The fight for state education

On 28 September an estimated 2,000 headteachers marched to Downing Street to protest against budget cuts

What must be done by the teachers’ unions today

The attacks on state education today are profound and it is obvious that the teachers’ unions are not fighting back. Parents, pupils and staff around the country are carrying out strikes and protests as their own schools are affected by underfunding and privatisation. But what is missing is any organised national resistance. On 28 September, an estimated 2,000 headteachers marched in central London in protest against budget cuts. But this is a cry of despair, not a political movement. The Labour Party has set out a plan for a ‘cradle to grave’ National Education Service in parallel with the National Health Service to offer everyone ‘the same standard as with health care’. But like the NHS, education has a ‘postcode lottery’ of better service for wealthier areas and is also suffering from underfunding and growing privatisation.

Smoke and mirrors at the Labour Party conference

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, who previously refused to be ‘bogged down’ on the merits of different types of schools, came out to the Labour conference with the crowd-pleasing message that so-called ‘free’ schools and forced academisation are ‘not fit for purpose’. Labour will, she said, end the scandal of CEO pay and uncontrolled spending on lucrative contracts to friends and family in academies, and introduce national pay rules. While she said that councils will be given back the right to open schools and ‘take control of admissions’ there is nothing in this programme to ensure that this will happen. With 80% of academy schools in deficit, this is as much a programme for saving the schooling system as for changing it.

What, then, is necessary to demand a truly democratic state education system? The history of the political struggle over British state education offers answers.

The British state is late

The establishment of national education came late to the UK. Prussia had state education as early as 1763 while in the Hapsburg Empire, state-funded schools were mandatory in the late 18th century for Czechs, Croats, Italians, Hungarians and Poles. In contrast most of the proletariat of the UK received the harsh schooling of factory discipline and waged labour. However, the time arrived when manufacture needed skilled workers. A stable, literate and numerate workforce was required to run British capitalism competitively against the rising threat of a more productive US and German capitalism and the state had to step in.

A class-based patchwork

A patchwork of schools already existed. These were largely denominational institutions known as Voluntary Schools, run by a variety of religious foundations including Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Church of England. There were also dame schools, ragged schools and philanthropic factory owners’ schools. All these existed alongside a small number of old established grammar schools and fee-paying private schools known, for historic reasons, as public schools. These institutions had been established for the education of the children of the merchant class who could not afford private tutors or governesses. These elite schools benefit from charitable giving. They have built up enormous wealth and as ‘charities’ receive huge tax breaks. It is estimated that over the next five years Eton College (former pupil David Cameron) and Dulwich College (former pupil Nigel Farage), among other establishments, will receive £522m in tax rebates due to their historic status.

The 1870 Education Act was the first parliamentary legislation on schooling in the UK. It set up a unified central government department of education but grafted onto Local Authorities the responsibility to set up Board Schools paid for by ratepayers for children aged 5-8. (Fully compulsory education was not introduced until 1880 and parents had to pay a fee until the 1891 Free Education Act).

The battle over the state schools

There was a political struggle over the character of the new state education system. The National Education League was set up in 1869 to fight for a progressive secular education system that would integrate all existing schools. Its demand was for ‘free, unsectarian and compulsory education’ supported by the local authorities. It was opposed by the National Educational Union, the association of schoolmasters and heads, which wanted to extend and build on the existing religious foundations.

The 1870 Act was a compromise, setting up Board Schools alongside church-sponsored schools. In two further concessions to the faith lobby, Board Schools had to have a religious but non-denominational framework with compulsory prayers. Voluntary Schools – wide in their evangelical ambitions but short on funds – would receive state financing despite their exclusive mission.

The legacy

It is in this compromise and in the defeat of radical demands for an integrated school system that the seeds of privilege and religious preferment were planted in the very heart of state education from the start. The legacy can be seen very clearly especially in times of austerity when there is a brutal scramble for advantage. Academy schools have been snatched from local authority control, the state-funded expansion of faith schools, and ‘free’ schools diverts funds from central government into the private sector and vicious competition for league table priority drives exam targets because the money follows these success criteria.

The only way forward to defeat the fragmentation and corruption of the system is to return to the demands of the National Education League of 1869 for free, unsectarian and compulsory education overseen by local authorities and funded by central government in accordance with pupil need.

The unions are failing to fight back

 The new teachers’ union, the National Education Union (NEU), was formed in 2017 with the amalgamation of the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. It claims 500,000 members.

This workforce of over half a million knows that their union is failing to fight the attacks on state education. They know an estimated 50,000 pupils are missing education for all sorts of reasons, with no record of who is responsible for them. They know that thousands of pupils are excluded from school rolls each summer because their predicted exam grades will bring down the pass rate. They know that councils are cutting spending on Special Needs across the country while at the same time the Department for Education has spent over £747m in eight years buying off Local Authority schools to become academies. Teachers and education workers must fight for the integrated, secular and accountable state schools demanded by the pioneers of 1869.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 266 October/November 2018


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