Education has for years been the most political of political footballs. But over the last fifteen years or so the kickabout has seen the officials removed from the pitch and the owners running amok as they try and count their money and throw V signs at the people who fund the whole enterprise. Ok, time to blow the whistle on the football analogy, but a telling statistic is another league position. We are 27th in the PISA international table as far as the core school subjects are concerned. For a country that’s the 6th biggest economy in the world that is not a good place to be in.
Tony Blair started the rot, New Labour government or not. His desire to improve the nation’s schools after years of Tory neglect was understandable, but he did the wrong thing for the right reason with his toxic academies programme. Naturally the Tories supported this because it gave the market a free hand at playing footsie with the state as far as our schools were concerned, and party donors, dodgy businessmen and religious maniacs were the main beneficiaries. Meanwhile the public was told this would greatly benefit their children, when all it did was horde money for those schools unwise enough to fall for the academy lies.
Go forward a few years and the Tories are in power, and naturally they want a piece of the academy action. Their donors and free market foam-at-the-mouthers demand their cut of the pie, and Cameron gives it to them, promising more and more of this stuff until every school will realise that to be independent of those Marxist/Trotskyist local authority is the only way to go. And if that isn’t enough (which for the Tories it never is), they throw free schools into the equation, and free schools are like supercharged academies, capitalist education on crack. More waste, corner-cutting and financial mismanagement would be hard to find. Take a bow, Toby Young.
And seven years on from this double-pronged stabbing, the Tories now announce education cuts. I truly don’t understand this. They help to speed up the takeover of our schools by their free market chums; they give taxpayer money to unscrupulous fellow Tories, and allow the Church and other spurious organisations to have a huge chunk of the state school system; they encourage involvement from anyone as long as they’re true blue and went to the right schools themselves. But just in case we’d figured Tory education was as extreme as it could get, Treeza whips out the revival of those super-selection establishments grammar schools. And after all this time of pursuing an anti-state agenda, of allowing unfettered marketisation to take over our taxpayer-funded system, they now say cuts are on the way.
For some bizarre reason that even I can’t fathom, the Tories have started to do neoliberalism in reverse. Normally they’d defund a sector and let the privateer vultures swarm over it with state money dangling from every bloodied beak. But instead the Tories seem to be reinventing turbo-charged capitalism by letting their mates have it all and then defunding it. To what end? I can’t understand what’s going on, and can only conclude that this is a profound admission of failure. But if you don’t believe me let’s take a look at the evidence.
Academies weren’t enough of a free market wet dream for the Tories, and they were critical of Blair’s limitations with his pet project. Michael Gove clearly thought Blair was only playing at being a neoliberal, and so massively expanded the academies programme, but noticeably he slashed the budget available for new school buildings. (I mention this because new schools builds were tied in with academy conversion. Another example of warped government blackmail towards those schools who could see academisation was a sham.) Because by themselves academies weren’t enough to convince parents and teachers that more private sector involvement was necessary, they brought in free schools. And again, these were not costed properly and nor were they as accountable as those schools still clinging onto local authority control. (The bill for the free schools programme has gone through the roof, taking money away from areas of genuine need. Free schools really are an appalling error of judgement.)
So the free schools budget went out of control, and it still continues to do so. But even with academies and free schools – and the creation of more divisive faith schools via both of those failed models – that still wasn’t enough to satisfy the right, or the market. And so Theresa May, fresh from being made the leader of the Conservative Party, proposed the introduction of grammar schools.
Many in her own party are opposed to this idea. And research has shown just how damaging their presence will be to a system already fragmented from so much toxic Tory neoliberal dogma. So in that regard grammar schools are a last throw of the dice from a clapped-out joke of a government desperate for new ideas. As far as I’m concerned they are an admission that academisation, faith schools and free schools are an unmitigated failure. And when grammar schools fail to bring about the sort of change the Tories salivate over, what then? More faith schools? Education solely for profit? Thanks to the Tory obsession with the market, I believe any idea from the ludicrous right-wing thought pod is possible.
Now compare this relentless anti-state approach with Jeremy Corbyn’s plan for a national education service. This is such a refreshing approach and is completely at odds with the Tories’ obsession with selection and elitism. It will also benefit the next generation of learners, a demographic that never seems to feature in Tory plans.
One of the first thing's Labour and Corbyn will do is reverse those horrendous Conservative cuts (and we’re staring at £3bn of them), then they’ll make sure all primary pupils get free meals. Labour also propose to make schools accountable again (in other words, local authorities will be overseeing them, and not regional academies commissioners or some other obscure body). Add in changes to admissions, restoring maintenance grants for students in further and higher education, and the abolition of tuition fees, and you have an education programme a hundred times more radical and forward-thinking than a thousand Tory think tanks could ever devise between now and the end of time. Although they’d probably try and privatise time itself.
We have seen the right wing obsession with all things market-led. It’s unhealthy, unaccountable, and the losers are the next generation of voters. Many students in schools today would be forgiven for thinking that there is a permanent war going on in education with them forever at the centre of it, between the forces of capitalism and the forces of progression and fairness. For the sake of our future, we need to reject the stale, dead horse that is Conservative thinking on education, and embrace the expansive and truly radical agenda Labour are proposing. It really will change everything.
Max Webster is the editor of Political Provocateur