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What went wrong with education? From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery calls for an alternative to the marketisation of our schools and colleges

Frank Coffield and Bill Williamson, From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: The Democratic Route (Institute of Education, Bedford Way Papers 2011), xii, 89pp

The incompatibility of the free market and democracy is perhaps nowhere as clear as in education. The creeping marketisation of the education system under successive governments in the last few decades has taken a flawed system, with promising elements, and turned it into an authoritarian ‘exam factory’. In a capitalist democracy, the boundary of the workplace is the limit through which no democracy can be permitted, and so the term ‘exam factory’ is an entirely apposite epithet. Yet at the same time, institutions of education are expected to compensate for all the inequalities produced by the free market economy, providing that elusive equality of opportunity that somehow legitimises the whole exploitative system. However as Coffield and Williamson state, ‘education cannot be expected to compensate for our grossly unequal society’. Indeed without a wider attack on inequality, ‘education will continue to reproduce it, rather than transforming it’ (p.64). Thus the authors oppose the ‘exam factory’ with their altogether more liberating idea of an education system based on democratic communities.

This short but effective book is partly a pithy critique of the existing education system, which they note is not a system at all but ‘three badly coordinated sectors’ (p.42), also taking on the current programme of ‘reform’. At the same time, it suggests an entirely different agenda for a democratic approach to education. Market-based competition, for all that it champions the notion of individual ‘choice’, brings with it an authoritarian managerialism that suffocates any genuine democratic elements in the system, whether for teachers, lecturers, students, or the community in general. The authors note that the governing coalition’s privatisation policy, ‘free schools’ and state schools for profit, reflects a wish to see ‘a return to a “system” that is differentiated in ways that reflect what they take to be natural and unalterable differences of ability’ (p.35). Whatever the many failings of British state education as it has existed up until now, it presently does need defending from the ‘open hostility of organised right-wing groups who despise public education, but who nevertheless wish to make profits by taking it over’ (p.39).

In opposition to this toxic programme the authors advance their idea of egalitarian democracy in education, with the model of ‘communities of discovery’. Here, it is made clear, teachers would have a direct say in the planning of education policy (teachers’ representatives do elsewhere, in Germany for example), while students should also have a real role in determining their education, more than the tokenistic efforts that presently exist (see p.61). Along the way the authors touch on a wide variety of the problems in the sectors, but a theme that unites many of the points is the need to cease regarding education in isolation from the rest of society, and therefore subjecting the system to all sorts of partial fixes and interventions expected to solve problems piecemeal.

Thus the authors offer a sharp critique of ‘evidence-based practice’. The phrase itself sounds as if the procedure should be unassailable. Of course we should plan what we do according to the results of good social science. However, they point out that it is actually ‘a recipe for repeating all our past mistakes’ (p.55). In effect, it assumes the existence of the present overall structure without question. Rather, what is needed is an entirely new system understood and developed consciously within the context of the whole of society. Education cannot be fixed in isolation, and many apparently reasonable ideas will come to grief without attention to the larger context. Central to this is the idea of a participatory model of citizenship, which would have the potential of engaging all those students otherwise alienated by our models of schooling. This would not work, however, without that kind of citizenship being a wider social reality, so in a sense this is a manifesto for much greater social change. Certainly, if our dysfunctional system is to be rejuvenated, a more egalitarian society is essential.

At the very least it does have to be recognised that the system is dysfunctional; the chronic and widespread disengagement from education cannot be dismissed when it is reported that many young people ‘find schools to be unsafe, threatening places in which they are shown little respect’ (p.66). It could be added that many teachers might feel the same. The situation we are now in is one where after the eleven year testing regime young people have become ‘better at passing tests but poorer at learning’ (p.41). The exam factory with its instrumentalisation of learning ‘has perverse effects on bright pupils’, but also has a terrible effect on those who do not succeed. This result, along with the consistent failure to support prestigious vocational routes, does much to reinforce class inequality. Meanwhile, teachers are subjected to a regime of fear to impose control (p.13), and perversely we now ‘spend more on inspecting the education sectors than we do on trying to improve them’ (p.42).

The subjugation of education to the market undermines education in turning students into customers, not least by damaging the ability of teachers to encourage students to learn. In a carefully developed argument, the authors draw upon the higher education experience:

‘The analogy with businesses such as British Telecom or British Gas satisfying the needs of their customers is seductive but false, because it ignores the role of educators who, at times, have to stand up to students, coax them out of their “comfort zones” and challenge them to try disconcerting ideas and new ways of looking at themselves’ (p.6).

The effect may be most marked in HE, but there are similar problems growing throughout the different sectors, not least where the inspection regime means that teachers ‘have been reduced to the role of technicians and agents of the state, whose job it is to ‘deliver’ a national curriculum’ (p.63). This regime undermines the compact between educator and pupil in the opposite direction, but just as surely removes democratic, creative agency from both sides of the process.

The more that education is starved for money and resources, the more the system becomes self-destructive, as essential supports and trust between all involved begin to break down. In the old phrase it is said that like a fish, the state rots from the head down, but perhaps a society rots from its education system outwards. Nonetheless, the situation cannot be saved by another managerial reform, in isolation from the rest of society. We need a whole movement to reclaim the principle of social equality and reassert a wholly different set of values from those of the market, to rediscover egalitarian democracy and apply that throughout all the spheres of our lives. Only then can education truly begin to build Coffield and Williamson’s ‘communities of discovery’.

It might seem to some that there is effectively an abandonment of responsibility in arguing that education must be related to the whole, and that the education system cannot be changed without changing society. This is not at all the case; the point is that a transformation of education needs to be part of a much wider, comprehensive transformation. Education is rightly perceived as fundamental, as it all but determines an individual’s place in society. Thus, it does seem common sense that reforms intended to produce better results is the way forward. Yet our existing, much-reformed system merely reinforces existing inequalities; it is itself a significant part of the problem. Both Blairite-style and coalition measures that both focus on raising-up a favoured few will just, as the authors say, reproduce the system of global capitalism which produced inequality in the first place (p.28).

It is ironic that the education system does so much to reproduce the class system, since the efforts and intentions of most teachers and lecturers from nursery to university are animated by a strong sense of the potential of all those they are called upon to help educate. Nonetheless, the authors point out that as many as 60% of young people used to leave school without qualifications, and despite the changes of the last 25-odd years, that figure remains at 30%, while no system of technical education has emerged with anything like the status found in Germany or the Scandinavian countries. So while there are certainly many specific demands that need to be advanced, such as the restoration of free higher education, or the abolition of fees, the whole system needs a root and branch reform that cannot be done in isolation.

So what precisely would a democratic education system, centred on these ‘communities of discovery’ look like? Here at first blush many a teacher might quail and wonder if this means more impossible demands imposed as targets. Of course the authors have no such dreadful programme. At one point they make the extremely important observation that there is a need for room to experiment, for those involved to be able to make mistakes, even fail, if new ways of doing things are to emerge (p.50). Yet, this is a very tall order in a system which, as they say, is run on fear; fear of tables, results, Ofsted, and management. It is this structure that crushes attempts to inculcate communities of learning. This problem highlights how the education system suffers from a dialectical dilemma; the very changes that would be highly desirable are militated against by the system currently in operation. It is very difficult to change it piecemeal since any small change would be most likely swallowed up and incorporated into the problematic dynamics that the reforms aim to displace.

A few aspects of the way the book’s own argument is presented illustrate this problem. There are the dreaded keywords in bold, reducing a complex programme to a list that could be trotted out without comprehension by any government functionary. There is the bullet point list, and then there are the grids of problems and opportunities. Now, this is not a criticism of any of the substantive points made in any of these passages, just an observation that even these could be emptied of their content and turned into an Ofsted-approved checklist. Such a list might fill any education professional with a sense of dread concerning how those in authority will deem it to be fulfilled.

This is precisely where the authors’ aim of creating educational democracy comes into the picture; a system in which teachers are not institutionally bullied by every succeeding education minister and Ofsted inspector, with the bile passed all the way down the hierarchy. Where decision making really does lie in education communities, the staff, the students and the wider community, where educational institutions reclaim their role as a key local, community organisation, a whole transformation of the very nature of education could be brought about. The authors argue that ‘we educators need to reclaim our professional freedom of thought and action’ (p.76), and that a ‘democratic professionalism’ needs to be opposed to the ‘managerial professionalism’ that now dominates and devastates teacher morale (pp.71-2). What might seem impossible, or just another burden to teachers barracked by constant, contradictory, and non-funded demands, could be a re-discovery of what the point of education really is, but only if it is part of a wider movement for social change.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).


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