While “business partnerships” have a long history in state schools, the increasing marketisation of comprehensive education has seen such arrangements propagate across the sector. This blog details my experience, as an education worker, of the creeping business ethos of an inter-city secondary school.
Capital's interest in the education system should be immediately evident to anyone who undertakes even a cursory inquiry into the the nature of state education. Schools are, after all, where children are taught the “skills” which the labour market demands of them. Sometimes schools are explicit about this, teaching IT for our “high-tech economy” or “interview skills” to sixth formers. Besides these stated goals, however, are what sociologists might call the “implicit” or “latent” functions—things like accustoming students to the regimentation needed for an assembly line or training children to internalise the deference to authority demanded by the workplace hierarchy.
There are times, however, when capital's raw hegemonic intentions become crystal clear. My headteacher recently announced that, as part of a borough-wide initiative, our school would be partnering with what he called “a large estate agency” based in the city. (Upon closer inspection, it appears the company is actually a multinational of “chartered surveyors and property consultants” which happens to be headquartered near us.) The staff was informed—the fig leaf of consultation being duly ignored—that “no sponsorship” was involved. The “partnership” means that our students would be given “opportunities” on “business days” to visit the offices of our chosen partner to “see how the world of business works”. This was presented in our weekly staff meeting and without much fanfare. That in itself says a lot.
My school is not an academy. In fact, in a borough that has pushed academies hard, my school has remained one of the few holdouts. Yet, the business ethos is already well embedded. The school has a long-standing relationship with one of the world's largest multinationals—a company with many fingers in a lot of pretty abhorrent pies: tax shelters, outsourcing, privatisation, and the sort of financial speculation that led to the most recent economic crisis, to name a few. One of the main ways students come to understand this company is by being invited to sing Christmas carols at their headquarters, with employees and passers-by making donations to whichever charity the children are singing for. This is not only great publicity for the company, it provides them with a captive audience for whatever corporate propaganda they want to spew. That captive audience, of course, is our students.
Inside the school, corporate posters can be found throughout the building. One extols the virtues of “stakeholder” capitalism. Anther details the “corporate identity” of a well-known fast food chain. My favourite, however, is still the one which outlines various corporate “leadership” styles, ranging from the “democratic” (which really means consultative) to the “strong” (which means authoritarian). This is to say nothing of the content of business courses themselves or the fact that children are constantly admonished with threats that they “won't get a good job” or how they'd “get the sack if they did that at work.”
In the applied subjects, business is built into the very curriculum. Each DT course begins with the premise that the students are designing a product to sell. It must be marketable. And how best to learn what makes good marketing than by studying logos? Students are given a sheet of logos and asked to name the company each one represents. During the course itself students are designing Nike trainers, chocolate bar wrappers, or CD covers for top 40 musicians.
The most blatant example I found of this was a Y7 worksheet I found. On one side it listed “target markets” and on the other, a list of products. I noticed one of the products was “high interest loans”. The target consumers? “Unemployed people.”
I should note that the school does often try to reinforce some idea of ethical consumption—looking at things like Fair Trade and environmental issues and doing so across the curriculum. While this may seem preferable, it still fundamentally reinforces the idea of the market. Want to save the environment? Buy organic. Want to see workers treated well? Invest ethically. The discussion is never about the fact that consumer “choice” is a freedom that capital can afford to offer. The option to choose between different commodities doesn't threaten the social relationship that is capitalism. In fact, it further reinforces the idea of the “free” market, “free” labour, “consumer power” and “free” choice.
So what can education workers take away from this? Firstly, have no illusions about the institutions we work for. We can—and should—try to subvert schooling, but we must understand that schools are fundamentally and irreconcilably part of the problem. What we can do is what the school system doesn't: encourage critical thinking.
The recent strikes have provided us with the opportunity to begin talking to students not about profits, target markets, and entrepreneurship, but labour, solidarity, and struggle. Likewise, the debate around academies opens up an opportunity to discuss not only how destructive they are, but what purpose education should serve in society. Finally, we need to link up. There are some great examples of radical education workers coming together to create alternative lesson plans (NYCORE after Hurricane Katrina, for example) that challenge, not reproduce, capital's stranglehold on the education of our class.
For those who are interested, I found this nifty RSA Animate:
I think it's got problems, but I like the bit about schools being created to mimic the factory model.