What sort of learning?

Education: Our free schools and theirs

The left’s demands should look beyond what seems possible right now, argues Christina Black

Last week, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg alienated his Conservative coalition partners by suggesting that more constraints should be put on free schools to ensure that minimum standards are met. Clegg’s proposed changes would mean that free schools could only employ qualified teachers and that they must teach the national curriculum.

His statement followed two big, negative stories relating to the government’s free school policy. Firstly, the news that the Al-Madinah Islamic free school in Derby received a damning Ofsted report, where it was deemed inadequate in every respect and placed in ‘special measures’. The school is reported to discriminate against female members of staff, forcing them to wear a headscarf even if they are non-Muslim, and to segregate boys and girls, even having separate lunchtimes for male and female students (according to the school this is because the lunch hall is too small to accommodate all students, although the standard solution is to have separate sittings for younger year groups and older students). Not to mention the quality of teaching and learning.

The second story to hit the headlines around the same time was that of the 27-year-old headmistress of Pimlico Primary free school, located only a mile from parliament itself, who resigned after four weeks in the job. Annaliese Briggs had taken up the headship (a role normally associated with a very senior member of staff) with no teaching qualifications or experience.

So it was hardly surprising (or coincidental) that Clegg’s statement received so much public support - 81% of those questioned in a recent poll said free schools should be forced to employ only qualified teachers, while just a third thought that free schools should be allowed to opt out of the national curriculum.1

None of this will be particularly comforting news for education secretary Michael Gove. Gove’s continued ideological onslaught on the education system has been very unpopular with teachers. Not just free schools and academies and the whole ‘free-market’ approach to education, but the fact that the coalition has presided over: performance-related pay; the proposed changes, backtracks and further plans to overhaul the current GCSE courses in England and Wales, transforming them into something Mr Gradgrind would thoroughly approve of; the terminating of the Building Schools for the Future programme, introduced to improve dilapidated schools; the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) for young people from low-income families. And all the while teaching unions are involved in industrial action against changes to teachers’ pension schemes.

The agenda of Gove and David Cameron (other than transforming the education system back to the turn of the last century) is to take state schools out of local authority control, give them (or in reality the head, the board of governors, the sponsors, churches and mosques) autonomy and let them thrive or fail. All part of the ideology one would expect from the leader of the Conservative Party and his education secretary. Under current conditions it was always going to be the case that those with the wherewithal and ideological will to set up a free school would predominantly be the church, the mosque or the temple. And it is a good bit of PR for larger companies to fund schools and so be seen to make a ‘positive contribution to local communities’. It is a fantasy indulged in by many on the left that McDonald’s, for example, will sponsor schools in order to indoctrinate the next generation of Big Mac munchers or issue diplomas in burger-flipping. In fact they would much rather be seen promoting ‘healthy lifestyles’ by funding a new sports building, swimming pool and dance studios in their sponsored school.

Bring in the state?

In these circumstances it seem natural for any self-respecting lefty to oppose the very notion of free schools. The National Union of Teachers is opposed to them. It’s obvious: a Conservative-led coalition government, opposed to the public sector, allows any Tom, Dick or Harry to set up a school outwith local authority control, employ whoever they like and teach whatever they want. It is just a form of privatisation, a blatant disregard for the skills and professionalism of qualified teachers and a move away from the equality of a common curriculum - right? Well, yes, it is on one level, but does that mean communists are opposed to the very concept of schools that are ‘free’ from state control? Actually, and for many surprisingly, no, we are not.

We are not statists. We are not for the British or any other state. So why call upon the state to decide and regulate what it wants young people to learn? Marx made the argument against state control of education in 1875 in his Critique of the Gotha programme. Written at the time of the unification of Germany under the rightwing junta and the Prussian monarch, the Gotha programme called for “1. Universal and equal elementary education by the state. Universal compulsory school attendance. Free instruction.”

To which Marx responds: “‘Elementary education by the state’ is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc, and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfilment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school ... the state has need, on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people” (my emphasis).2

While universal education is a concession to the working class, it is also a means of exerting state control. Yes, the state should fully fund schools, teachers’ and other employees’ pay, facilities, buildings and resources. Yes, teachers should be qualified to teach; a person can have a vast and deep knowledge of their specialist subject but no empathy, social awareness, creativity and all the charisma of an individual paperclip. And, yes, there should be professional standards, regulated by the professionals themselves, in the same way that the British Medical Association does for doctors (incidentally the equivalent body for teachers in England and Wales was done away with by the present government. It continues to exist in Scotland, where it has a much more established status).

That is not to say that the state ought to write the curriculum. One of the main gripes of teachers (other than the intense pressure to meet ever increasing and unrealistic targets that would be the envy of Gosplan) is that there is not the time and space within the curriculum to be creative, to deviate, to allow students the freedom to go off on a tangent. In other words, deep, meaningful learning and exploration. For the professionals themselves to have control over curricula would allow more opportunity for creativity, personalisation and choice for teachers and students alike.

Aside from the bureaucratic issues, there are other problems that communists have with “appointing the state as educator of the people”. It allows the state to enforce its ‘values’ (a word we hear a lot of in education that is rarely defined) on the youth. It can promote patriotism, from enforced flag-waving for ‘Team GB’ to curriculum time being given over to the celebration of royal occasions. It can offer lessons where ‘democracy’ is represented as allowing people (who are not in prison or homeless) over the age of 18 to vote every four to five years in a first-past-the-post election (remember, we are lucky to live in Britain - not everywhere allows people to vote - in some places there are human rights abuses - go check out Amnesty’s website). When I was a school student, I remember the army being invited to give us a recruitment talk in the assembly hall.

Currently in non-denominational state schools in England and Wales, the school is require to deliver a daily act of worship of a “broadly Christian character”. Try to comply with that too closely in any inner-London secondary and you will face all-out rebellion by students, teachers and parents. Rightly so. There should be no place for enforced religious observance in state schools. As communists we are for the complete separation of church and state.

However, what you will find is that schools agree to promote the “spiritual, moral, social and cultural” development of students. This usually takes the form of an innocuous quote from Martin Luther King or Ghandi about turning the other cheek. Occasionally students are treated to the ‘if you want it badly enough, it’ll happen’ Oprah Winfrey style of motivational message (just ignore the material circumstances: you will all play for Man United or be the next rap star - so long as you want it badly enough). Or, if we are all really lucky we might be treated to the profundity of statements such as ‘There’s no “I” in “team”!’

In other words, the state inevitably promotes its great institutions, such as monarchy and parliament, its ‘all in it together’ national sports events, its armed wing and its imperialist interventions around the world (and hopefully picking up some potential cannon fodder along the way). It can promote the ideology of both passivity and subservience (turn the other cheek, be humble, know your place) and at the same time of capitalist aspiration (the only thing standing between you and the life you want to live is your own motivation - and certainly not your place in productive social relations). No wonder Marx did not want the state to act as educator!

So what is our vision of ‘free schools’? Schools fully funded by the state, through local authorities. Schools with qualified teachers who decide and maintain standards from the chalkface, not the cabinet office. Schools free from grip of the Church of England, the Catholic clerisy, the temple or the mosque. It may be hard to imagine in the current climate, but if the workers’ movement were stronger, we could have schools set up by the TUC, the cooperative movement, local community groups, the CPGB ...

The problem of the left is that its approach to such questions is highly limited. The normal response is to adopt trade union-type demands to protect education by demanding state control, even though we are opposed to the bourgeois state. To oppose the freedom for schools to create their own curricula because in current conditions that puts those curricula in the hands of religious institutions or private companies. But we ought not to restrict our demands to what we seem able to gain in current conditions. Otherwise, we ought not to favour freedom of the press - in current conditions it can only produce the Daily Mail.


1. www.channel4.com/news/free-schools-brits-want-qualified-teachers.

2. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/down­load/Marx_Critque_of_the_Gotha_Programme.pdf.