Education – Labour government in the service of imperialism

In the manifesto for the 1997 General Election, which brought it to office, the Labour Party promised to improve education in Britain as a matter of urgent priority. “Education, education, education”, was Tony Blair’s most repeated slogan during the 1997 election campaign. Yet, during the 6 years Labour has been in government, standards in comprehensives have hardly improved. The crisis in education is worse than ever – the result of starving education of the much-needed funds – in the schools sector as well as in the area of higher education (HE).

The state of our schools

Just over half of our 16-year olds pass 5 GCSE’s at A to C grades. More than a quarter of fifth-formers fail to get a higher grade GCSE. Worse still, 30,000 of this age group manage to get no qualification at all.

Comparison with other industrialised countries shows the education system in Britain in a dismal light. A quarter of youngsters leave education altogether before they reach the age of 17, putting the UK in 25th place out of the 29 OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries – just above Mexico. 17% quit education at 16.

Class sizes are large and there is a chronic shortage of teachers – especially in Maths and Science. In 1997 there were 390,000 full-time teachers and 13,600 supply teachers in England and Wales. By 2002, while teacher numbers went up nearly 21,000 to 420,000, the number of supply teachers increased disproportionately to 17,500. Too much reliance on supply teachers disrupts classes and progress. In 2002 there were 4,500 unfilled teaching posts, mostly in Maths and Science.

Labour’s answer

Instead of tackling seriously the problem of teacher shortages, especially in the two areas already referred to, and devoting extra resources to tackle these, the government’s answer has been (1) to assign a bigger role to classroom assistants, (2) deregulation of schools and involvement of ‘third party’ players, such as charities, churches, top schools and the private sector in the management and running of schools, (3) excessive reliance on League Tables and testing, which squeeze all the joy out of learning and put an extra financial burden on scarce resources, and (4) the establishment of specialist schools – all in the name of ‘diversity’ and ‘innovation’ – euphemisms for discrimination, inequality and privatisation of education.

The specialist schools will teach the national curriculum (NC) but focus on a specialist subject. There is, however, little evidence that these schools produce any better results that your average ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ (Downing Street’s contemptuous description of comprehensive schools designed to justify their wholesale destruction, in essence if not in form). Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, recently informed MP’s on the Education Select Committee that there was no reflection in examination results for the success claims of such schools.

Mindless testing

Our children are the most tested in the world. They are tested at the ages of 7, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17 and 18. When introduced, the NC never received adequate funding to put its aims into practice. Initially there were 10 subjects in the NC, which, consequent upon the recommendation of the Dearing Report, were reduced to 6 ‘core’ and four optional subjects – still far too many considering the class sizes and the paucity of funds and shortage of teachers. Instead of dealing with the cause – scarcity of funding – the government introduced testing, standards and targets, thus reducing the teaching of NC subjects to a mockery – ticking bullet points, set answers and passing exams. Presently infant class teachers tick no fewer than 117 ‘competencies’ for every 5-year old.[1]

Even bourgeois, often socially reactionary, commentators have begun to raise their voices against this mindless system, which has reduced learning for the young to the tedium of bean counting. In an otherwise quite regressive article, Simon Jenkins, writing in The Times of 28 May 2000, nevertheless made this correct observation on the point under discussion:

“If I were a teacher, I would be shamed by this trivialising of my ‘output’. Every teacher and every institution now depends only on their exam results for the public standing. It is to become the one measure that determines extra resources. Young people are set up (or knocked down) for life by these crude measures. The profession of teaching has reverted to the state bitterly satirised by Dickens in ‘Hard Times’, that of counting beans and filling little pitchers to the prescribed brim. It is the millennium, said Dickens ‘when commissioners shall inherit the Earth’.” (‘Why GCSE’s are cheating our children’).

All independent thought, intellectual discovery, inspiration, excitement and enjoyment are being drained out of our education at an accelerating pace, for the pressure and tedium to which our children are subjected from the age of 4 to 14 results in many of them throwing in the towel and giving up on the entire business of formal education long before they are able to leave school. The whole exercise is as dull as it is demoralising.

The demands of the NC, combined with the scarcity of resources, and the pressure of SATs (Standard Assessment Tests), means that teachers scarcely have any time to attend to the real needs of the real children in their classes. As schools, and pupils, are judged on SATs results at 7 and 11, the only thing that matters is teaching techniques to children to get them to pass the tests. Everything else comes to a grinding halt. For the pupils the consequences are devastating. In 2002, a survey of 147 schools discovered that over half of all 7-year olds preparing for SATs were afflicted with stress, the symptoms ranging from bed-wetting to depression. It becomes worse at 11. The majority of schools jettison most of the NC in the 6th year, concentrating instead on the never-ending revision of SATs papers in English, Science and Maths. If this exercise is dreary for the more academically-inclined pupils, it only serves to reinforce the feeling of inadequacy suffered by struggling children. What is really sick is that none of this medieval torture can be justified by reference even to the SATs results for, according to Durham University research, there has been no improvement in pupils’ performance for 5 years.

The only change that has come about is that teachers have become experts at preparing their charges for SATs – even to the point of being tempted to cheat. But for all this endeavour, a quarter of this age group can’t read or write properly when they leave primary school. Those who join the nursery school from a background of disadvantage and destitution leave, 7 years later, still further behind their fellow students.


This is not surprising at all since the single most important factor responsible for failing schools and failing children is poverty – a factor ignored, denied or covered up by government ministers, the whingeing middle class and bourgeois ideologues alike. Study after study reveals that two-thirds of the differences in results at the age of 16 in GCSE examinations are related to family income and not inherent ability. And the children are some of the worst sufferers of the poverty trap. Of the 13.3 million children in Britain, 4.6 million – 1 in 3 – live in poverty. All these children are in school. There is overwhelming evidence that poverty undermines and devastates their chances of education.

Since the end of the post-war boom in the mid-70’s, and the resultant breakdown in the Keynesian consensus, the gap between the rich and poor has widened. In the mid-90’s, 1 in 5 families with children had no breadwinner – 4 times the level in 1968. when Margaret Thatcher came into office, 9% of British people lived in poverty. Now that percentage has risen to 25%. The present Labour government has not only continued, but intensified, the onslaught on the poor in the interests of the rich. In Blair’s Britain, the rich demand, and get, “… low tax, the fast tracking of Etonians into Oxbridge and a punitive justice system for the lower orders. That, at least, is being delivered. Welcome to class-free Britain, where the oppressed grumble all the way to the Athenaeum Club and beggars go to jail” (Mary Riddle, The Observer, 9 March 2003).

Humiliating exercise in bewilderment

The whole system stinks, and it is the despair of the teacher and the taught alike – especially the poorer among the latter. More enlightened teachers who might at one time have encouraged debate among their students, are now forced to confine themselves to handing out worksheets. The result is drastically to reduce the chances that the vast majority of children who do not spontaneously develop excitement and enjoyment in reading and discovering knowledge are very unlikely to receive enough of the good teaching that is essential to stimulate a passion for learning in them. In this stultifying system, the children’s role is merely to absorb and regurgitate. Middle class children manage to put up with this tedium because they can, with parental and teacher assistance, see the rewards and some light at the end of this dreary tunnel. But for the struggling children from poorer backgrounds, wrote Jenni Russell in a very informative and passionate article in the Sunday Times of 26 January 2003, “school often becomes a humiliating exercise in bewilderment”.

Continues Ms Russell: “It’s no better for the staff. Teachers don’t feel valued for their creative imagination or their experience; their role is to carry out the instructions laid down at the centre. There’s deep unhappiness and frustration inside schools and it’s evident at every level. The chief inspector of schools reports that disruptive and challenging behaviour is increasing. Expulsions are rising. More than half of all 15-year-olds say they’re often bored at school. A fifth of teachers plan to make career changes.”

Privatisation of education

Since the system is collapsing, the government, unable and unwilling to devote adequate funds to education, is increasingly resorting to privatising and outsourcing education provision, stripping ‘failing’ local authorities of their education responsibilities, and transferring public funding to private business. Such stalwarts of educational and academic excellence as Serco and Group 4 (prison operators), Jarvis (the building contractor of Hatfield Rail Crash notoriety), Vosper Thorneycroft (armaments manufacturer), W H Smith (newsagent), KPMG, PWC and Deloitte Touche (accountants) and Amey (the services group), not to speak of Nord Anglia and Cambridge Education Associates, have been put in charge of a number of our schools.

Realising Thatcher’s dreams

For all that, the system is not working. With the present resources, the NC simply cannot be taught. So, Charles Clarke, the education secretary, has given up the ghost and announced that by 2005-6 the NC in its present form will be scrapped, with schools no longer under a statutory obligation to provide teaching in more than three subjects (Science, Maths and English), in addition to sex and religious education, after the age of 14. Thus is fulfilled under Labour the heartfelt desire of the former Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who never wanted more than 3 compulsory subjects. Thus, it turns out that Labour’s “biggest shake-up in schooling for 50 years” is no more than a vehicle for translating the reactionary deliriums of Thatcherism into practice, none of which, it goes without saying, will stop the ‘left’ wing social democrats, the counter-revolutionary Trotskyites and revisionist renegades from supporting Labour as the party of the British working class. Be that as it may, under Labour’s ‘shake-up’, state schools will no longer offer traditional subjects such as foreign languages, history and geography to pupils who do not perform well in examinations. Their reasoning is impeccable. We’ve destroyed any hope of children learning anything at all by attending lessons in these subjects, so why even offer them the opportunity? For the majority of working-class children, what passes for education will become a means of acquiring functional skills – all this under a barrage of hypocritical assertion about ‘parity of esteem’ between vocational and academic studies. However, even the teaching of functional skills requires teachers and equipment, and we are quite certain that even in these areas the education process will be starved to the bone.

These attacks on the education of working-class children are made on the pretext of fighting against the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality and hostility to specialisation, and in the name of transforming the ‘monolithic’ comprehensive system and creating ‘centres of excellence’. Comprehensives, says Tony Blair, “should cease meaning the same for all and instead mean equal opportunity for all to develop their intelligence to the full”. One has only to glance at the poverty of the households from which one-third of the children in our schools come, the dilapidated state of the schools they attend, the starvation of funding these schools suffer, and the pressure that is brought to bear on them through SATs and other demands, to realise the humbug and the breath-taking hypocrisy of the above vacuous remarks of Blair’s. The class and the racist basis of our schools is glaringly revealed by Blair’s beloved League Tables, which show that the destitute working class districts, which are home to the overwhelming majority of the children from ethnic minority backgrounds, produce the lowest academic results, boast the highest number of suspensions and exclusions, with the highest proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals.

All that our Christian thug and sanctimonious imperialist warmonger – Tony Blair – and his government of Arthur Dalys on the make have to offer working-class children and their parents alike is poverty at home, dreary schools starved of funds and facilities, intimidation, threats and imprisonment. This government can boast of being the only one in the world which sends parents of truanting children to prison. Patricia Amos, a mother, was sentenced by Banbury magistrates to a term of imprisonment of 60 days for not ensuring the attendance at school of her daughters Emma (15) and Jackie (13) – no bail and no time for making arrangements for the care of her children was allowed. Having attended the school for a day, the two sisters were allowed time off to visit their mother in prison, which the school authorities described as “compassionate authorised absence”! The punishment of this victim of capitalist society was loudly applauded by most middle class ‘compassionate’ bigots, including Estelle Morris, the then education secretary.

The missing £500 million

Although the government’s 2002 spending review supposedly made provision for an extra £12.8 billion over three years for education (a 6% rise per annum), with schools to be the largest beneficiaries, it has not solved the funding crisis. A few months ago a row erupted between the education department and the LEA’s over the ‘missing’ £500 million. While the government blamed the local authorities for hiding this sum or using it for other purposes, the local authorities hit back and proved that there were no such sums gone astray. Head teachers were left wondering if they would have to sack some of the teaching staff to balance school budgets. Here was a most ridiculous situation in which schools, on the one hand, had in place recruitment and retention reward schemes and, on the other hand, were facing the real threat of having to make some of their staff redundant. In the circumstances, Charles Clarke retreated and responded by allowing schools to divert money from repairs and other capital expenditure to pay teachers’ salaries – a short-term desperate measure which will in no way eliminate chronic underfunding.

There were no missing £500 million, for the changes in teachers’ wages, National Insurance and pension provisions, as well as variations in government-imposed job evaluation procedures, have swallowed more money. Some expenditure which previously fell on the government has been passed on to the LEA’s, as, for example, support for newly-qualified teachers, who are permitted to teach only 90% of the curriculum. The result is that LEA’s have to find more money to cover classes. While the government never tires of talking about the extra billions it has allegedly allocated to education, most schools will suffer a reduction of nearly 1.5% in real terms.

The row over the missing £500 million is a natural consequence of the gimmickry and ad-hocism of this government in education as in every other area, with which it responds to the latest public opinion poll, to every outcry from the camp of conservative die-hards on the education front. From special units for ‘bad’ pupils, to testing, to fast-track courts to deal with ‘bad’ parents and instant fines for youngsters found in the street after a certain time at night – an idea which the government was forced to drop in the face of opposition from even the police (who considered it impractical to enforce). In addition to the basic EFSS (Education Formula Spending Share), which itself leaves a lot to be desired, because of the government’s panic responses, the education budget is very fragmented, as money is targeted in favour of support for government policy, e.g., the national numeracy strategy which, incidentally, is a total failure. Britain’s workforce, as measured by literacy and numeracy tests, is the worst educated of all countries in the OECD, with the exception of Hungary, Ireland and Portugal.

Funding contrast between public and private education

Putting aside all the hyperbole about the importance which every government in Britain said it attached to education, the fact is that public spending on education in Britain declined steadily in real terms from the mid-1970’s. If it stood at 6.4% of GDP in 1974-5, by 2000 it had dwindled to 4.8%, with the result that Britain spends far less per pupil than most industrialised countries. In 1997, the incoming Blair government’s promise to focus on education meant nothing in view of its other promise not to raise taxes. This is the crux of the problem – neither the Tories nor Labour want to raise taxes to fund education, because raising taxes annoys the privileged sections of society, whose interests the governments represent, and into the bargain makes them electorally unattractive.

Since the mid-1970’s, while expenditure on public education has declined steadily, real expenditure on private schooling has risen by a dramatic five-fold, even though the proportion of the population attending these schools has remained the same throughout this period – about 1 in 20. These schools have reduced the number of pupils per teacher from 14 to 10 (as opposed to the state sector where classes of 30+ are the norm). No wonder, then, that of those in work aged 25-44, 6 out of every 10 who went to private (‘independent’ if it pleases some) schools, have a degree, compared with only a third of those aged between 45-60. And, among those aged 25-44 who attended state schools, only 13% hold a degree qualification (see Francis Green, ‘An Education Deficit’, Financial Times, 11 June 2002).

Every impartial observer who is not a bigot and a member of the whingeing middle class, agrees that if anything has been achieved in educational terms in state schools in the past two decades of scarcity of funds, it has been through the hard work of teachers and pupils. Some even make the claim, as does Francis Green, that there is no section of the British workforce which “…had to intensify its labour as drastically as the state education sector”. As a result, the workforce in education has been exhausted. It is, therefore, “unduly optimistic to expect further big productivity improvements from yet more intensification of teachers’ labour”. What is needed is a substantial increase in funding. Chancellor Brown’s spending review, which made some extra funding available for education over the next 3 years, does not even begin to tackle the problem which has arisen as a result of two decades of neglect, during which education has been starved of resources.

As a result of government policy over the past 20 years, English education is today characterised by the application of market mechanisms, hand-in-hand with a complete disregard of local democracy. Charles Clarke is only the latest in a long line of Gradgrinds who believe that “education for its own sake is a bit dodgy”, that the sole function of education is to increase the competitiveness of British capital – and its corollary that schools should be managed as if they were competing businesses. To effect cost cutting, whole subjects are dropped from the curriculum and to justify this we find Charles Clarke making his ignorant and mercenary attack on the study of Classics and Humanities, stating that we should keep “medieval seekers after truth as an adornment of our society”, adding that funding should be diverted towards those who “help the economy to deal with the challenges posed by the rapid global change”, i.e., towards those studying applied science, technology, business studies and accountancy. In other words, education provision should be totally subservient to the needs of British imperialism’s need for the maximisation of profit on a global scale. The idea that education provision should be transformed into the crudest of markets was imported in the 1980’s from reactionary think-tanks in the US, where it had been totally unsuccessful in influencing educational policy, for the Reaganites were unable to get their hands on US schools, the latter being the responsibility of the states and localities within them. However, the English business lobby has been “disastrously influential”, as a result of which “state schools have been forced to compete on the basis of crude league tables”, and teachers subjected to “endless reporting requirements and pay arrangements that would better suit supermarket managers” – all for the purpose of providing “the raw data for the educational market” (Michael Prowse, Financial Times, 31 May 2003).

As to disregard for local democracy, Michael Prowse makes this damning observation:

“Like his predecessors Mr Clarke thinks he can transform school performance by issuing directives from his London office and by relying on a variety of market-oriented proxies. His overtures to museums are typical: the Blair government is willing to grant authority over state schools to institutions of just about any kind – private company, charity or whatever – with the sole proviso that they are NOT democratically accountable to local communities.”

Undoubtedly this local democracy, spoken of by Michael Prowse, being bourgeois, is mutilated, curtailed and hemmed in at every stage, but for all that it is a damn sight more democratic than handing over our schools to suchlike champions of education as armaments manufacturers, prison operators and building contractors.

As for the teaching unions, who should be in the business of protecting state educational provision against creeping privatisation, some of them have simply, and disgracefully, demanded for their members a share of the profits made by private companies running schools. That is precisely what was demanded by David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT (National Association of Head Teachers) at the end of May 2001. Further comment is unnecessary.

Higher education

The problem of under-investment does not affect schools alone. It affects the HE sector just as much. Such is the scandal of underfunding that even bourgeois, but honest, commentators frequently remark on it in the most scathing terms. Michael Prowse, writing in the Financial Times of 23 November 2002, observed caustically:

“…but for a generation of underinvestment in higher education, Labour ministers would not now be planning to turn universities into fee-charging private schools for the over-18’s. Nor would they advocate an ‘assisted places’ scheme for universities, having abolished one for schools.”


Over the past 4 decades, HE has expanded dramatically. If in 1960 5% of 18-22 year olds went into HE, this had increased to 12% by 1979, and 34% by 1997. Today it stands at 36%. The government’s target is that 50% of those aged between 18-30 years should receive some form of HE. But the share of GDP that Britain spends on university education is less than half the average of leading industrialised countries. Over the past 20 years, while the number of students at our universities has doubled, funding per student has halved in real terms. Since 1989 alone, the amount spent per student ahs collapsed from more than £7,500 a year to about £4,000. The combination of greatly increased demand for HE and the resistance of the wealthy and privileged sections to tax rises has produced this steep reduction in expenditure per student, with a resultant fall in standards of education as well as in the conditions of working and living standards of the teaching staff and their students alike. If there were 9 students per teacher in 1980, today there are 17. Academics’ pay has risen by only 1% since 1981, against 40% for all workers, and still greater increases for most other professionals (see Financial Times, 6 March 2000). This can only make the recruitment and retention of staff very difficult indeed. These years have also been marked by deterioration in the infrastructure, including research. The fall in funding has been accompanied by increasingly suffocating regulation.

There are only two ways out of the present crisis – extra funds from the state or privatisation of HE. The government has, not surprisingly, knowing as we do its total servility to the rich and privileged in general and finance capital in particular, opted for the privatisation option – an elitist market-driven system of HE.

Market forces and elitism

In 1998, soon after assuming office, the Blair government abolished student maintenance grants and introduced a means-tested system of £1,000 a year tuition fees, payable up front. This year these fees were raised to £1,125 a year. In January this year, Labour’s report, The Future of Higher Education, was published. The hallmarks of this report are market forces and elitism. The reactionaries of the Sunday Times leapt with joy at the publication of this report, exclaiming: “Amid all the fine talk of excellence and wider access lay the unspoken admission that what British higher education needed to revitalise itself were two bogeymen of old Labour: market forces and elitism,” adding that the “stage is set for a multi-tiered higher education system, from the elite and expensive to the cheap and cheerful.”

The thrust of the proposals outlined in Labour’s report is that, as from 2006, universities will be able to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year and research funding will be concentrated on the best centres.

The government’s proposals are sought to be justified by it and its supporters on a variety of spurious grounds, spurious from the point of view of the interests of society in general, but which make perfect sense from the standpoint of the greedy and profit-driven system that capitalism is. Here are some of the justifications offered in support of these proposals:

(1) that they will give more ‘freedom’ to the universities and reduce their dependence on Whitehall; (2)

(3) that they will put an end to the shortage of funding; (4)

(5) that they will raise standards by forcing school-leavers to “question whether a degree is for them and whether the expected benefits in terms of higher earnings justify the expense” (Financial Times, 15 May 2003); (6)

(7) that those who benefit must pay, it being said that an average graduate commands £400,000 more in wages over a lifetime than a non-graduate; (8)

(9) that (don’t laugh) the present system is inequitable whereunder general taxation of the people of modest means (an argument never employed in the field of military expenditure, and, in any case, why not tax the rich more?) pays for the education of students who largely come from more affluent backgrounds and are likely to earn more after graduation; (10)

(11) that the new scheme will ensure better quality control than government regulation for good quality education, the assertion goes, will attract students and teachers to the best institutions, Harvard and Yale in the US being cited as the examples. (12)

All in all, it is the contention of the supporters of Labour’s proposals that “equality and excellence [are] awkward bedfellows” (Sunday Times, 26 January 2003) and that only a package of differential fees, scholarships and income contingent loans can deliver excellence, produce world-class research and technology transfer, widen social mixture of the British universities’ intake, increase their market share of international students and enable them to take a global lead in digital learning.

All the above arguments amount to no more than a support for a differential system of education, with some institutions emerging as the elite places attracting by and large a student population from privileged backgrounds who can afford to pay, and leaving the rest to struggle for their existence as “cheap and cheerful” repositories for the poorer sections of the population. The money that will be saved through these measures is no more than a paltry £2.5 billion a year – about 1p on the income tax. On top of hitting students from the working class, these proposals are bound to hit the lower and middle end of the petty bourgeoisie, for they are very big consumers of HE. It is therefore a very big gamble, which the Labour government is prepared to take in the wider interests of British monopoly capital. When the Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), wanting to derive electoral advantage from the expected discontent on the part of those most affected by the introduction of top-up fees as from 2006, came out in opposition to this measure, the Financial Times castigated him for casting away the age-old Conservative values of self-reliance (standing on one’s own feet), university independence and academic excellence, saying that “Tuition fees tick all the three boxes, which is why Mr Duncan Smith’s decision to oppose them is so deplorable.”

We know already what the introduction of tuition fees means for working-class students. Whereas in 1991-92, the percentage of children from poor backgrounds attending university stood at 13%, at the end of the decade, after the introduction of fees and the abolition of student grants, the figure was down to 7%, despite some universities’ efforts to broaden their intake (research by the Institute of Education). And this is when student fees were £1,000 a year.

Top-up fees and student loans

It is expected that as soon as 2006 arrives, the top 20, if not 40, universities will charge their students the maximum allowed. As the level of fees charged is discretionary, the top universities and popular courses would attract the maximum, while others will have to make do with smaller sums, thus creating a 2-tier system of HE, such as the one in existence in the US, on which Labour’s proposals are modelled. It will create a system in which the rich will get to pick a course of their choice at an institution of their choice, while the poorer students will have to choose and a course and an institution based on budget – in other words, no one will willingly enrol for what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as “a Noddy degree at a Noddy college”, to use the cynically frank language of Mr David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford. While at present, despite inequality of resources, many non-elite institutions are able to offer at least some very good courses (even if they are naturally derided as ´Noddy’ by elitist snobs), this will become increasingly impossible when these iniquitous funding arrangements get under way. The position of elite institutions will be further still strengthened as the bastions of privilege. In such a system, there will be no dreaming spires and glittering prizes for the poor. And, under it, the relations between institutions and students will be strictly those between businesses and their customers, with value for money being the driving force of their ethos. If the expression “fees” is replaced with “price”, one can easily gauge that the concept of buying HE is not that different from purchasing anything – a holiday, say, choosing between a cruise on a luxury liner and your ordinary Butlins or a few days at a caravan site. It is only a question of time before it gives rise to the birth and growth of corporate universities, just as in the US, whose interests are intertwined with the corporations that spawn them.

As a sop to the not so well off, the government proposes to scrap up-front fees in favour of interest-free loans payable through the tax system later when debtor-graduates earning more than £15,000 a year will be required to pay l9% of any earnings above that level to clear their debt. For a graduate emerging with a student debt of £21,000, on a starting salary of £18,000 rising to £40,000 after 10 years, it would take 14 years to pay it off. “In some cases, graduates will be paying at a higher rate than billionaires”, wrote Nick Davies in The Observer of 26 January this year. And this at a time when the FSA has warned that 1 in 5 families is having trouble with debt repayment and the government is advising people to start saving now for their retirement.

Further, to soften the blow, under the proposals, students from households with incomes of under £10,000 a year would get a full grant, whereas those below £20,000 would get some funding. And there will be an access regulator to see to it that the poor do not get excluded.

In the US, from where the idea of student loans is borrowed, after inflation, student debts have jumped by 22%. 4 out of 6 graduates in California have “unacceptable debts”. The New Jersey Law Journal says that the medium debt for a law graduate is in the order of £46,000, with the result that most graduates do not take on public service employment because it does not pay enough. Although no one can with certainty tell what would be the effect of this system on Britain’s future doctors, lawyers and public servants, the government admits that students in the years to come could emerge from university courses with debts of £21,000 or more – adding, however, that graduates earn 50% more over their working lives than non-graduates and must therefore pay for their university education.

Apart from the fact that higher earnings will attract higher taxation, this higher earning premium depends on the university attended, the course completed and the type of employment after graduation. Most of those who take on public employment or completed an arts degree earn in many cases less than non-graduates with two A-levels.

In order to meet the expanding demand for HE, the government first increased the intake of old universities. Then, as from 1 April 1993, Higher Education Colleges – 450 of them – were taken out of LEA control and converted into independent companies in a process known as incorporation. They compete with each other in the race to enrol the maximum number of students. 5 years ago, the Times Educational Supplement (TES) reported, on 27 March 1998, the case of an intruder at night into a South Birmingham College. On being caught, he intruder was told by the College authorities: enrol or we call the police. Naturally the intruder enrolled and left with a Fine Arts degree, whereupon the College coined a recruitment slogan, ‘intruders will be enrolled’. Now the government plans to convert Further Education Colleges (which take students between the ages of 16-18) into ‘universities’, offering 2-year vocational degrees, which concentrate on learning in tick box style, with tasks broken down into ‘competencies’. The pretended rationale for the acquisition of such skills without knowledge is the alleged need for education to be relevant to real life, the need for introducing an element of parity between vocational and academic learning, and the need to build “a knowledge economy for the 21st century in which there are no barriers to people with talent or ambition” (from the Mission Statement of the recently-established Learning and Skills Council, which has a £7 billion annual budget to fund all post-16 education except that which takes place in the universities.

If by competency what was meant was being able to demonstrate the ability to put theoretical knowledge into effective practice this would be a real advance. Sadly, what tends to meant in practice is the ability to demonstrate competence in tasks that require no understanding of anything but merely the ability to follow a routine correctly, be it answering the phone in a business environment or repairing a gearbox.

The truth is that the whole enterprise is geared to cheapening the cost of labour power and to relieve employers of the burden of providing on-the-job training.

The provision of HE itself is being done on the cheap through outsourcing, getting rid of full-time staff and replacing them with part-timers, through sub-contracting agencies. The Education Lecturing Service (ELS), a company offering colleges subcontracted lecturing staff, is recognised by the Association of Colleges (AoC) which represents college managements. ELS, though established only in 1995, has more than 40,000 qualified lecturers on its books. Presently 4 out of every 6 lecturers work on temporary contracts. They have no time for tutorials or work of a pastoral nature. In this system, while real education flies out of the window, in through the front door come norms that not so long ago were the exclusive preserve of ordinary businesses, with their emphasis on customer relations, balance sheets and profit and loss.

Agenda driven by monopoly capital

The main driving force behind Labour’s (and earlier on the Tories’) education policy is the interests of big business. This policy emanates from the OECD, the EU and the European Round Table (ERT), a group of 45 chiefs of European companies from 16 countries – the most powerful lobby group of European monopoly capitalists. Imperialism, characterised by the export of capital and the need to maximise profits, needs a competence-based curriculum (not knowledge as a means of human liberation), with the emphasis on flexibility and adaptability, citizenship for social cohesion, information and communication technology as top priorities. It goes without saying that we are not against the learning of either IT or the talent of flexibility or the ability to adapt oneself to the changing needs and requirements of life – these being very useful skills for the individual as well as society. But what happens under capitalism is that the whole teaching comes down to narrowing and hemming in the outlook of the students and restricting them to strict technical tasks, and the inculcation of social attitudes which are solely channelled into the maximisation of profit for monopoly capital. Under such a system of education, for the majority of the children, the purpose of education – to develop an all-round individual possessing both the necessary competences and technical skills and a wider view of the world – simply flies out of the window. It implies increasing regulation of teachers and more diversity and differentiation in schooling to service a differentiated labour market.

This process began in the 1970’s with the end of the post-war boom. In Britain it was ushered in through James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech, in which he called for education to be responsive to industry. It was translated into policy through the Tory education ‘reforms’ – a process further accelerated by the present Labour government. It seeks to harness and subordinate education, as never before, to the needs of capitalist profits, while a pretence is maintained of defending the interests of the disadvantaged and under-achieving students. The hypocritical language of social democracy merely serves (as did that of its Tory predecessors) to hide the selfish origin and aims of a policy whose sole purpose is to be of service to monopoly capital.


The Blairs, Blunketts, Morrises and Clarkes of this world are not the progenitors of this education policy. They are merely the hod carriers of capital, the translators of the agenda of European capital into practical policy in the British context. Capital demands that schools move away from a knowledge-based to a competence-led curriculum, for the labour market does not require all its potential workers educated to a uniformly common high standard. In their National Curriculum, which attempted to provide a “broad and balanced” curriculum for all until the age of 16, the Tories obviously deviated from the employers’ agenda. It had to be dismantled. It has been steadily dismantled at key stage 4 because of its alleged unsuitability for the less academically inclined, in keeping with EU policy.

“It is necessary”, said the ERT in 1993 “to increase the richness and diversity of education and training to provide European economies with all the necessary competences for an efficient and competitive industry.”

When monopoly capital demands, capitalist politicians obey with total medieval subservience. Tory and Labour governments have done everything in the field of education, as in every other field, that was required of them by their imperialist masters.

As the crisis of overproduction sharpens the contradictions between capital and labour, schools are told to give citizenship training to their pupils as a means of shoring up social cohesion. Socialisation, says the EU (previously the EC), into the ‘world of work’ is central to the citizenship curriculum. The ERT deplores that “industry has only a very weak influence over programmes taught”, that “teachers have insufficient understanding of the economic environment, business and notion of profit … and don’t understand the needs of industry.”

The EU wants to change the deep-rooted public service ethos among teachers through greater flexibility on the part of the teachers, the establishment of objectives, receptivity towards the user and competition, especially that of the private sector, through teaching career structures which reward performance and through the abandonment of the system of teaching appointments being for life.

In response to the ERT’s demands for privatisation of schools, governments starve the schools of funds so as to privatise, in stages, the provision of education. Hence the pursuit of a policy of increased selection and differentiation, the drive towards commercialisation and privatisation, the hankering after commercial sponsorship of schools, business partnerships with the LEA’s, and a work-related curriculum.

(For the words appearing in quotation marks and much of the information appearing under this concluding sub-heading, the writer of this article is indebted to The business agenda behind Labour’s education policy by Richard Hatcher and Nico Hirtt).

The proletariat needs to oppose the above business-driven education agenda in order to free education from the vice-like grip of monopoly capitalism. In the final analysis it comes down to the struggle of the proletariat to free society from capitalism itself, for only in a society free from the exploitation of one human being by another, and of one nation by another, will it be possible to provide truly universal education of a very high standard to all – an education as an instrument of human liberation rather than as a means of enhancing the profits of a tiny clique of exploiters. Only in such a society will it cease to be necessary to find excuses for discarding a certain percentage of the population as surplus to the needs of production.


[1] If Britain’s school children are the most tested in the world, its school teachers are the most inspected. This is how a report in the Times Educational Supplement describes the teacher of an NVQ student being observed by a posse of inspectors:

“An inspector watching a training inspector watching a national vocational qualification (NVQ) assessor who was being observed by the internal verifier whose systems were being checked by the external verifier during a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) spot check.”

This whole charade would be truly funny if it weren’t so tragic.

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