Gavin Williamson in Westminster, May 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles Gavin Williamson in Westminster, May 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

Lindsey German on Tory education and why socialists defend refugees

I don’t know which genius devised the scheme for awarding exam results this year. Did they really think that no one would notice? The system has boosted those in private education (again), discriminated against those in poorer areas, at one stroke denied many students the places at university their teachers think they clearly deserve, and caused maximum stress and confusion to students, parents, teachers and anyone else who cares about education. 

In a year when everyone has suffered from the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown, when the virus has been found to exacerbate already existing inequalities of race and class, when mass unemployment looms on a scale not seen for nearly 40 years, it beggars belief that this is a year when the government decides to kick large numbers of state school pupils in the teeth. But that is exactly what Gavin Williamson, Nick Gibb and Boris Johnson have all done.

Now we have further confusion about the appeals system – issued then withdrawn by the mealy mouthed Ofqual (no I don’t feel sorry for these regulatory bodies which dance to the government’s tune), and a situation where many students will have to defer taking up university places for a year. It looks like the same process will take place this week for GCSE students, with students downgraded and therefore not able to take up sixth form places or vocational training.

We should never underestimate the extent to which this government holds working class people in contempt, and the education fiasco of recent months shows it. I don’t want to repeat the many excellent arguments about the exam grades, but to make a couple of more general points about the whole system.

The first is that the exam system and indeed the whole way in which the education process is set up is drenched in class prejudice in which very large numbers of children are destined to fail. This has pretty much always been the case despite the very good efforts of campaigners especially in the 1960s and 70s to introduce a genuinely comprehensive teaching system. The maintenance of grammar schools and of the private sector ensures that such an egalitarian system is denied.  

Only seven percent of students go to private schools yet these are held up as the benchmark for all. Parents know that they are in a system of payment for results, and indeed their children end up in the ‘top’ universities and the elite jobs. All the advantages of small classes, extensive grounds and individual tutoring are enhanced by an extensive curriculum including drama and music. In state schools, the opposite happens: classes are bigger, there is an intense concentration on core subjects and a downgrading of the arts, languages, history.

Under successive governments – going right back to Labour’s James Callaghan in the 1970s – there has been an attempt to push out innovative and progressive teaching methods, more emphasis on a narrow curriculum, an obsession with testing and exams, and the development of a two tier education system where elite schools feed elite universities to which a tiny number of working class students are admitted.

The exam system is the Frankenstein’s monster of this process. Yet the exam system is massively flawed, encouraging narrow specialisation, teaching to the test and learning by rote. They encourage competition rather than any collective learning or cooperation. Which leads to my second point – why does anyone assume that a single day’s exam result, which in any case will be marked subjectively by individual markers, is superior to the judgment of teachers and their colleagues in assessing the abilities or otherwise of students?

In any logical or egalitarian system it would be the other way round. Teachers have the experience, personal knowledge and professional judgement to assess their students, and their recommendations should be regarded as more worthwhile than a snapshot exam. That they aren’t tells you about the ideological drive of successive governments to denigrate the teaching profession in a way that would never happen to doctors, lawyers or any other group.

The Tories’ response to the scrapping of exams due to the coronavirus crisis reflects this mentality. There are no exams, but teachers cannot be trusted so a dodgy algorithm is brought in which downgrades 40% of their assessments. This is all about preserving the integrity of the exam system and ensuring that in future years it goes ‘back to normal’. Ironically it may have the opposite effect, as people see the arbitrary nature of the exam results and consider that other ways of assessing students might just be better and fairer.  

Gavin Williamson should of course resign – something which the lamentable Starmer shadow cabinet seems incapable of demanding – but this latest fiasco is only one out of many in the last few months. Lack of PPE, lack of testing, complete complacency over the spread of the virus, conflicting messages, starting lockdown too late and ending it too early, refusing to give nurses a pay rise, curtailing the furlough scheme, allowing landlords to evict. The list goes on.

Now we face mass unemployment without furlough pay, where millions will find themselves dependent on state benefits which are simply brutally inadequate to live on. This government has made clear that it will do nothing for working people without being forced into it. We must demand now decent unemployment and sick pay, green job creation schemes and the demand that companies cannot sack and then rehire workers on worse pay and conditions. The unions have to step up to the mark here – they should not be recommending deals, like the one rumoured at British Airways, which accept some of these worse conditions.

Labour has been nothing short of pathetic right through the crisis. It is clear to me that Starmer will only make timid criticisms when public opinion has already moved well ahead of him. So increasingly we are going to have to rely on our own organisation to fight back.

Time to tell the truth

There’s nothing the Tories like more than a good war or a scapegoating witch-hunt. This week we got both. The anniversary of VJ Day was commemorated in a way that I never remember before, with lengthy items all over the BBC and a two minute’s silence. There was terrible suffering on the Burma railway and in the Japanese camps, and that should be commemorated. But I saw little about how the war ended, with the terrible nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the huge numbers of Japanese casualties. Nor did I see any reflection of the hatred of the British empire in the far east, when many of the empire’s subjects, from Singapore to India, saw the Axis powers as a lesser evil. If there is going to be an establishment and media obsession with the Second World War, can we at least be given the whole picture, instead of this grotesque flag waving Little Englandism?

Out of that war came all sorts of legal safeguards for the protection of refugees. They still exist, but Priti Patel wants to engage in her own form of gunboat diplomacy and send back the tiny handful of refugees who are crossing the very dangerous English Channel in rubber dinghies. Unfortunately this sort of scapegoating has some impact, especially in periods of crisis. Which is why everyone who knows that the scapegoating is based on lies, that this is not an invasion, that these people are escaping war and displacement, and that we can easily welcome them to this rich country, has a duty to say so.

In particular Labour has a duty to do so. I don’t believe for a minute that Starmer accepts the Tory lies. Certainly recent polling showed Labour supporters much more sympathetic to the refugees that Tories. Starmer himself was a fanatical campaigner for a second referendum, at least in part on the basis of freedom of movement. But that’s all gone quiet now we are talking about black and brown people from outside Europe. Labour’s leadership thinks that by appeasing those who want to scapegoat it will win Labour votes back in the north and Midlands. Instead, the process will only make it harder to win the argument. And that will benefit the racists and the Tories.    

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.