Capital and classroom

Issue: 118
Posted: 31 March 08

Andy Stone

Ken Jones et al, Schooling in Western Europe: The New Order and Its Adversaries (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), £45

“There is something dodgy”, remarked Charles Clarke, while secretary of state for education in 2003, “about the idea of learning for its own sake.” The neoliberal vision designed to replace such “dodgy’ pedagogy is analysed in forensic detail by this collectively authored work. Perhaps it is best summarised in this 2005 government missive on the forthcoming Key Stage 4 diplomas: “We intend to put employers in the driving seat, so that they will have a key role in determining what the ‘lines of learning’ should be and in deciding in detail what the diplomas should contain.”

A number of lazy myths are comprehensively dispelled as the authors describe the battles across Western Europe over the creation of such a marketised education system. First, they make clear that neoliberalism is no force of nature, as many of its advocates would have us believe. Rather it is “an aggressive programme that self-consciously sets for itself the goal of achieving change of an epochal kind”. This involves the defeat of an earlier generation of state-focused reforms that sought comprehensive and egalitarian provision.

England has been at the forefront of dismantling this broadly progressive educational heritage. A survey of grateful European employers’ federations in 2000 confirmed as much. However, the second myth debunked is that there was something inevitable about this: it was actually the result of decisive blows landed on working class organisation by Thatcherism. In France, where collective resistance has been stronger, many of the gains of “social republicanism” have been defended.

Nonetheless, there is increasing coordination between states to step up the attacks. A 1996 OECD report urged governments to focus on an increased “value for money” approach, characterised by emphasis on narrow study of science, maths and literacy, alongside cross-curricula skills designed to foster adult competencies for life and work. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was created to measure the success of this agenda. As the authors write, “PISA did not simply describe facts; it created them and gave them significance. It served to re-regulate schooling by specifying with scientific force a set of objectives for the school, around which reform projects could cohere.” League tables in England mirror this normative drive.

So what are we to find in these “new territories” of capitalist development? The authors diagnose five forms of privatising tumour. First, there is “outsourcing”, the private fulfilment of centrally directed inspection, assessment and performance management objectives. It is shocking to learn that between 2004 and 2006 up to a quarter of school expenditure in England involved the private sector.

The second form is commercialisation. Vending machines may be on the retreat in Britain due to outrage over obesity, but school supermarket/chocolate/crisp_packet vouchers subtly educate young people in consumerism and align them to a commercial agenda. So too do behaviour and academic reward schemes which introduce internal currencies to quantify and mould minds. The third form, “supplementary education”, describes the costs of activities and resources that act as a social filter. Private tuition and home access to software are two prime examples.

Private schools are the fourth form, and there is more than enough material here to support Alan Bennett’s call for the closure of these elitist bastions. The final category is “the privatisation of influence”, which is best illustrated by New Labour’s Academies Programme. Reluctant local authorities face the withholding of funds if they refuse to hand control of schools to a motley crew of individual and corporate “philanthropists”.

This book is an invaluable critique of this new order, and is all the better because it takes account of the resistance that “has undoubtedly forced a level of caution upon governments, and sometimes achieved concessions or delays”. The neoliberals’ failure to incorporate “education services” into the General Agreement on Trade in Services, at least so far, is one testimony to this resistance.

The authors celebrate the collective assertion of an alternative vision embodied in the World Social Forum movement. However, this vision is unnecessarily vague due to a willingness to echo autonomist ideas about “a new social subject” (in this case the student-worker) created by “informational capitalism”. This exaggerates the process of “deindustrialisation” and leaves us hostage to another neoliberal myth, that historical class divisions have lost their relevance. This is not the central message of this impressive and often disconcerting study, but some minor revisions in this area would help it hit the top grades.