Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire W. B. Yeats
There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which society cannot match. In some ways this points to the success of education in contrast to the public mythology which has been created. When young people drop off the education production line and cannot find work at all, or work which meets their abilities and expectations, then we are only creating frustration with perhaps disturbing social consequences. We have to select: to ration the educational opportunities so that society can cope with the output of education. We are in a period of considerable social change. There may be social unrest, but we can cope with the Toxteths. But if we have a highly educated and idle population we may possibly anticipate more serious social conflict. People must be educated once more to know their place.
Anonymous senior official at the Department for Education and Science (1984) quoted by Brian Simon in Bending the Rules: the Baker Reform of Education (1988).
A vast chasm separates modern capitalist notions of what education is all about from the ideas of socialists. At bottom the purpose of schools in liberal capitalist societies has been to teach us to “know our place”. As the needs of the economy and the type of workforce required has changed, so too has the education system, but in the last analysis it has been concerned to train rather than educate.
Learning for its own sake - that is something reserved for the few, in private schools or some of the old state grammars.
We are socialists and we think that education should let young people know their potential rather than their place, it should be a force for self-liberation rather than imprisonment. We are also realists, though, and we know that as long as we live in a society where all the means of producing wealth are owned and controlled by a tiny and powerful elite, the formal school system will never properly serve the majority of children.
Since 1979 Conservative, and then, shamefully, New Labour governments have worked hard to tear up what progress had been made in the post war period and impose a return to a narrow functional Gradgrind curriculum. This assault has been based on the gross lie that the comprehensive model “failed” compared to the old selective system. It failed to receive the political and financial support necessary to let it flower, but even without that it provided a more positive experience for working-class children than the spirit-crushing secondary modern.
All socialists have a role to play in defending and enriching state-provided comprehensive education. There is, however, a central and irreplaceable role for those people who are at the “chalk-face”. AWL teachers are concerned not only with the defence of our working conditions and pay, but also with developing an alternative vision of education and fighting for a school system fit for our children and young people. At the workplace, in the unions and in the community we fight for free, high quality and well-resourced education for all.
As teachers we are all members of the largest trade union, the NUT, not only because it is the largest but because it is the only one to have a relatively democratic structure. In common with the majority of British trade unions at the beginning of the new millennium, however, it has been led by people who believe that militant combative unionism is dead and that the only way to survive in the future is to convince the employers that we pose no real threat.
That outlook has taken a considerable bashing in the last few years, and it has been particularly discredited in schools. Social partnership, as it is called, is the current fashion across the trade union movement. In education it has delivered only pay cuts, super-exploitation of underpaid support staff and the dilution of the teaching work-force.
The NUT has remained outside this social partnership, and that is very much to its credit. The current union leadership has been very keen to insist, however, that it is this particular form of social partnership they oppose rather than the concept as a whole. We are opposed to social partnership in principle and counterpose to it social solidarity and independent militant trade unionism.
There are two left groups in in the NUT, the Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) and the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU). They have separate histories, but they both fight on similar issues. The union leadership is fond of denouncing all this as factionalism but the truth is that they too have their organisation; it is called, with a double dishonesty, the Broadly Speaking. It is no less assertive than the others, but it is less open and more secretive.
For the most part the existence of these organisations is no more than the inevitable and perfectly healthy coming together of like-minded activists to ensure a hearing for alternative directions in a very large union.
Workers’ Liberty teachers are members of both the STA and the CDFU, largely as a token of our long-held belief that they should merge. There is no good reason for the existence of two separate left groupings in the NUT. It is a luxury which often costs us and the members dear, and we are ardently in favour of left unity.
Even more indulgent is the periodic decisions of two of the main socialist organisations to opt in and out of these broader groups. The SWP are currently back in the STA after years of self-imposed exile. The Socialist Party, however, have gone off to do their own thing.
In a more sober and serious-minded left the need for a common approach and a drive to build a rank and file movement across the union would take priority over such short-termism.
Socialism is more than just a vision of a better society. It is the name given to the movement built to make it a reality. In the words of the Irish socialist James Connolly “we carve out the world of which we speak”. We are union activists organised in the teachers fraction of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. In our schools, local union branches and in the structures of the National Union of Teachers we are engaged in the fight not only to defend what remains of the comprehensive model from New Labour and Tory attempts to destroy it but to win genuinely equal and free education for all.
That requires the devotion of a large part of our time and energies. It means linking up with our comrades in the student movement who fight against fees and for free education beyond school. It means making connections with socialists throughout the labour movement who are fighting for a welfare state based on need and a democratic trade union movement unshackled from the draconian union laws imposed on us in the 1980s.
Ultimately it means taking on the wider question of who should rule society and how; the question of government.
Whether through the remains of the Labour left, the Labour affiliated trade unions or the emerging electoral challenges to New Labour we are for a new kind of government. We are for a “Workers’ Government”, representative of, and accountable to, the people and organisations who created it and put it there.
We would ask people who read the material here and like what they read to contact Workers’ Liberty teachers, discuss these ideas with us and to consider joining us in that fight for a free education system in a classless society.