Education under attack


Education is a question of class

Knowledge is power. From the very inception of humanity individuals and groups with superior knowledge and understanding of the processes of nature prospered at the expense of those with less. With the split of society into classes, the most advanced education of the time tended to become the preserve of the ruling class to the exclusion of those who were ruled. Education was essential for the future rulers both to impart the know-how of ruling as a minority class and to give a degree of moral authority, but was rightly considered a threat in the hands of the oppressed.

Of course, it has never been possible or even desirable for the ruling class to withhold all knowledge from those they rule. For one thing the human being is a learning machine whose every experience of life is imparting some knowledge, however partial and imperfect, which is in turn always shared with others. On the other hand it is often convenient for the exploiter to have at his disposal more highly educated and skilled exploitees – for example in ancient Greece those who educated the young of the ruling elite were often slaves. The ideal for an exploiter is that the exploited should have skills without knowledge and understanding. But the reality is that skills and knowledge have a symbiotic relationship: neither can be fully developed in the absence of the other.

The growth of capitalism gave rise to a need for mass education precisely because further development of capitalism demanded the availability of far more skilled workers – a stratum of scientifically proficient people to design, build, maintain and improve the technology that gives their employers a competitive edge. The sheer complexity of modern society also gives rise to the need for an army of educated clerks, managers and officials in various guises and capacities whose function in society is to pave a royal road for capitalists to make maximum profits. These factors gave rise to provision of mass education – up to a certain level – first via philanthropic concerns but ultimately by the state acting to promote the interests of the capitalist class as a whole.

Nevertheless, though capitalism needs an educated working class, the immediacy of the need to maximise profit tends constantly to tempt it into scrimping and saving on education, as indeed on every other public service – much as in the old days they used to water the milk they sold. Just as a starving peasant will eat his seedcorn, so will the capitalist, caught up in the throes of permanent economic crisis with never enough buyers for the goods and services marketed by capitalist enterprises, cut back on the provisions he makes for ensuring future generation of workers are educated and healthy. Tomorrow is left to take care of itself.

If we look at our education system in Britain today, we can see all the stigmata of class society. First and foremost is the glaring fact that a different kind of education is provided for the ruling class and those destined to act as its top mandarins. These are the people who attend major public schools and go on to Oxford or Cambridge. For the smaller bourgeois and petty bourgeoisie there are minor public schools and private schools. For the working class there are state schools.

Although the bourgeoisie needs the state schools to produce a sufficient supply of reasonably educated workers, it resents every penny it has to pay for them and tends constantly to look for ways of having its cake and eating it. What it wants is to limit the money it spends to producing only just the number of educated workers that it can absorb and not bother too much about the education of the rest. What is the point of educating people destined for the dole queue or dead end unskilled jobs? If society has been subordinated to the god of profit, then certainly such people have no need of education whatever.

This is why state schools were originally divided into grammar schools and secondary moderns. The grammar schools provided a relatively high standard of education, but only to that minority who passed the 11 plus. These were overwhelmingly the children of people who were themselves educated and who by virtue of their education had secured for themselves relatively well paid and secure jobs, the ‘middle class’. This was because to pass the 11 plus examination required children to have acquired considerable learning skills, and obviously the children of those who were themselves educated were bound to have an advantage here as they could pick up such skills by emulating their parents. The system was, however, far from foolproof, and many ‘middle class’ parents found that their children were also failing the 11 plus, and were mortified that they should be sent to the secondary moderns to learn skills without knowledge, such as typing, cooking and woodwork.

The introduction of comprehensive schools

Pressure from disgruntled middle class parents was one factor which led to the introduction of the comprehensive system. Another factor was the fact that the Soviet Union beat the capitalist world in the race to be the first in space, with the launch of its sputnik in 1957. The failures of the education system in capitalist countries were largely blamed for this, and in Britain this gave a chance for those who favoured broadening educational opportunity. They managed to get themselves heard as a result. It was one thing, however, for the bourgeoisie to back the setting up of comprehensive schools; it was quite another to get them to fund them properly.

From its inception the comprehensive system had to suffer pressure from the bourgeoisie via its elected Conservative and Labour governments and local authorities to keep expenditure to a minimum while at the same time maintaining a high level of ‘results’, i.e., producing a healthy quota of educated workers. The only way this contradiction could be resolved in these circumstances was by diverting resources away from the majority of pupils so that the minority would get the chance to do well. The middle class parents were readily mobilised by the bourgeoisie to fight for privileges for their children and were used to put pressure on schools to introduce such devices as streaming (with resources disproportionately allocated to the top streams). In recent years many comprehensives have been turned into de facto grammar schools (disproportionately patronised by middle class children) and secondary moderns (the sink schools or failing schools where only the working class children go). They still retain the name ‘comprehensive’, but in fact there is nothing comprehensive about them.

By these devices the vast majority of ordinary working-class children are effectively deprived of all but the most basic education. For the majority of children whose parents have been educationally deprived in turn become educationally deprived themselves, as they cannot spontaneously pick up from their parents the skills of effective learning. A minority of children from educationally advantaged homes also find it impossible to acquire these skills from their parents. All these children are severely let down by an education system which diverts resources away from them to children who are more fortunate to begin with. Actually, a far greater proportion of resources available to schools needs to be directed to the children who, through no fault of their own, and certainly through no lack of brain power, are less advanced in learning techniques and attitudes. Without that, these children cannot take advantage of whatever state education has to offer. “Education” for them becomes a form of child minding- marked by a mutual contempt of minders and the minded. And since the mastery of nature is one of life’s prime needs, regardless of whether one consciously realises this or not, effectively depriving so many young people of access to education cannot but to contribute to chronic boredom and anti-social behaviour among some of them, and deprive society of the contribution these children might otherwise have been able to make. For what can such children feel that they owe to society if society is prepared to starve them of such a basic need as the need to keep the mind exercised?

Education in the 21

st

century

The education scenario, poor though it is for the majority of working-class children, is set to get even worse. The reason for this is that slowly but surely the British state education service is being turned over to the private sector, with the multinationals invited in to make money out of providing it. Jim Kelly reported in the

Financial Times

of 14 February 2001 that:

The government is to back eleven projects aimed at breaking new ground in public-private partnerships in education … with £1.8 million and hopes they will provide blueprints for other schemes.

In Tower Hamlets in east London the education authority is being treated as an operational unit of Serco, the facilities management group, subject to its business disciplines and management systems.

In Havering, also in east London, professional services firm KPMG is helping explore the potential for clusters or federations of schools to purchase goods and services together.

Oxfordshire, west Berkshire and Wokingham have joined with Capita to combine their ‘back office’ functions. They will also look at working together on school improvement.

Hampshire authority is working with Vospers Thornycroft and Symons Consulting to raise standards through increased use of head teachers as ‘school improvers’.

School improvement is being co-ordinated across three London local authorities, Hammersmith and Fulham, Tower Hamlets and Kensington and Chelsea, with the help of the consulting firm PwC. …

Essex is reviewing its school service delivery with the help of Deloitte & Touche, Windsor & Co, and Serco with the aim of setting up a local-authority controlled company in partnership with the private sector.

Many of the options being explored give the private sector the scale they have been seeking in the education market – a scale not on offer in single local education authority deals.”

And

Private Eye

of 23 March 2001 (‘Partners in crime’) gives details of some of the dirty deals concocted with the help of this £1.8 million:

Education secretary David Blunkett has announced a £1.8m ‘partnership’ to bring private firms into local authorities (LEAs). Blunkett’s exciting new ‘partners’ include:

Accountants and management consultants:

Clearly the education secretary thinks accountancy is the best qualification for running schools. He has handed LEAs to Capita in North Somerset; PriceWaterhouse in three London boroughs; KPMG in Havering; and Deloitte and Touche in Essex.

Deloitte has already contributed to local government by cocking up housing benefit collection systems via its pisspoor subsidiary, CSL.

Prison operators:

Serco will get its claws into two LEAs in Tower Hamlets and Essex. In Tower Hamlets the LEA will ‘explore the benefits of being treated as an operational unit of Serco, subject to its business disciplines and management systems.’

Builders: In the Wirral Jarvis plc includes ‘the use of private sector expertise in improving schools assets’ and ‘facilities management’. Jarvis is a building firm already making several bids to build and run schools. Since 1999 it has been prosecuted three times by the health and safety executive … , with fines of £7,000, £200,000 and £300,000 for accidents on the railway. It was one of the firms maintaining the track at Hatfield.

Newsagents: In Thurrock the LEA is offering ‘information services’ to pupils, which sounds so much more exciting than boring old fashioned education, with the help of that leading scholastic firm, WH Smith.

Arms firms: Most incredibly, in Hampshire the LEA is being teamed with Vosper Thorneycroft to run the ‘school improvement services’. Yes, the election of a Labour government has resulted in a Tory-run arms firm controlling local schools. Vosper is Chaired by Tory Lord Wakeham and has tried to get into state education once before. When the Tories sold off the careers education service, Vosper took over a few regional services.

The national audit office … found that the privatisation had cost millions but failed to improve careers guidance in any way. At the time a certain David Blunkett attacked the Tories on the issue, proclaiming: ‘How can the secretary of state commend her changes to the careers service when they have led to fragmentation and to privatisation?’ (27 March 1996). That same David Blunkett is now going a step further by handing central LEA functions to the firm. ‘Fragmentation and privatisation’ are now ‘innovation and partnership’.

All this should not create the impression that privatisation of state education is only just beginning. The truth is that the process is well under way.

Women for Socialism

(Spring 2001) reports:

‘City academies’ backed by private business interests are to be encouraged. Amey, a FTSE 250 company, which in the last two years has metamorphosed from a construction specialist to a support services outfit, is to provide £2 million for a new high-technology school in Middlesborough. It is also the lead partner in the consortium put together to provide £1.2 billion for the modernisation of Glasgow’s schools and it has just been announced it is the ‘preferred bidder’ for Edinburgh’s schools as well. Similar academies have already been announced for Liverpool and the London Boroughs of Brent and Lambeth. The first ones will be up and running by September this year, and each will cost, on average £10 million. Other private sector companies who have jumped on the education gravy train are Nord Anglia, which according to the ‘Observer’ of 11 February 2001

has contracts with 15 LEAs and is shortlisted for another three … Shareprice tipped for high growth’

;

Cambridge Education Associates,

fined £23,000 last November for failing to reach performance targets in Islington … Islington contract worth more than £100 million over seven years'; WS Atkins

,

‘has just won Southwark outsourcing contract. Has £148 million PFI contract to manage schools in Cornwall, and is preferred developer to do the same in Kent; and Ensign,

‘a consortium backed by Group 4

…[which]

last year bought Sfe, an online education provider specialising in teacher training over the internet.'”

One might also add that many of the profiteering companies who are being let loose on our education system have already acquired something of a reputation. Amey, Jarvis and Serco were all Railtrack contractors at the time of the Hatfield crash. The pursuit of profit by the various companies to which track maintenance was assigned is generally recognised as being the main reason for the railway disasters at Southall, Paddington and Hatfield. The nightmare scenario of how these companies set about their task of maintaining railway lines is described by Juliette Jowit in the

Financial Times

of 22 February ‘Railtrack descent into chaos’ in the following terms:

First, the big seven contractors – Jarvis, Balfour Beatty, GTRM, Amey, Amec, First Engineering and Serco – began letting more and more work to sub-contractors. They in turn used more sub-contractors – who often relied on employment agencies.

By the end of last year there were more than 2,000 registered railway infrastructure companies and 84,000 registered workers – but the number of permanent staff had nearly halved from 31,000 to 15,000-19,000.

The first consequence was the breakdown of the old comradeship, which used to mean that problems were easily spotted, repairs made, and people could talk to each other. Track workers operated in gangs and knew their stretch of rails like their own back gardens. Instead, workers became nomadic, moving to the next job with little or no local knowledge and instructions not to talk to rival workers except via a supervisor miles away.

The second big problem was a growing lack of control over the staff and their work.

There have been complains of sub-contractors recruiting workers out of pubs to fill gaps on the night shift. Lord Cullen’s inquiry heard safety briefings were discarded by some groups and were ‘shambolic’ at others, and that a lack of quality control often ‘led to shoddy workmanship’.

‘Maintenance levels are thought to have dramatically reduced’, added the report. ‘The emphasis is now on reactive or breakdown maintenance rather than preventative maintenance’.”

Is this really how we want our schools to be run?

As for the prisons specialist Serco, maybe experience running prisons is considered by our Labour government as entirely appropriate for running schools for working-class children, but private enterprise isn’t necessarily even particularly good at that. Nick Mathiason in the

Observer

of 11 March 2001 (‘Crime pays handsomely for Britain’s private jails’) caustically remarks:

Since the Thatcher government allowed the private sector into prisons following lobbying by companies and the Adam Smith Institute, its performance hasn’t actually pulled up any trees. All of the four contractually managed prisons have had major difficulties and two have returned to Prison Service management. In two recent cases, Prison Service bids were considered of better quality and value for money than the private sector.”

Serco also failed recently to secure the contract for privatised air traffic control. Despite its relative lack of experience in the field of air traffic control it was the government’s preferred bidder! What almost certainly lost it the bid was the news that in November 1997 it was found to have been

“to blame for a potentially catastrophic incident involving an aircraft used by the Royal Family…

A confidential report by the Ministry of Defence into the engine failure incident on 6 November 1997, obtained by ‘The Independent’, found that Serco had failed to fit oil seals in all four engines. Fifteen minutes into a training flight the pilot of the BAe 146 found that oil pressure was low on all four engines – two of which had to be shut down before the plane made an emergency landing at Stansted. The engines held 24.2 pints of oil. Three of the engines needed 20 pints to refill them and the fourth needed 12.

The report said that Serco – which still holds the contract to maintain the Royal Flight – undermined engineering standards and perpetuated bad practice. The document said supervision, training and equipment were ‘inadequate’, communication was ‘poor’ and staff did not follow procedures.”

(

The Independent,

26 March 2001, ‘Confidential report reveals air traffic bidder was guilty of ‘inadequate’ training’).

The article goes on to quote Andrew Weir, an expert on aviation safety, as saying:

If Serco is capable of such appalling breaches of safety in the field of aircraft maintenance, then you have to ask very serious questions before allowing such an organisation to take over responsibility for another branch of the aviation industry.”

We think the same

“very serious questions”

should be raised

“before allowing such an organisation to take over responsibility”

for our children’s futures.

Scratch my back

And of course the whole process of dishing out contracts cannot but be tainted with overtones of the Old Pals Act. The

Independent on Sunday

of 15 April (‘Concern over dual role of PPP firm’) draws attention to the fact that “

Partnerships UK, the company set up by the Treasury to promote Public Private Partnerships (PPP)”

raises

“funds from companies such as Jarvis and Serco”

which then go on successfully to bid for projects Partnerships UK has brokered.

Frank Lowe, a Labour Party supporting tycoon, was, according to Will Woodward, Education Editor of the

Guardian

(16 September 2000)

“telephoned six months ago by Andrew Adonis, the prime minister’s education adviser in the Downing Street policy unit, and asked if he was interested in funding a specialist sports academy”.

The result is that Mr Lowe, chairman of the Lowe Group and Octagon sports marketing, is putting £2 million into the first of the government’s ‘city academies’, to be set up, “

on the site of Willesden High School … which was failed by Ofsted inspectors two years ago”.

Women for Socialism (

op. cit.

) rightly remarks:

Do these private-sector companies provide such funding for schools out of the kindness of their hearts? Certainly not. What’s in it for them is the rich pickings of ‘outsourcing’ of school management and other services. There are juicy profits to be made by providing services to schools, estimated by ‘The Scotsman’ of 15 February (‘A private way to get what the public needs’) at anything between 12 and 15% a year equity return. As a result, despite a bleak time for share prices, Amey’s shares have been doing well, with private investors rushing in to share the expected bonanza.”

In fact, unless they see at least 12%-15% clear profit in their sights, no private enterprise will even involve itself in the bid to ‘save our schools’.

Taxpayer bailouts

While most of the bourgeois press waxes lyrical about how efficient services become once they are privatised, dismissing such trivial setbacks as rail crashes and increased prison suicides as mere details, there are plenty of examples of the taxpayer getting the worst of both worlds when essential services are privatised. As the experience of the Hatfield rail disaster is shown, if a company is running an essential service, it can’t simply be left to go to the wall if it gets its sums wrong. The government has to intervene to rescue it. Railtrack paid out millions to its investors instead of using this money to ensure proper track maintenance. When this came to light as a result of the Hatfield crash, the government had no choice but to provide Railtrack with the cash to effect the repairs, recognising that nothing could be expected of them at all unless they were in a position to keep their shareholders happy with a good dividend return.

Another example is given by Jonathan Eley in the

Investors Chronicle

of 12 April (‘All change please’):

“‘

The private sector is paid for taking risk’ declared the National Audit Office … in its report into the financing of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link

[CTRL]

. ‘Departments should ensure that overoptimism in bidding for contracts will lead to losses if things go wrong.’ This is not the case at CTRL a PFI project originally agreed in 1996 and restructured in 1998. If forecasts for revenue from Eurostar trains turn out to be overly optimistic, then the government – and thus the taxpayer – are exposed to £360m of further risk …

The CTRL deal is not an isolated one. The Unison/UCL studies found that charges levied by the private sector have a nasty habit of rising, and sharply. For instance, the costs of the Cumberland Infirmary rose from £45.4m in 1994 to £87.7m in 1997 – largely because of finance costs, which totalled £17m. The result of this is that the annual charge paid by the NHS Trust to the consortium that owns the hospital is £7m, compared with £3.45m for the old unit. To find this money, it has cut clinical staff. The cuts necessary to pay for the Worcester Infirmary are even deeper …

Opponents of PFI point out that while … the taxpayer carried the risk when things went wrong, the private sector was the beneficiary when they went right. The most notorious example of this was the Fazakerly prison in Liverpool, built by Carillion (then called Tarmac) under a PFI deal. After the unit was built, Carillion’s shareholders netted a windfall of £10.7m from refinancing the debt at a lower interest rate. The public purse got £1m, and only after a fight. Treasury guidelines now specify that contracts must allow the taxpayer to share in any windfall gains from refinancing.”

Are our schools to face staff cuts in order to pay ‘finance costs’? Are ‘windfalls’ to be distributed to shareholders rather than used for the benefit of education? In privatised schools this must follow as night follows day.

WTO waiting in the wings

One of the effects of privatising services such as public education will be to bring them under the ‘discipline’ of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) which is currently under negotiation. As and when this is agreed and comes into effect, there will have to be opened up to free competition the right to profiteer in the provision of all and any services offered to the public, including health, welfare, education and transport. Indeed, any

“product of human activity aimed to satisfy a human need, which does not constitute a tangible commodity”

(Scott Sinclair,

GATS – How the WTO’s new ‘services’ negotiations threaten democracy’,

Canada Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2000) will be caught. Any government attempt to set minimum standards for services, or to provide support for those of its nationals unable to afford the cost, are very likely to be outlawed as barriers to free trade, distorters of pure competition. The net result may well be an end to free education. People and Planet have written a paper entitled ‘The Threat to Higher Education’ pointing out these facts, and in it they draw attention inter alia to the attitude of typical European business interests to state school privatisation:

…European business lobbyists argue that opening up the education sector to private competition can only be beneficial. They are highly critical of the ‘culture of laziness which continues in the European education system,’ where students ‘take liberties to pursue subjects not directly related to industry. Instead they are pursuing subjects which have no practical application’

[Gerhard Cromme, of ThyssenKrupp].

Far prefereable would be the privatisation of all schools, subjecting them to market forces and thereby encouraging competition: ‘Schools will respond better to paying customers, just like any other business…”

But fierce competition, unhindered by such constraints as even a compliant government might consider it wise to impose in the interests of quality maintenance, cannot but lead to multinationals which have usurped the running of schools extracting their profits at the expense of pupils. Far from putting right everything that is wrong with education today, it can only enhance its evils a thousand times. If under today’s education system the working class gets a poor deal, under tomorrow’s it may get no deal at all!