Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Education’s iron cage: a highly regulated system, whereby the complexities of learning and teaching are translated via exams into numbers. The resulting data enables performance monitoring – at the level of individual students, teachers, schools, entire countries. It provides the basis for target-setting, and for taking action to deal with those who do not meet the targets.
We’re meant to believe these judgments of success and failure are objective. But the construction of a ladder of achievement relies on particular notions of what should count as ‘good’ in education – notions that are politicised to the core.
Enter, at this point, the English secretary of state for education, Michael Gove. Gove would like to go down in history as the man who remade the English school system, expanding Labour’s academy programme and introducing ‘free’ schools. But equally important is the role he has taken on as the constructor of indicators – he who decides on the measures through which success and failure can be determined.
In this role, Gove has been unceasingly active. Some of his energy has been focused on determining the content of the curriculum; he is reputed to have played a large part in writing the draft history curriculum. More significant than his attention to content, though, has been his redesign of the assessment system. Three features stand out.
First, at age 11, pupils will be expected to reach a ‘higher and more ambitious standard’. Their performance against this standard will be reported comparatively. The pupil population will then be divided into ten bands, with the top 10 per cent of students in the first band, and so on down.
Second, from 2015, 16-year-olds in England will sit ‘linear’ GCSE examinations. What this means for particular subjects is spelled out by the qualifications agency Ofqual. In the case of English language, for instance, assessment will take the form of a final, external examination; there will be no coursework, no modules. The number of grade categories will be increased, partly to enable recognition of the most successful students, and the range of subjects restricted, to emphasise traditional academic subjects.
Third, a similar approach will be taken at A level. From 2015, A levels, like GCSEs, will be ‘linear’ examinations, without coursework. AS levels will no longer contribute to A level grades.
The social significance is considerable. Gove’s changes have every chance of consolidating the class divisions for which English education is famous. They will do this in ways that were recognised by educationalists 40 years ago. They valorise forms of knowledge that students with a particular kind of cultural capital find relatively easy to access; they demand success in a single type of exam; and among teachers, and students from age 11 onwards, they embed the idea that exams define ability.
Gove presents these changes as evidence of his passion for raising educational standards for all – ‘providing children with the opportunity to transcend the circumstances of their birth’, as he said in 2011. He stands for a story of ‘equal opportunity’ that credits itself with giving the poor equal access to a particular kind of education, once considered the birthright of only the rich.
These noble sentiments, fiercely expressed, seem to have frightened the Labour Party into cautious equivocation. For instance, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt says that ‘character’ and ‘resilience’ should not be overlooked, but avoids confronting the reforms. Gove needs to be answered more strongly than that, otherwise his changes will become the basis for the next ten years of education. The first thing wrong with Gove’s ideas is that they present the educational practice of English public schools as the pinnacle of excellence. Hence his proposal that state schools should measure the attainment of their students by getting them to ‘try out’ the ‘common entrance’ papers that form part of the admission process to public schools.
For nearly a century, the left in Britain has tried to free itself of this confusion of social dominance with intellectual quality. R H Tawney’s efforts to devise a modern university curriculum, organised around the social sciences, were one part of this effort at emancipation. Another was embodied in the work of thousands of teachers in the later 20th century who sought, across many subjects and phases, to develop a critical and creative curriculum that related the formal knowledge of the school to the cultural knowledge that students brought with them to the classroom. These are traditions that need to be returned to, though Gove’s invective against ‘the 1960s’ is designed precisely to prevent such engagement.
A second problem with Gove’s position – glaring to anyone who dares to look – is that the promise of equal opportunity is belied by the reality of social inequality. One thing we’ve learned about austerity is that it is a process in which social polarisation increases. Gove is silent about this, as he needs to be if his rhetoric is to have any momentum. There is no need for his opponents to be so shy.
The coalition’s policies are unmaking the conditions that once enabled a certain level of collective security. Individuals, possessing very different levels of economic and cultural resources, have to find new means of accessing employment, social care, housing, and education – in a context where all these social goods are doled out sparingly. Unequal competition, in conditions of scarcity, is now a core principle of social life. A competitive testing system built on examination practices resurrected from an earlier epoch will force students to encounter this principle at a very early age. This is less an ‘opportunity’ for individual students to access higher levels of education and more an opportunity for the government to legitimate pre-existing stratifications in society.
Battered by decades of ‘reform’, each of which seems to intensify the emphasis on performance defined in terms of narrowing indicators, those who work in education are both deeply angry with Gove and hesitant to challenge these measures. Difficult though it is, the battle over pay looks easier to fight.
Yet curriculum and assessment are fundamental parts of the grammar of education. Changing this grammar, through the abolition of the 11-plus and through grassroots curriculum reform, was one of the greatest achievements in the long educational revolution of the 20th century. It is this experience we need to return to now, in confronting the latest stage of what is plainly a counter‑revolution.
Drawing connections between events as disparate as the ‘social murder’ of Grenfell and recent mudslides in Sierra Leone, Remi Joseph-Salisbury points to the enduring relevance of Pan African thought for anti-racist struggle today.
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright