03 August 2007
The British education system: an answer to Johann Hari
The writer Johann Hari has an interesting piece in The Independent in which he attacks the British comprehensive education system. To summarise his points, he writes that "class polarisation in our schools" leads to the children of the wealthy being educated in "schools that select by mortgage price," while the rest go to "warehouse schools, where the sheer concentration of kids from disadvantaged and troubled families creates a resentful culture that shuns learning." Hari makes the point that his parents, who left school at 15, were both educated at places that "had all the local kids, of all backgrounds, so a ghetto mindset never set in."
This argument strikes this reader as being flawed on several levels. The first and most obvious point is that Hari's parents obviously went to a secondary modern, because they were the schools that turfed everyone out at 15, prior to the raising of the school leaving age in the early 1970s. This writer was educated at a secondary modern and left school at 15, but by no stretch of the imagination could it be said that the school educated children "of all backgrounds". The classes have been well segregated since industrialisation began and the children of the middle class were nowhere to be seen at any working class school. A local secondary school in a working class district educated the local children, and the only mixing that went on was between the offspring of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled parents.
However, to broaden the debate out, this writer wants to take issue with the Hari argument in general, which is that the comprehensive system has failed in some way. It hasn't: it does exactly what it is supposed to do.
The British class system has always been open ended and talented fellows like Johann Hari have always got on - there is nothing new about that. To give just two examples, Ted Heath was the son of a coal merchant, and Roy Jenkins the son of a Welsh miner who was imprisoned during the General Strike of 1926.
What both these men - and Johann Hari - have in common is Oxbridge. The two universities take the brightest and the best from the working class and turn them into smooth, plump members of the establishment: Roy Jenkins was a wonderful example of that.
For the rest, that is to say, those who cannot make it to Oxbridge, the system has always had two functions:
Firstly, it provides jobs for the lower-middle class who work as its teachers and administrators. This has always been the case, and the only thing that has changed over recent years are the numbers involved. Thanks to the expansion of the higher education system over the past 20 years, something has to be found for the over ambitious, but lowly talented products of the polytechnics. They become teachers, educational social workers or local authority education managers. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the education industry doesn't benefit them, and for that reason they will fight like cats to keep it the way it is?
Secondly, schools work perfectly for what they were designed to do, and that is turn out factory fodder. Children arrive on time when the bell rings because one day they will have to arrive on time at work. The teachers try to instil respect into the children because the working class needs to know its place and show respect for the employer - so let's teach them that at an early age.
Why does the working class not object? Largely because they can see through the con and ignore the teachers. Children are taught by their parents not to make waves and just get it over with. That's how the parents got through school, and that is what they instil in their children.
This does not mean that we as a class are anti-education. Parents can remember when education began at the age of 15, when a child left school and started an apprenticeship. The unions used to have education departments and many people, myself included, went to the local redbrick university's extra-mural department to take classes.
Some of us went on to university in later life, and I will never forget my parent's pride the day I left Manchester to drive to Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1983. Those same parents had been completely indifferent to my school life because they recognised it for what it was, but Ruskin was different: Ruskin was about education.
So, the education industry works fine at what it does. It provides jobs for the boys and teaches the children to obey the rules and keep their mouths shut.
In an unrelated piece, Neil Clark argues:
This rather reinforces my point: the education system works fine
What turbo-capitalism wants is not a cultured, well-educated working class whose members read Huxley, play chess and debate political issues, but materialistic, under-educated consumers: people who will unleash their frustrations at living such unfulfilled, alienated lives not through anti-capitalist agitation and questioning the structure of society but by getting "smashed" each and every weekend.