Sunday 16 March 2014

Big push to make education the next big market.

Because of the way education has become a matter of what any Secretary of State for Education wants, it's become very hard to keep up with what's really going on.

So, think back to NewLab who bustled into power shouting, 'Education, education, education' and turned this commitment into a parody of nineteenth century hospital, asylum, prison and school regimes, with every minute of every day laid down. Whether this was good for children or good for teachers doesn't seem to have been debated. It was, in truth, an electoral ruse, cooked up by David Blunkett. He thought that it out-Toried the Tories with its authoritarian, prescriptive and 'disciplined' way of going on, thereby leaving NewLab untouchable, unimpeachable by the Daily Mail (NewLab's criterion of success). That was the theory.

Bit by bit, we figured out that this method and this model wasn't based on any educational principles but was a direct transfer across to education of a business model of training and production. The child was to be 'produced' by the same systems that were being used to produce the labour-power ('skills') of a  'trained' labour force or indeed the same systems used to produce a mass produced car or biscuit: in a sequence of tiny, separate processes enacted on to the trainee or raw material. The fact that human beings (ie the children and school students) are not 'raw material' and that learning doesn't proceed in this tiny step by tiny step way, was irrelevant. It was, supposedly, Daily-Mail proof.

Now, it was possible to criticise this and point it out. I, along, with many others did and we soon discovered that those in authority were impervious to it. That's because they had discovered something else: if parliament has given you absolute power (which is the case with the Secretary of State for Education), you can do whatever you want. For a hundred years or so, education had been run through a system of 'checks and balances' between the ministry, civil servants, the inspectorate, local authorities, teachers' organisations, academics (researchers), and 'Reports' - the big commissions set up by government to research and advise on policy. This new totalitarian method took plenty of us by surprise, particularly as the politicians concerned were rather good at disguising it: they appeared to want to 'listen', they appeared to want to 'consult' even as they did precisely the opposite.

With Gove, we have someone who does a lot of opinionating. He takes centre stage and expresses opinions about learning, culture, history, children, schools and it's very easy to take this at face value. Plenty of us, me included, spend some time trying to read the runes, trying to figure out what his 'ideology' is and then we try to map this ideology on to his 'policy'. We argue with what he is saying.

What if we are wholly or even partially wrong to do this? What if Gove is playing a game? And the game goes like this:

"I, Gove, have a set of opinions about learning, culture and children and I will express these. At the same time, I have a deeper and more important set of convictions about the economy and the 'correct' way for things to be run and organised. Essentially, these tell me, Gove, that the best way to run all (and I mean, all) human affairs is through the market. The market is a place of freedom, it's though the market that people can best express themselves, best get what they want and need. Yes, the market does produce failure but in the end this is all to the good, because failure is produced by bad practice, bad management and bad teaching...and we all hate this, don't we?"

I, Rosen (!), am not going to argue with that for the moment, as I want to run with the consequence of what I think Gove is doing here, if I'm right about where he's at.

So, Gove, finds himself in charge of education - rather than, say, something to do with the economy. The question then for him is not really an educational one (in the way most of us think about education), it's one of how to marketise education. He knows that his problem here, though, is not simply liberal opinion, or 'the left'. He has a problem inside his own camp - 'traditionalists', if you like, who believe in a segregated, state-supervised system. Only very few people within the government believe in the total marketising of education. Put it cynically: they think that the exam-addicted, segregated system gets them the results they want....more or less. That's to say, the consequence of making education a national competition where the distribution of the results is fixed, means that education delivers up a neatly parcelled up segregated workforce, top, middle and a very large bottom ie those who 'fail', don't make the grade.

I think that Gove is working to a slightly different blueprint and Academies and Free Schools are staging posts on the way to what he's after. Academies and Free Schools represent a hybrid between the state system he's working to get rid of, and a fully privatised system he would like to see in its place. We see him hinting at this with his comments about having no objection to schools making a profit. We see this in the removal for the need for teachers in Academies and Free Schools to be qualified - and therefore not unionised. Meanwhile, big corporations are trying to figure out how best to make a raid on 'the curriculum' and Academies are the ideal vehicle. In an ideal world, as far as the corporations are concerned, a 'national' curriculum would simply be an obligatory 'core' curriculum (as is emerging in the USA). The 'education' to 'consume' this obligatory core would then be 'delivered'  by no more than a handful of giant corporations, selling their curriculum software into schools. The core curriculum would only nominally be approved by anyone who knows about education but implemented with great trumpetings about standards and rigour - as happened for example with the imposition of the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar test for 10 and 11 year olds - done with no pilots, no general debate, no research, no evidence. As the test is so reductive and only required 'right and wrong answers' (the Bew Report's own words), it is ripe for being turned into a)software programmes to 'teach' it and b) computer marking.

There are various models for the provision of these 'products', but in the jockeying for power in this new frontier for capitalism, one model is for the provider of the 'platform' (ie the server) to win monopoly control in a given area and off the back of this, to end up as the sole provider of the curriculum as delivered on to school students' tablets and PCs. This seems to be what google is doing in the US, where local councils accept google as the provider of superfast broadband, give them sole rights to provide internet access and the corporation comes in on the back of this with curriculum 'content' for school students' tablets and school interactive white boards.

Meanwhile, any of the present restrictions on corporations running the internal market of schools for their own benefit will be removed. So, we have seen in the US that corporations that sponsor schools also appear on the logos, provide their products within their schools (eg Macdonalds lunches in a Macdonalds sponsored school), and what we presently call 'education' will be geared even more towards the notion that the sole purpose and content of education is in order to provide the 'right' frame of mind to be the 'right' kind of employee. This requires a particular kind of acceptance of routine and authority. It requires a particular kind of passivity and acceptance of all rules and all structures as 'given' and 'correct'. It requires an acceptance that the 'knowledge' and 'skills' being dished up in that school at that time is the sole knowledge and sole skills that are needed or desirable (ie the exact opposite of a questioning, reflective approach to education or indeed the individual student).

We can see this kind of veneration of business and the market within education in the statements from someone like Liz Truss, indicating that what 'business' says about eg 'written communication' is self-evidently right. Or indeed that business leaders are self-evidently the sole voices that should be listened to when it comes to education.

I suggest that what is going on is a major revision of what we understand education to be for and about. Any ideas we might have had that education was somehow separate from 'business' or 'capitalism' will have to be thrown out. It will be even more than it is, part of capitalism. The only exception to this - irony of ironies - may well be the big private schools - which can go on being run as charities and can go on providing a 'liberal' education (music, theatre, art, technological and scientific experiment, debating societies, etc) which incidentally enable its ex-pupils to learn the intellectual apparatus and techniques required to be our rulers and top lawmakers and even some of our top artistic practitioners!