class struggle or economic development, the basic problems remain the same. In a section from his popular Women and socialism (1879), dealing with ‘The socialist education system’, August Bebel wrote:

Today the question of education is first and foremost a question of money. Under these circumstances an equal level of education for all is impossible. Individuals, living in relatively favourable circumstances, can, by overcoming many difficulties and exerting great energy, which not many possess, succeed in acquiring a higher education. The masses will never be able to do so, as long as they live in a state of dependence and in conditions of social oppression.1

One hates to keep on about how ‘fresh’ and ‘contemporary’ old Marxist truths are, but they are true for a reason and equally worth repeating. All the reforms won, including from the high watermark of post-1945 class strength, have done no more than modify the forms in which Bebel’s observation applies. And, as we all know, even then some parts of bourgeois education remained utterly unreconstructed: private schools, faith schools, military academies and so on.

That is not to say that nothing has been achieved. Free, local and non-selective, comprehensive schooling represented the most dramatic change to the British education system; but, so long as the roots of inequality remain, the “dependence” and “conditions of social oppression” will continue to deprive the masses of a rounded education.

In the first place, there is the privilege bought by wealth. Private schools, in the words of Left Unity’s education policy, are “divisive institutions, forming the bedrock of the British class system, resulting in the elitism and privilege of a small minority of people at the cost of the majority”. This bedrock remains untouched, though correctly Left Unity pledges to abolish their ‘charitable’ status.

In the second place, there is stratification based upon class. It is no longer imposed through the vulgar methods of separate schools for manual, skilled and administrative workers, but through less obvious albeit equally insidious means, adapted to the formal commitment to statised/semi-social provision.

A shocking one-third or more of all schools in Britain are now faith schools run by religious groups, which select their intake. Schools with a ‘specialism’ in a given subject can select 10% of their pupils similarly. A large part is, however, self-selection resulting from class position, not to mention the inflated house prices in the catchment areas of ‘good’ schools, whose intakes from socially deprived strata are always lower than elsewhere - and tend to become lower over time, as the surrounding area becomes more socially homogeneous. Publication of the supposedly competitive league tables facilitates this process. A shortage of school places has also led to overly complex and time-consuming admissions procedures, which are more easily navigated by the comfortably off and literate, “by overcoming many difficulties and exerting great energy”.

This is all part of a deliberate policy, building on the spontaneous economic inequalities, for capital to re-individualise education ‘choices’ in a way that frees up the process of class stratification and segregation within the statised forms given - but with highly centralised funding and ministerial control to prevent meddling from local councils, which may be influenced by the wishes of their working class constituents.

The higher house prices near ‘good’ schools are the collective cost paid by the middle class for keeping out the lower working class and the utterly destitute. Meanwhile, the immense costs of private education are a form of collective purchase for the ruling class and its aspiring, upwardly mobile newcomers, for whom it is like paying an entry fee in order to gain valuable social and business connections for themselves and their offspring, and to keep out the lower orders. All this is only about ‘individual choice’ in the sense that social classes are formed of individuals who act in their own interests.

This is the context against which we shall assess Left Unity’s policy on education adopted by the November 14-15 2014 national policy conference.2 LU’s proposals come with virtues as well as vices.

Socialist education

The preamble makes some fundamentally sound points. It notes that the education system “pits school against school, parent against parent, the wealthy against the poor, and child against child, all under the myth of ‘choice’”. For me, however, the explanation given for this takes ideology too much at face value, blaming the “competitive nature of capitalism itself”, whereas I would say that the capitalist education system is fundamentally conservative, not competitive, as we also find with much of business.

Continuing, the document declares that “Education is a fundamental human right”. The language of rights is usually treacherous ground. One person may feel that kicking the proletariat in the face is a perfectly good education, and more than we deserve! Others - the authors of this document amongst them - want a socialist education system as their right. Rights also only exist insofar as the person or class claiming them can enforce them. This immediately places us back on the ground of deciding what we want and how to get it, rather than declaring simply that everyone has the ‘right’ to this or that without regard for agency or strategy. In short, the use of ‘rights’ language, so beloved by imperialism, is at odds with the much stronger content of the document.

This weakness reappears later, when the document promises: “We will ratify the UN Convention of Rights of Disabled Persons, article 24, which guarantees the right to an inclusive education for all.” Yes, we are all for good things like “inclusive education”, but this is potentially problematic. In the first place, the existing UK state appears to already have ratified the document.3 Indeed, a number of countries where people with disabilities no doubt suffer terrible privations and mistreatment appear to have signed up.

But the education policy does have strong points, such as its demand for the abolition of all academies and free schools, and their reintegration into local education authorities, but run democratically by a mix of staff, parents, and representatives of students and trade unions. The Weekly Worker has on more than one occasion laid down a challenge to the labour movement: instead of getting the capitalist state to bring back the glory days it had itself destroyed, take up the free school policy as a weapon, and establish our own such institutions. But, given that the policy calls for the abolition of free schools as part of a general democratisation of educational administration, I see no necessary conflict here, unless one insists on taking demands entirely in isolation.

Despite appearing strong on academies and free schools, however, the document seems uncertain in relation to state funding for religious schools, many of which are academies, etc. The passage in question reads:

Left Unity would withdraw state funding from schools or colleges which exclusively promote any one religious belief system, including Christianity, or require such establishments to have an open, secular enrolment.

Given that these two methods differ quite a lot, it seems odd to have both policies, rather than simply the first one. Withdrawing state funding would require closing, then re-opening, the school with some new staff and in cooperation with the local council, parents, teaching organisations and so on, clearly establishing a clean break. On the other hand, simply requiring “secular enrolment”, not secular education …?

The document also insists that Left Unity should “listen to and learn from ... the Save Childhood Movement”. The name is terrible, and smacks of a rose-tinted view of the ‘good old days’. The blurb on this organisation’s website does little to dispel that impression: “… we do want to explore whether modern children are now missing the vital sense of belonging and contribution within community that was so much a part of children’s life before.”4

‘When was this?’ and ‘whose children?’ are questions that immediately spring to mind. Like many well-meaning liberal organisations, the problems they find in capitalism are perfectly valid, and the group says many things that we could agree with: the value of play as learning, an end to excessive testing, children are natural learners - one could go on. But the whole diagnosis is misplaced: blaming ‘modern values’ and looking back to some imaginary age when, presumably, children left school, having regularly undergone beatings, but somehow feeling a real sense of community well-being, as they embarked on a new life working in the mill. This misplaced nostalgia leads to ‘solutions’ which are no such thing - the last thing they do is challenge capitalist social relations. Taken as a whole the campaign can only be a source of illusions, based on a methodology which essentialises a ‘natural childhood’. As communists we are happy to learn from anyone, liberal academics and childcare specialists included, but it is undeniable that this lot are more wrong than right, and should not be referred to positively in our policy.

By the authors’ own admission, LU’s agreed policy document is in need of filling out when its proposals reach the secondary level. However, there is a positive commitment not to “divide academic from ‘non-academic’ study at any age”. This is a welcome and long-standing socialist commitment, and could be improved by clarifying that a rounded education must include: learning about different kinds of production and the workers that make our society function; experience of the natural environment; visits to workplaces and public institutions; participation in arts, sport and games. Too often such experiences rely on individual parental initiative to supplement mechanical learning ‘input’ in the classroom. A much wider view of society - the way it works, what it offers, and how people participate in its labours and in its cultural life - would indeed make education more rounded, reintegrating learning with society itself.

Curiously, there is no demand for the total abolition of student fees in higher education; only the right of each person to receive “up to six years free further and higher education, to include a living grant”. Should those who subsequently return to education - which we say should be a part of the whole life process - be obliged to pay second time around? In an otherwise socialised education system, how can one account for such an anomaly? This obviously conflicts with the earlier statement that “Education is a fundamental human right”. Or is it? Perhaps the earlier demands for free, non-selective education and so on do not refer to further and higher education.

Transforming society

In short, mixed in with some sound demands there is a certain hesitancy, a lack of clarity and a steady trickle of liberal or tokenistic ideas.

We are lumbered with an education system which is both hampered by its very nature as one designed to serve capital, and by the fact that the learners themselves are products of class society. Therefore a socialist education policy cannot be coherently formulated in the absence of a programme that addresses every other aspect of society and the need to overturn the rule and the logic of capital everywhere. The Left Unity education document does appear to half-recognise this - in the section headed ‘Pupils with additional needs’, for instance5 - whereas it should be upfront and centre-stage. However, its main strength is that it is clear that our alternative is about providing an education fit for human beings - rounded, democratic, life-long, varied and polytechnical in nature.

Many of the measures proposed in the policy document - as well as its aims for a human education that is not defined by the needs of capital - if we take them seriously, are incompatible with the continued existence of the current social order. They require a society based on socialised property and extreme democracy - far, far from the idea of a return to 1945. Therefore, it is pointless and self-defeating to advocate that Left Unity’s programme as a whole should consist of demands which avoid being ‘too extreme’ for the sake of ‘broadness’. Without a fully socialist programme even the existing education policy, despite its weaknesses, makes no sense. A coherent programme must consist of policies that support and reinforce the whole and all its parts.


1. www.marxists.org/archive/bebel/1879/society-future/ch05.htm.

2. Available at http://leftunity.org/education-policy.

3. At least according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_on_the_Rights_of_Persons_with_Disabilities.

4. www.savechildhood.net/children-and-the-modern-world.html.

5. From ‘Pupils with additional needs’: “We recognise also that many problems which lead to learning or behavioural difficulties at school are caused by social inequality, such as poverty and homelessness, which can only be addressed by better economic and social policies, not through education alone.”