Tony Blair has signalled a radical shift in New Labour's approach to education - what looks like a full-scale retreat from even lip-service to educational equality. That Blair himself is an educational elitist is no secret. Now he seems to be about to stamp his elitism on the Labour Party.
By Jill Mountford
Of course, elitism in education is as old as the class system itself. Under capitalism, most of us are taught how to become workers, to become accustomed to taking and carrying out orders, to not thinking for ourselves and challenging the prevailing order. As one of Blair's advisers, Michael Barber, put it: "The end users of education are employers."
Education as an end in itself, as a means of developing the full potential of individuals, is low down on the list of priorities for capitalism. Blair's latest plans for secondary schools illustrate this clearly.
Recognising just how unpopular grammar schools and selection are amongst most parents (i.e., voters), but having a natural bent towards elitism, Blair and his merry band of thinkers have come up with a cunning plan. First, to expand the pilot scheme which is part of the Government's Excellence in Cities initiative, introducing a two-tier set-up within the existing comprehensive system. This month will see more than 800 secondary schools dedicating classes designed to meet the needs of "high ability" children, specialist classes with access to top-up lessons and special tuition. Second, they have set a target of 800 specialist secondary schools by 2003. Almost a quarter of all secondary schools will have "rigorous setting... personalised provision [and] first rate teaching and facilities for the most able".
Specialist classes and schools for the most able pupils so that they can achieve better results is a familiar, tried, tested and failed system: it just went by another name in a different era. So what if concepts like the 11 Plus, grammar schools and selection do not work for most children? So what, if, in fact, such concepts write off most children at a very early age and take no account of bigger more fundamental issues like poverty and social disadvantage? So what? The end justifies the means: and end of a class divided system where most children are fed into further and higher education on vocational training courses and prepared to be useful, pliable and exploitable by the capitalists - and a thin stream of elite children in the state sector who have been designated as "most able", "high ability" or "gifted" are given the opportunity to achieve better results, but are nonetheless still prepared to be useful, pliable and exploitable by the capitalists, though presumably in the role of managers.
If there is anything radical or revolutionary about Blair's plans for secondary education it is radical in Mrs Thatcher's sense - a reactionary-radical programme. A radical idea would be to make real, substantial increases in the funding of education from pre-school to university - coupled with a reduction in class sizes in every sector, and sufficient resources so that every child can enjoy the benefits presently afforded to so few. Teachers' pay, workload and control over the job are central to any radical changes in education.
A truly revolutionary approach would be to make education an end in itself - to put all children's right to achieve their full potential at the top of the agenda, accepting that education cannot be separated from the kind of house one lives in, the facilities and resources available in the local community, jobs, wages and health.
In the early days of the Russian Revolution, before Stalinism got a stranglehold, education was set free from the market. Exams were abolished and there were experiments in student self-government of schools. The 1918 Soviet Education Act stated: "The personality shall remain as the highest value in the socialist culture... we do not forget the right of an individual to his own peculiar development. It is not necessary for us to cut short a personality, to cheat it, to cast it into iron moulds because the stability of the socialist community is based not on the uniformity of the barracks, not on artificial drill, not on religious and aesthetic deceptions, but on actual solidarity of interests."
If Tony Blair was as obsessed with raising school budgets, teachers' salaries and education workers' morale as he is with raising "standards" in education, then we could all look forward to a future where our children were starting to receive a qualitatively better education. But he's not. His starting point is to blame teachers - dividing them from parents and children.
Blair's New Labour Government has repackaged, developed, extended and implemented ideas of the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph back in the early '80s. Leading the way with tuition fees, target setting, Education Action Zones, and performance related pay, Blair and New Labour are doing everything required of a bosses' government.
It is in the interests of all children that Blair and his elitist education policies are stopped. Teachers, other education workers and parents know that Blair's pre-election promises of "education, education, education" were hollow. Only through united action, pushing forward our own agenda through solidarity between teachers, parents, children and other workers can we start to create a situation where all children get real equal opportunities to achieve their best. Jill Mountford