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National Education Union conference 2019, Liverpool. Photo: NEU

The neoliberal model of education must be scrapped and replaced with a more humane system, argues Sean Ledwith

The coronavirus outbreak has inadvertedly blown a giant hole through the neoliberal conception of education and called into question many of the practices of the UK schooling system as implemented by ten years of Conservative mismanagement. Exams at all key stages, league tables, Ofsted, excessive tracking of pupil achievement and other elements of the Gove-inspired framework have been thrown into chaos by the impact of the lockdown that belatedly shut virtually all classrooms up and down the country.

Social solidarity

The cancellation or postponement of these fixtures of the education calendar have unexpectedly created space for teachers to re-evaluate their own purpose as educators in the wider sense, and to put aside the Tory perception of them as  mere cogs in the machinery of the exam factory. Schools and colleges as institutions have reclaimed their status as bulwarks of the community thanks to the valiant efforts of many staff to remain open for the sons and daughters of key workers and to provide free schools meals throughout the lockdown for those children in poverty who would otherwise go without a daily hot meal.

More support

The stark reality of empty classrooms has not brought education to a juddering halt as teachers, managers and support staff have set up online systems with remarkable speed and effectiveness that have enabled some form of educational continuity to survive in the face of the pandemic. Of course, there is a potential danger with the latter as some institutions may see this as an opportunity to undercut the importance of a physical teacher in the classroom and use a shift towards online delivery as a smokescreen to attack staffing levels and working conditions. The positive side, however, is that many pupils, with enforced confinement at home, will have been reminded of the pastoral importance of teachers as a crucial part of their mental health and welfare support. But this can be difficult in large classrooms especially as austerity has meant the slashing of budgets for support staff. The number of teaching assistants and other support workers, who play a vital vole in supporting students especially those with additional needs, should be expanded.

End the neoliberal model

The government was too slow to implement the shutdown of schools and it is becoming increasingly apparent that pressure is building within the cabinet to reopen them before most teachers, parents and children would feel comfortable returning. The NEU has rightly drawn attention to the catastrophic risk of such a premature end to the shutdown of schools. Nevertheless, whenever classrooms are filled again, teachers need to articulate the arguments for a permanent end to the neoliberal model of education and to embed, in its place, the revived features of a more humane system that has characterised the response of many educators over the past few weeks.

1Restore the concept of education as an intrinsic value for individuals and society. The enforced detaching of education from exams has created wider awareness that many things are worth studying for their own sake and not just for the sake of a grade or a job

2End the data-driven culture that dominates the system and generates unnecessary bureaucratisation that drives many teachers out of the profession. Expand the notion that teachers are there primarily to safeguard persons, not grades or scores

3Scrap school league tables which symbolise the market-driven and competitive model of education

4End the excessive disciplinary mentality of some schools that leads to disproportionate levels of exclusion and encourages destructive practices such as ‘flattening the grass’

5Take advantage of the cancellation of external exams to move towards teacher-assessment and coursework being the core element of grading in all subjects at GCSE and A-Level. This provides a more consistent and supportive reflection of each pupil’s ability and undercuts the exam factory model that currently dominates the system. Reducing exam pressure would also help alleviate the mental health crisis among teenagers

6Scrap all high-stakes testing in primary education. This is a major cause of mental health problems among young children and acts as their initiation onto the conveyor belt of the exam factory

7Restore arts, sport and languages as essential parts of the curriculum at all levels. The corona crisis has created renewed awareness of the importance of reading, exercise and global communication to cope with  similar situations in the future

8Make Politics and Philosophy essential parts of the secondary curriculum so that pupils have the opportunity to express their opinions on the decisions politicians make in their name and what should truly be valued in society. Use this in place of  the racist Prevent agenda for meaningful discussions of current affairs

9Scrap Ofsted permanently and introduce a system of teacher support that is genuinely collaborative and non-punitive

10Encourage greater cross-curricular links between subjects to enable pupils to develop a broad- based education and prevents them being restricted to certain subject areas too early

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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