Learning to live, teaching to fail

This article first appeared in Direct Action No12, Autumn, 1999, the quarterly magazine of the Solidarity Federation analysing the formation of the modern school and arguing for a libertarian alternative.

Submitted by Jason Cortez on October 3, 2008

The modern school is a crucial instrument for maintaining and justifying continued hierarchy and privilege in today's society. But that doesn't mean we should reject the idea of schools as centres of learning.

School prepares people to participate (or not) in a variety of other institutions, while levels of education largely determine a person's earning power. This, in turn, determines where they can live, and in what social world they can mix. Thus, school is a powerful mechanism for distributing values of all kinds and 'making' particular kinds of people. In fact, historically speaking, school is quite a recent invention. It is therefore useful to understand how and why it has developed into the institution it is today. Furthermore, different people at different times have had all sorts of expectations and made all sorts of claims for the 'education' system, none of which it could ever meet.

First schools
Schooling developed initially under the auspices of the church in medieval Europe. But it wasn't until the 18th and 19th Centuries that there emerged a trend towards universal and compulsory schooling supported and regulated by the state. France and Prussia led the way. The 1717 Prussian system became an important international model (like the later German one), which developed a common, graded and integrated curriculum, designed primarily to meet the Prussian state's legal, labour, military and political needs. In many ways, such schooling systems helped the consolidation of nation-states, legitimising and propagating the ideology of the nation. In Britain, it was 1833 before the government accepted that philanthropic groups could educate the poor. In 1839, when Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools was created, it was still felt that a compulsory system would hold back learning.

By providing a liberal education for boys (girls weren't even considered), the school system ensured, through sons replacing fathers, stability of the social structure in a period of change. It also meant that able, ambitious, intelligent and competitive lower middle class boys (working class boys had scant primary education at best) could be incorporated into the growing social apparatus, a process that was later to be applied more widely.

The rapid development of capitalism brought population growth, industrial depression, increasing deprivation, and the first signs of emergent European competition. There was widespread concern at rising social unrest amongst the poor, especially the unemployed, as workers resisted the new working conditions. Both the factories and the armed forces demanded a skilled, disciplined, numerate and literate workforce.

This restructuring of working class lives caused the breakdown of the traditional family function as a work unit. Instead, family members entered the workforce as isolated individuals. At the same time, the factory acts removed children from many jobs (supposedly to stop child exploitation, although the worst jobs, like chimney sweeps, remained) creating a need for custodial care.

The universal cure
So it was no coincidence that, by 1870, school was seen as a panacea. It was the solution to poverty: "Pauperism cannot be checked until the children are nurtured in the habit of self-reliance, independence and morality... cultivated by a proper system of education" (Earl of Devon, 1862). It was the solution to social disorder: "What would prevent the working classes from engaging in those vain strikes... from habits of waste and improvidence, but some knowledge of the succession of events in life, such as education could supply" (The Times, 22nd July, 1870).

State education promised to cut crime, prevent poverty, stem social unrest and bind the poor more closely to the nation state. The Elementary Education Bill of 1870 created new schools in 2,500 school districts, while the 1886 Mindella Act made school attendance compulsory for children aged 5 to 11. There was a clear desire for more direct and successful social control. Mobility in schools was regulated by timetables and bells; actions were monitored and rewarded or punished; religious, gendered, capitalistic and eurocentric values were imposed with an emphasis on knowing your proper place.

Growing demands for 'national efficiency' and a streamlined, rational education system led to the 1902 Act and the establishment of the kind of school system we know today. This set up 140 Local Education Authorities run by county councils and controlled by experts, who administered codes of regulations and a system of inspection. This national compulsory education system allowed both efficient administration and the propagation of a national ideology, serving the needs of central government.

Education reform was again the magic formula to end class antagonisms in the 1940s. Ideas about citizenship, education and nation had gained ground in the inter-war years, particularly after the 1931 election of the National Government, which faced a widespread crisis of legitimacy. What was required was a form of political and economic intervention to pre-empt and contain fascism and Bolshevism. The writings of Keynes, Roosevelt's New Deal in the US, and contemporary Liberals in Europe and America all stressed the need to reconstruct and modernise both the economic and social organisation of capitalism. Keynes in particular influenced the Liberal and Labour parties with his stress on the regulation and integration of social and economic planning. In terms of education, the solution was seen to be the extension of secondary education to all.

Education was to be central to convincing the electorate of the validity of such extensive state intervention. There was widespread propaganda about the role of citizenship in a democracy and the need for this to be developed through education. The end of the second World War brought rising expectations, of which the Labour Party was the main beneficiary, converting war time unity and patriotism into a new consensus around state management of the economy and intervention in social policy. The 1944 Education Act was designed to avoid controversy and gain the widest possible support. To this end, its two main planks were free education, and its extension to the age of 15.

This was a considerable achievement for the labour movement. It would be wrong to present the education system as merely about the ever more subtle regulation and discipline of the individual by the state. Working class resistance and demands were also part of the backdrop to the post-war school system. There was a long history of working class alternatives, such as the libertarian Sunday schools that existed up until the war, which were part of ongoing struggles for self-emancipation by developing a critical awareness through literacy and 'learning'. However, traditional labour movement concerns with the class character of educational politics as a whole have gradually narrowed since the 1944 Act to become almost exclusively an issue of access to a system that has been effectively directed and controlled by government. Thus, state provision of 'education' for all was a historic compromise comparable to the incorporation of politicised workers into the 'representation' promised by political parties and trade unions.

'investing in people?'
The 1944 Act established a three tier school system - grammar, secondary modern, and secondary technical - with each tier said to enjoy a 'parity of esteem' in catering for the needs of different children. However, they basically ensured that social divisions continued to reflect the division of labour. By the 1960s, it was no longer possible to support such an obviously selective system, so the National Plan of 1965 responded with an 'investment in people' theme: "Education is both an important social service and an investment for the future. It helps to satisfy the needs of the economy for skilled manpower of all kinds, the needs of any civilised society for educated citizens who have been able to develop to the utmost their individual abilities, and demands by individuals for education as a means both to improved economic prospects and to a richer and more constructive life".

With this new emphasis, education came to be more and more the preserve of experts and professionals with little or no understanding of working class children. The sixties saw a procession of investigations into how education could meet all the demands placed on it - from industry, for fostering social unity, and for solving working class 'failure' and parental indifference. Youth, usually male and working class, were seen to need a preparation for work. This was both in the senses of developing appropriate skills and of forming the right character to correct the influence of the supposedly 'bad' home environment. The working class family home was seen as not being conducive to learning for a variety of reasons - from bad housing and living conditions to the supposed bad morals, lack of encouragement and 'restrictive language codes' of parents. Indeed, the social life of whole communities now came under the increasing scrutiny of an expanding array of professionals, dissolving the boundary between schools and social services.

This 'civilising' mission is alive and kicking today as New Labour touts parenting classes, curfews for youngsters, as well as parent-school and parent-child contracts. Despite its claims regarding 'education', an enduring function of school has been as a childminder - freeing parents to go out to work by warehousing their children. Custodial care (childminding), although relatively cheap, is by far the largest part of a school's budget. At the same time, compulsory attendance ensures that all children receive the appropriate ranking, grading, work discipline and skills useful to capital and state. This is the ultimate reality of schooling for the vast majority of children. It is carried on under the camouflage of education and the myth of social mobility.

Calls for more and better education then, need to be set in the context of the social reality of schooling, which has little to do with education. It would indeed be surprising if one of the core social institutions of liberal- capitalist society had much to recommend it to those of us interested in social revolution. It is important to develop alternative models and practices of learning based on creativity and fostering critical and independent thought and action.

There are well-meaning people involved at many different levels in schools, but it is important to remember that the fond memories some of us might have are largely in spite of, not because of, the school system.