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  • Published in Analysis

Neil Faulkner argues that the attack on education represented by ‘free schools’ is one front of the class war launched by the Con-Dem government.

Michael Gove

Con-Dem education minister Michael Gove has announced that any suitable group of ‘proposers’ will henceforward have the right to set up a ‘free school’ - one funded by government, but outside local authority control. Potential proposers include parents, teachers, charities, universities, independent schools, community and faith groups, and, of course, businesses.

Anyone, it seems, can do it. ‘A Free School could be set up by any suitable proposer, where there is evidence of parental demand such as a petition or declaration from interested parents’.

How many parents do you need? No answer. What consultation process is required? No answer. What democratic control? No answer. ‘The Secretary of State will consider each proposal on its merits ...’

So Gove will decide. He will decide whether whether the budget for a state school is handed over to private business on the say-so of a bunch of middle-class parents meeting in someone’s living-room. Irrespective of what anyone else thinks. Irrespective of the impact on local schools provision.

And in case takers are slow to come forward, Gove’s department is actively lobbying headteachers and governing bodies, with the usual mix of bribes, inducements, and promises.

Meantime, 1,700 existing schools are applying for ‘academy’ status, encouraged by the active lobbying of Gove’s department, which has sent letters out to headteachers and governing bodies, with the usual mix of bribes, inducements, and promises.

Three Tory lies

The Tories claim that free schools will give parents more choice, narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor, and drive up standards across the system. Each claim is a lie. It is worth exposing the lies so that we are clear that these are not the real reasons for ‘free schools’. There is a hidden agenda.

‘Parental choice’ is an empty political slogan. What we all want is a good local school for our kids. To maximise the number of people for whom this ‘choice’ can be realised, we have to distribute educational resources as evenly as possible. This involves central planning informed by egalitarian aspiration.

Anything less than this reduces ‘choice’. The reason for this is simple. If it is deliberate policy to increase the differences between schools, the gap between ‘good schools’ and the rest will widen. Some parents will then get their choice of a ‘good school’; many others will be disappointed.

The second lie concerns the achievement gap between kids from different backgrounds. The gap is relatively small at the start of schooling, but widens through the school years. The phenomenon was studied by the Robbins Report, an official government report published in 1963. At the age of 8, test-score results ranged from an average of 57 for ‘upper-middle class’ kids to 48 for the ‘lower manual working class’.

This was a significant difference, reflecting a range of social factors. What was truly alarming - to Robbins and the Tory government of the time - was the way schools then widened the gap. The key watershed was the ‘11-plus’ test: success for around 20% of mainly middle-class kids meant they went to prestigious ‘grammar schools’; failure for the other 80% of mainly working-class kids meant they went to ‘secondary modern schools’.

The stigma of failure was extreme: secondary modern kids often became alienated and anti-school. Most left school as soon as they could. As a result, the children of fathers in professional or managerial jobs were 20 times more likely to go to university than those of fathers in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs.

Comprehensive education

The British economy was growing fast at the time, the demand for skilled labour was rising, and business was worried about more techno-savvy foreign competition. Under both Tory and Labour governments, education funding increased, and new ‘comprehensive’ schools were created from the amalgamation of grammars and secondary moderns across most of Britain.

Comprehensives were imperfect. Streaming, testing, and labelling continued to discriminate and demoralise. But at least all kids were in the same schools, with the same teachers, facilities, and opportunities. The effects were dramatic.

One major study of three cohorts of Scottish school-leavers, embracing a large sample of 40,000 pupils, reached the following conclusions about comprehensive education: 1) examination attainment rose continuously as the system developed for all occupational groups; 2) the gap between the top three occupational groups (non-manual) and the bottom three (manual) was narrowed; and 3) this reduction took the form of a levelling up of working-class achievement.

Right-wing commentators have been hurling abuse at comprehensives since the late 1970s. They lower standards. They hold back the more able. They waste time on ‘trendy’ non-essentials like multiculturalism. All lies. Again and again, educational research shows the opposite is true.

In Hertfordshire, between 1968, when it started going comprehensive, and 1975, the number of pupils staying on to take GCE and CSE exams increased by 24%, the number of GCE and CSE Grade 1 passes (equivalent of today’s GCSEs) by 95%.

The General Household Survey of 1988 examined three groups: the first educated before comprehensivisation, the second during its spread, the third after the system was established across most of the country. The proportion of kids leaving school without any qualifications dropped sharply across all occupational groups: from 5 to 3% for professionals, 23 to 11% for managers, 27 to 8% for upper white-collar, 24 to 13% for lower white-collar, 40 to 23% for skilled manual, 52 to 26% for semi-skilled manual, and 56 to 30% for unskilled manual.

More recent research appears to show two things. First, the narrowing of the achievement gap has stopped since the attack on comprehensive education began in the late 1970s; indeed, there is some evidence that it has actually widened again. Second, ‘choice’, in so far as it benefits anyone, benefits the middle class. Leading education researchers Jo Blanden and Sandra McNally conclude that future progress depends on ‘whether the Government can distribute the potential benefits evenly and prevent better-off parents from obtaining the lion’s share’.

The implication is that Gove’s free schools and academies, by exacerbating differences, by creating division, inequality, and stigma, by destroying the principle and practice of comprehensive education, will have the opposite effect. The implication is that they will both lower achievement and widen the gap.

This is confirmed by recent experience in Sweden, the principal model for Gove’s free schools. Per Thulberg, who runs the Swedish school system, is unequivocal that free schools do not produce better results. Sweden now has more than 1,000 free schools, introduced by a right-wing government in the 1990s, and the country has slipped down the international league table for pupil performance in the period since.

We should never underestimate the stupidity of the ruling class. But in this case, all they have to do is read the research. If they choose the advice of the Daily Mail on education policy over that of government-funded academic research, it is because they have a hidden agenda. You do not have to delve very deep to find out what it is.

Learning to labour

Education is riddled with contradictions. Employers need workers who are educated to varying degrees. The average level of education required tends to rise over time as technology both becomes more sophisticated and changes more rapidly. On the other hand, educated workers tend to be more confident and better informed, increasing the possibility that they will organise and resist workplace exploitation. Education under capitalism is therefore double-edged.

It is also expensive. When the system is booming and the demand for labour high, the tendency is for education spending to rise. Between 1955 and 1969, the proportion of national wealth spent on education roughly doubled as new schools and universities were built in the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’. But this, too, is contradictory. State education is a cost imposed on capital. When the economy slows and stagnates, this matters more, the coin flips, and education spending is cut back.

These contradictions underlay the attack on comprehensive education which began in the late 1970s and has continued ever since. The hidden agenda was explained by a senior official of the Department of Education and Science in 1984:

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 creating frustrations with perhaps disturbing 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 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.

The economic slump which began in 1973, deepened by Tory cuts in 1981, had raised unemployment to 3 million by the mid 1980s. There was now ‘overproduction’ of education. Standards had been raised too high. The achievement gap had been narrowed too much. Young British workers were too highly educated. Because of this, they no longer ‘knew their place’.

Class malice

Since the mid 1970s, the right-wing attack on comprehensive education has taken the form of ritualised repetition of a trio of lies: ‘falling standards’, ‘failing schools’, and ‘bad teachers’. If these are the problems, the solutions must be to ‘raise’ standards, ‘turn around’ failing schools, and ‘weed out’ bad teachers. And to achieve this, we require an apparatus of testing, inspection, and reform.

The purpose of these ideas is to screen the class malice at the heart of the project. The real aim is to cut costs, to avoid ‘wasting’ resources on educating working-class kids, and to ensure that schools socialise them to have low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and low expectations.

Schools have to mirror society. If they do not - if instead they offer a taste of an alternative world of personal creativity, achievement, and fulfilment - they threaten the social and political order.

To mirror society, three tiers of schools are needed. For the richest 5% or so, for cabinet ministers and those they represent, there are public schools, where, typically, spending per pupil is ten times that in the state sector.

For the next 20% or so, the managers and higher professionals who wield power in the workplace, receive large salaries, and form the junior officer class of capital and the state, there need to be ‘good schools’ that will provide the education, skills, and self-confidence necessary for them to play their roles in life effectively.

For the rest, for the working class of lower professionals, white-collar workers, and manual workers, who make up around 75% of the population, second-rate schools will do, especially for the majority of this group, who are destined for routine labour, or even for the ‘reserve army’ of unemployed and casually employed.

Our rulers cannot proclaim this agenda. They cannot launch a direct attack on comprehensive education. They have to argue that raising standards, closing the achievement gap, and improving the chances of the poorest are their goals. They dare not declare their hatred for working-class advancement through education.

Free schools and private profit

But this is the root of their hidden agenda. The aim is to reconstruct the ‘tripartite system’ of the 1950s. Grammar schools by another name for the middle class. Secondary moderns by another name for the working class.

Under Thatcher in the 1980s, we had ‘opted-out schools’ and ‘city technology colleges’ and ‘grant-maintained schools’. Under Blair, we had ‘academies’. (Trust Blair to get the spin right. ‘Academy’ sounds posh. The first academy was set up by Plato to educate young toffs in Ancient Greece. A perfect name for an elitist school.)

Now, alongside New Labour ‘academies’, we have Con-Dem ‘free schools’. The basic idea is the same. To allow pretty well any old self-appointed group to remove entire schools from local education authority (LEA) control. Even Tory councillors understand the implications. As the Tory leader of Kent County Council explained, ‘The more academies and free schools you operate, under the current academy funding arrangements, the less maintained schools would get.’

LEAs are democratically accountable and have the power to distribute educational resources in planned, rational, equitable, and socially effective ways. To break them up and have school competing against school will exacerbate difference, increase inequality, and drive down overall achievement.

More than that: it will open state education even further to the profiteers. They are waiting in the wings. ‘Running a school is quite complicated,’ explained Anders Hultin, chief executive of something called ‘Global Management Education Systems’ (or ‘Gems’ as it likes to be known). ‘It can’t just be handed over to amateurs.’ Of course not: it requires the ‘professionals’ of, yes, you guessed it, Global Management Education Systems. ‘We are exploring opportunities right now, supporting groups of parents. That’s a natural starting-point.’

A natural starting-point, that is, for exploiting the new commercial opportunity represented by Con-Dem free schools. Gems, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, already runs 12 private schools in Britain, but it now openly aspires to run state-financed schools. Needless to say, there are many others like it.


The long-term aim of Con-Dem education policy is selection by ability, a class-divided education system, and schools under the control of profiteers.

Every proposed academy or free school should be met by a mass campaign of teachers, parents, kids, and communities, uniting to defend state education, equal opportunity, and democratic control. And while we are at it, we should boycott their tests and sabotage their league tables, since this is the mechanism by which they stigmatise our children, our schools, and entire working-class communities.

The Con-Dem government has launched a class war. We are under attack on many fronts. We need to understand this and organise to fight back on every front. School education is not the least of them.

Tagged under: Class
Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.