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How can a Marxist approach inform current debates around education policy and provision?

Rather than promoting rote-learning, the humanist, revolutionary educator will adopt a problem-posing approach based on a dialogue between teacher and student, says the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

BRITISH education is in meltdown. Author and educationalist Peter Mortimore writes: “Since 1988 our education system has been transformed into a market economy — as if schooling is similar to shopping or using an estate agent. 

“The ideological inspiration for marketisation stems from the work of Milton Friedman. His Capitalism and Freedom provoked a new strategy for governing […] The key elements of this strategy are individualism, competition, choice, privatisation, decentralisation, deregulation and the use of the market in all public services.”

Along with these developments, governments, both Tory and Labour, have centralised control of the curriculum and established draconian inspection and testing regimes. 

As a result, the teacher’s role has been reduced to that of technician with little control over what is taught and how. 

Austerity budgets have slashed education spending and while the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland have been able to resist some of these developments and retain a degree of local accountability (and Scottish higher education students do not pay tuition fees), both countries’ education systems are massively underfunded. 

It is no surprise that there is now an acute teacher shortage. The Times recently reported: “Applications for teacher training have fallen by a third in a year, the government has missed its recruitment targets for the past five years and teachers are quitting in record numbers with a quarter leaving after just three years.”

A Marxist approach can help us understand how this situation came about and what has to be done to change it. 

Marx’s views on school education were not elaborated — there are only scattered references in various of his works and there was no universal state education when he was writing, but later thinkers have developed his approach. Antonio Gramsci coined the phrase “cultural hegemony” to describe the influence that the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. 

The dominant class controls the subject class not with force but with ideas that conceal the true source of their power and the nature of the exploitation.

Radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire described conventional teaching under capitalism as the “banking method,” which he saw as mirroring and reinforcing an oppressive society. 

Under this model of teaching the teacher is viewed as knowing everything and the student nothing. The teacher talks and the student listens. The teacher (or rather the government) determines what is taught and how it is taught. 

Students become empty vessels and their role is to store the knowledge bestowed on them. 

Above all they are not required or expected as a result of their education to change the world by reflection and action. 

In contrast, the humanist, revolutionary educator will adopt another approach: problem-posing education based on a dialogue between teacher and student in which both become responsible for a process in which they both grow. 

Their aim should be to become critical thinkers, questioning and challenging what they encounter in the learning process.

At last the hegemony of free-market education model is being challenged by the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Labour’s plan for a national education service is a breath of fresh air, and the skeleton policy — currently out for consultation — is an excellent start. 

It includes the aim that education should be free at the point of use, that all barriers to learning are to be tackled, that all areas of skills and learning deserve respect. 

It promotes collaboration and co-operation over competition, proposes a restoration of local accountability, of practice being based on evidence, of assessment and inspection being used to support teachers and learners. 

At this stage the policies imply advances but lack detail. One response from an alliance of educational campaigning groups that makes the proposals explicit is to be found at www.reclaimingeducation.org.uk

Abolition of student tuition fees is implied but on the future of academies and free schools — a key ingredient of the market model — the alliance is unclear as is how local accountability can be restored. 

There are historical injustices that will have to be dealt with too. Private education buys privilege. Grammar schools, religious schools and above all so-called “public” schools are used to exclude others and have no place in a society that is building a socialist future.

Brian Simon, the late Marxist, campaigner for comprehensive education and educational historian, summed up what is needed: “Up to the age of 16 all children should have the opportunity to experience a full all-round education embodying the humanities, arts, sciences and technology — this is and always has been the aim of comprehensive education.

“In such schools there are no blind alleys, no once-and-for-all tests to cut off or divest children from access to learning. Opportunities remain open for all. Well-equipped schools of this type serve their own neighbourhood in every locality. Such is the objective. To achieve this schools not only need generous resources in terms of buildings, equipment and staff; they also need to evolve the relevant pedagogical means, carefully honed to ensure that all children are effectively assisted in their learning. This is an area where much has been lacking in both primary and secondary schools…

“Education should be holistic, should address mental and physical health and wellbeing. It should help pupils think rather than learn facts, it should encourage pupils to question everything, to be sceptical, to think. Philosophy should be a central plank of education, from the earliest age. It should enable pupils to live their lives to the full, not simply enable them to join the workforce. 

“Here, then, is a programme for the 21st century for any government worth its salt. The need now is to go even further, and finally create a genuinely national system of education. Current provisions, historically based, are no longer acceptable. Such must be the agenda for the future.” 

There’s still time to contribute your views to the Labour Party consultation on a national education service which ends on Sunday June 24 — see labour.org.uk/issues/2018-policy-consultation. An extended version of this answer can be found on the Culture Matters website at www.culturematters.org.uk.

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