Does every child matter?

Issue: 151

Ralph Tebbutt

How do we assess our education system? One way is to measure the extent to which that system is producing the skilled personnel required by the capitalist state in order to determine the cost effectiveness and efficiency of the system.1 The alternative is to start from what is necessary to enable each and every individual to fulfil their full potential within society. The aim of this article is to challenge the former approach and to discuss how the latter approach can be implemented. In order to do this effectively, we have to be aware of the many factors that affect the education of our young people. There can be no doubt that class, inequality and poverty are of great importance to our discussion.

Measuring our education system

GEMS Education Solutions is described on its website as “a specialist education consultancy that works with public and private clients to transform the quality of global education and skills provision”.2 Their report, “The Efficiency Index: Which Education Systems Deliver Best Value for Money?”3 typifies the way in which education is viewed by the global ruling class. Their “Efficiency Index” compares the education systems of 30 countries in terms of their “value for money”. They claim that this “opens up the question of resource allocation within an education system’s process”. The question of the purpose of education is never raised. Certainly, in the minds of those making decisions at government level, it is not about developing the full potential of young people. The GEMS report has 84 pages. I will restrict my comments to the points that they themselves highlight in the preface, introductions and executive summary statements.

In the introductory article to the report entitled “The Challenge to Innovate” Andreas Schleicher suggests that we compare the situation of a teacher and a surgeon working in the 1940s with the conditions under which they would now be working. He claims that the surgeon would see vast changes as part of a dynamic profession; the teacher would find their workplace largely unchanged.

I went to school in the 1940s. My primary school had six classrooms, three on each side of a wide corridor which was also used as the dining room. The classrooms had desks tiered up from the front. There were 50 pupils in my class. The pupils were stationary and boys were separated from girls. The teacher sat at a large desk when he was not working at a black chalkboard. In the corner was a large coal fireplace with a bucket of coal. If the teacher wished to reproduce a worksheet, they used a wax plate on which they wrote and then had to copy out sheets one at a time (I know because, on a Friday afternoon, I had the job of cleaning the wax plate).

When I now go to help at my local infant school I find children sat on the floor in front of an electronic whiteboard, listening to their teacher. They work at tables. There is work displayed in every available space. There is an art table and a quiet corner with a collection of books for the children to look at and read. Their teacher takes in toys, both educational and otherwise. Children are able to move around freely, or to sit quietly and work depending on what they are doing. Across the corridor is the computer room. In the grounds of the school there is a garden. There is a playing field that is shared with the junior school—something my primary school did have, but was taken over by air raid shelters. The nursery unit is integrated with the infant school and there is a seamless path until the pupils go to secondary school.

Is all well with education? Of course not. Despite the progess that has undoubtedly been made in the education of our children, serious problems remain. Progress has very largely been due to the efforts and input of teachers and educationalists who are close to the teaching profession and often in spite of government policies and the advice of consultants such as GEMS. The conditions under which teachers can have an influence on the situation have become much worse. Dr Jon Berry, in his essay in “Reclaiming Schools”,4 sets out the changes that have taken place since the introduction of the 1988 Education Reform Act (ERA) and shows what those changes mean. The Act brought in the National Curriculum, age related Standard Assessment Tests (SATs), the marketisation of schools through open enrolment and local financial management, which reduced the role of democratically accountable local authorities. Berry notes further the change that saw the introduction of Ofsted. He concludes that “England’s teachers are among the most scrutinised, controlled and publicly accountable educators in the world”. With test results being used to produce league tables and the later publication of Ofsted reports giving an illusion of choice, at least for all but a privileged few. Berry notes that this legislation had already opened the path to academies and further privatisation of the education system.

Teachers are frustrated, threatening to leave the profession because they are no longer allowed to use their professional knowledge and expertise. Far too much of what they have to do is imposed by government diktat. Surgeons would not tolerate a situation in which government officials and quangos determined how they should carry out their professional duties.

Clearly a key conclusion of the GEMS report relates to teachers’ pay. Finland is highlighted as having the “most efficient balance between teachers’ salaries and class size in order to produce educational outcomes”. In praising both Finland and Korea, Lord Adonis in his introductory insight, “The Policy Perspective”, draws attention to the fact that these countries combine an “exemplary teaching workforce, with intense competition for training places”. Lord Adonis, who was education secretary under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 2005 to 2008, is sometimes referred to as Mr Academy. He is heavily involved with academies, being president of the Independent Academies Association and, through his membership of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers, is also involved with academies. Adonis goes on to say that “it is clearly not high salaries that draw exceptionally able graduates into teaching. There are also important cultural forces at work which boost teacher status”.5 However, Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and expert on education policy, sees the fact that all Finnish schools are public and offer the same education as key to their success, as well as the extensive training for teachers. Commenting on a female relative applying for teacher training, he notes that they do not just take the most academically able with the highest results but those they believe will be best suited to being a teacher.6

At one time teachers in this country were a highly regarded profession, along with the doctor and the parson. That status was eroded as teachers’ salaries fell in relation to the wages and salaries that others were receiving, and status in general became closely aligned to earning power. There developed a view that said “if you aren’t paid much, you can’t be worth much”. This situation worsened during the Margaret Thatcher years, when she systematically sought to undermine all professionals. Her simplistic view was that the ideas of professionals were completely determined by their own personal self-interests; their views had therefore to be ignored. Thus the whole concept of “professionalism” was completely turned on its head.

Lord Adonis would start from a position in which we had “a highly professional teaching force, which is well but not excessively paid and with pupil/teacher ratios not exceedingly small”. Does he realise that some children are now taught in classes of 70 pupils?7 We should also note that the eduational system is being further eroded with the introduction of free schools. In addition to the autonomy enjoyed by all academies, these free schools will have other freedoms; for example, their teachers will not necessarily need to have Qualified Teacher Status.8

In his Executive Summary to the GEMS report Adam Still, Education Finance and Development Specialist, is of the view that:

The message is that education system inefficiency can be a result of both underpaying and overpaying teachers. To illustrate, if teachers are underpaid, it may be harder to recruit high calibre individuals into the profession, or retain them. Learning outcomes will suffer—which impacts efficiency. Conversely, if teachers are overpaid, they may have fewer incentives to perform well once in secure positions.9

Both of these viewpoints are classic capitalist responses to any working situation. Keep earnings to a minimum and productivity to a maximum. There are other issues of much greater importance; you cannot put a cash value on a man or woman, nor can you record the potential of a child by a number in a test. However, teachers’ pay scales have been abolished and they are now faced with Performance Related Pay—student outcomes do now affect a teacher’s salary.

Still notes that with the introduction of TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), we now have “global comparators for the educational outcomes produced by participating countries”.10

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published the 2012 PISA results, which analyse performance in mathematics, reading and science in 65 countries, in December 2013.11 Even before the results were published the Washington Post published an article entitled “How Public Opinion About the New PISA Scores is Being Manipulated”.12 This article featured comments from Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit organisation, and Martin Carnoy, education professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. They urge commentators and education policy makers to “avoid jumping to quick conclusions from a superficial ‘horse race’ examination of these scores”. They describe how advanced copies of the report are given to selected groups who will then present the report so as to echo official interpretations: “Those with different interpretations of international test scores will see the report only after headlines have become history.” The article goes on to explain some of the complexities involved in international comparisons. These include the test score gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, the trends in scores in different social classes and the fact that pupils in different countries respond differently to international tests.

The Guardian also previewed the publication of the PISA report. Here, Peter Wilby made the point that there are “ample reasons not only to question whether average scores from written tests can adequately assess the quality of school systems across the planet, but also to argue that international testing regimes pose a threat to national sovereignty and cultural diversity”. As an example of how the PISA results can be misused, he highlights the case of former education secretary Michael Gove, who “ignored clear warnings from the OECD that the 2000 results were flawed and shouldn’t be used for comparisons”.13 Indeed, the PISA results provide little support for Gove’s ideas, and still less for Boris Johnson’s. Finland, the most consistent high performer, has the least selective, most comprehensive system in the world. It has no inspectors, no exams before 18 and a national curriculum that is confined to broad outlines. Sweden has gone down in the OECD polls since the introduction of free schools, which Gove tried to imitate in the UK.14 The US, with its charter schools, also a model for Gove’s free schools, does no better and, in mathematics, it does much worse than England.15

A further point made by Wilby is that:

for an international test to work, all students have to answer the same questions, or at least questions of similar difficulty. In one obvious sense, they don’t: the questions are translated into different languages which, according to one Norwegian academic, “results in rather strange prose” in his country. Besides, “literacy” in Finnish or Korean, where words are consistently written as they are spoken, is different when compared with literacy in English. Danish academics, when they analysed the 2006 PISA tests, found that eight of the 28 reading questions were deleted from the final analysis in some countries. Moreover, about half the students participating that year weren’t tested on reading at all… Problems also arise from different cultures, and different attitudes to education in general and tests in particular. For example, French students won’t guess the answers to multiple choice questions; they decline to answer, though a guess gives at least a 25 percent chance of being right.

The focus of the PISA 2012 tests in mathematics was on the capacity of individuals to formulate, employ and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts. This does not suggest that the way to teach maths is through the kinds of formal methods that Mr Gove and his supporters advocate. Also of great concern is the basis from which the OECD approaches the whole matter. Leaving aside the glaring anomaly that it is the OECD and not the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) that is carrying out this exercise, the report states that although the educational experience of pupils throughout the world is very different, all pupils will be competing for the same type of jobs and therefore it is necessary to carry out this type of comparison. Clearly their view is that education is solely concerned with preparing cogs to fit into the machines of business and commerce. There is far more to education than equipping students for work. Of far more importance to socialists is the development of the individual personality. Young people should be enabled through education to become creative, wholesome members of the community. We want them to be able to participate in all aspects of society with a will and a mind to bring about those changes that will benefit each and every one of us.

Inequality and the class divide in education.

In September 2014 the Sutton Trust education charity published the results of their research on “Extra-Curricular Inequalities”.16 This showed that the children of wealthier parents gain “a substantial advantage from tuition and extra-curricular activities”. Their researcher, Conor Ryan, states that:

Inequalities in education do not stop after the school bell has sounded… While many schools offer a range of sporting and other activities outside regular school hours, there is still a substantial advantage to those who can afford it. If we are serious about improving social mobility, we must narrow the gap in educational opportunities outside of school as well as within the classroom.17

Commenting on the report, Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, states that “schools had to think carefully about the most effective way to spread limited resources. In an ideal world all students would have the same advantages and opportunities to help them succeed at school and in life”.18 Here lies the crux of the GEMS report. The issue is efficiency, or how to spread limited resources. The question we have to ask is: “Why don’t all children have the same advantages and opportunities?”

The last Labour government produced a document entitled “Every Child Matters”.19 This provided five basic requirements for every child, namely, that they are healthy, safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic wellbeing. It says nothing about this being subject to any limitation on resources. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child asserts that we have a duty to meet the educational needs of all of our children.20 It is those needs that are the appropriate place to start in developing policy with regard to our schools.

There is no doubt that social class has a major effect on the children in our schools. Talk seriously to any of our youngsters and this will be apparent. They clearly recognise the fact, and are aware that it is holding them back. The terms “deprivation” or “children from deprived areas” are simply euphemisms for “working class”. It is often suggested that because some individuals emerge from an economically poor background to become tyrants of industry, the view that poverty is not a factor in a child’s attainment is justified, the logic being that if working class children in some schools do well, all schools should be able to produce the same results. This is simply an excuse for maintaining the system as it is, completely unacceptable. What is required is not social mobility, whereby some people move “up” while others move “down”, but a society in which every individual fulfils their full potential.

In April 2006 the Fabian Society published the final report on “Life Chances and Child Poverty”.21 This was a wide ranging report into the question of life chances, poverty and inequality. It is valuable for the purposes of this article in that it raises many issues in relation to education and how this affects a child’s life chances. The statistics included are dated and need to be updated. What are of value are some of the definitions included within the report: “For a child to be living in poverty means that they are unable to enjoy the kind of childhood taken for granted in the wider society because their parents lack the necessary material resources to provide them with a decent standard of living”22, “at the heart of our approach is the principle of intrinsic equality—the belief in people’s equal moral worth—which lies at the heart of democracy and social justice”23 and:

The life chances framework is necessarily broader than social mobility: we are concerned with the chances of everyone living a full and flourishing life, irrespective of how they come to occupy different positions. In other words, even if the processes by which they come to have different outcomes were as fair as possible, taking account of relevant differences between individuals, and ignoring irrelevant differences, there would still be problems with a society which allows winners to take so many of the prizes.24

The report covers many factors affecting poverty and life chances, including income, welfare benefits, tax credits, income support for pregnant women, child benefits, occupation and ethnicity. The concern in this article is with education. Two articles in the National Union of Teachers’ Reclaiming Schools report, one by Meg Maguire, of King’s College London, entitled “Why we Need to End Child Poverty” and a second by Professor Pat Thomson, of the University of Nottingham, on “Poverty and Education” give further information.25 A study by academics at University College London and King’s College London also gave statistical backbone to the view that the overwhelming factor in how well children do is not what type of school they attend—but social class.26

Table 1 illustrates the effect of social class on achievement at GCSE level using figures for 2006 which is the last year in which the Department for Education (DfE) published these figures. Participation in higher education shows a similar pattern (table 2).

Table 1: GCSE performance and social class
Source: Earlham Sociology Pages, 2015.

Parental occupation

Percentage of children achieving five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C

Higher professional


Lower professional




Lower supervisory




Other/ Not classified


Table 2: Percentage participation in higher education
Source: Earlham Sociology Pages, 2015.27

Parental occupation
































A picture of what we can expect from the current Conservative government can be seen from the vision that education secretary Nicky Morgan set out in the Annual Priestley Lecture at the University of Birmingham in November 2014. She stated:

I make no apology for the early focus of our reforms; our immediate priority had to be getting the basics right for young people. But now that we have made those initial changes, the focus now is to help schools do more of that wider work necessary to prepare young people for life in modern Britain. Central to that is ensuring that young people not only grow academically, but also build character, resilience and grit. That is why my first act as education secretary was to announce that my department would have a new focus on character education. We want to ensure that young people leave school with the perseverence to strive to win, to persevere against the odds, to overcome the challenges that life throws at them and bounce back with vigiour and confidence… We want pupils to revel in the achievement of victory, but honour the principles of fair play, to win with grace and to learn the lesson of defeat with acceptance and humility. And we want pupils to become honest citizens who contribute to their communities, neighbourhoods and countries.28

This is good rhetoric, but it belies reality. Winning and losing are not what life is all about. The lives of communities, neighbourhoods and countries depend upon the cooperation and combined efforts of all of their members. There is at present no level playing field. As we saw earlier, success in present circumstances does not depend upon the individual, but on their social background. In the same address Morgan makes it very clear that: “Those waiting for u-turns will have to continue to do so with baited breath, because none of this means a renunciation of the first four years of this government’s reform, nor any slowing in the pace of change”.29

For what does Nicky Morgan make no apology? Could it be the 8.5 percent cuts in spending on education between 2010-1 and 2015-6?30 Could it be the new National Curriculum? Or the fact that the number of teacher education places at universities was cut back by 23 percent between 2012-13 and 2015-16?31 Maybe it is for the increase in academies and free schools and the move towards schools becoming profit-making organisations.32 Is it the fact that teachers are under stress and that a high proportion leave teaching after their first year in the post? Is it the ending of the Education Maintenance Allowance for over 16 year olds continuing their education or the abolition of teacher pay scales and the continuing 1 percent limit on salary increases?

Nicky Morgan’s vision of education and society can be challenged in other ways. She speaks about character building and yet denies our young children the opportunity to develop naturally in their early years. Assessment begins before the child enters infant school with a written assessment at age 24 to 36 months.33 The pattern is set early on and continues throughout a young person’s education. The plans set out in Morgan’s speech do nothing to reduce inequality or to meet the needs of young people. In fact the affect of their implemenation will be further to disadvantage young people.

Meeting the needs of children and young people

I believe that schools exist for children. Child-centred education does not mean that children do just what they like and determine how things are done. But it does mean that the psychological needs of the child are paramount. Teachers are sympathetic to and understanding of the needs of each child within their care. The methods they adopt are those best suited to help their pupils develop their capacity to learn and become part of their community.

Often the last group to be considered when formulating policies for educating our young people are those young people themselves. The following scenarios relate to how young people react to their circumstances.

A sixth form girl has thoughts of moving on to Oxford or Cambridge for her higher education. The school has arranged a meeting to be addressed by the admissions tutor of one of the Oxbridge colleges. Very quickly the girl has decided against the idea—the elitist approach set out in the talk convinces her that Oxbridge was not for her. It was not the demands made upon her abilities nor her willingness to work; it was the cultural difference between herself and her friends and the elite exclusiveness portrayed by the admissions tutor.

A 12 year old girl, walking to school, explaining why she was unhappy at her grammar school, and why she did not want to go to that school. Her critique of the school and of the educational system was one that readers of this journal could not fault. They were opinions with which it is difficut to disagree.

A nine year old girl, nervous about her forthcoming parents’ interview which her dad was to attend. She was concerned about her performance in the tests. At the interview her teacher gave out her results, explaining why, in some cases, they were not as good as she could have produced. But as the teacher told her dad about her progress in general, she physically brightened up, a smile spread over her face and concern was replaced by joy.

It is always dangerous to extrapolate from a few examples. I include them here because they illustrate many of the problems that young people face. We see these situations in one way; we are aware of what is wrong and do what we can to improve the situation. Young people see these things differently. They often feel powerless to alter the situation. The problem is that young people have to work within the system. They need to acquire the knowledge and skills to enable them to cope with life and need to gain the qualifications—the GCSEs, the A-levels and the degrees.

Many young people believe that no one, whether parent, teacher, friend, politician or policy maker, is listening to them. Young people want to understand themselves, to establish their own identity, to build up their self-esteem and to be recognised for their own individual worth. In reality, they are often seen as unformed cogs that have to be shaped in order to conform to the demands of an economic system that is external to them. Young people are certainly not apathetic but have different ways of expressing their ideas and their values. A generation that grew up in the post-war years has problems understanding young people who have grown up in a new millenium with technologies that many older people have little understanding of. I strongly believe that we need a Royal Commission to look into all aspects of the lives of our young people, to assess their needs and how these needs are to be met.

In our discussion we have to start at the beginning. The book Too Much, Too Soon34 is essentially a critique of past and present government policy, especially the Early Years Foundation Stage35 introduced by the last Labour government. While the contributors to the book recognise some of the social and welfare requirements, they are opposed to the educational demands. The basis of the policies put forward appears to be a view that children at age seven are not achieving at the level they should be. The answer is seen to be to adopt methods in the earlier years that will provide a basis for this to be rectified. The argument of Too Much, Too Soon is that what is important in the early years is not what is taught but how the child develops physically. The structures of the brain and associated neurons have to grow and strengthen. This comes about through exposing children to a variety of different situations and experiences, and can be harmed by other experiences. It is this development that is crucial. Only once the brain has developed to a certain stage can the child begin to learn those things that it is desired to teach them. Some children, mostly girls, learn to read before age seven but almost all children including boys can read at age seven—if you try to teach it before the child is ready it is harmful. Forcing them to learn these things too early is not learning but training, which is likely to damage future progress.

The evidence presented in this book is that education has to be centred on the child; it cannot be based on the need to meet the economic demands of industry and commerce. The message it seeks to convey is that if you get the early years right then you will produce well-educated, well-motivated young people able to play a full part in society, rather than cogs that fit into the machine of capitalist society.

But of course the mistreatment of our young people does not end there. There are numerous areas where questions should be asked of the way we treat young people. Just one example, in the news at the same time as the two research documents I have been considering, is that Barnardo’s have reported that over half of England’s councils place young people leaving care in unsuitable accommodation for long periods. This includes 51 percent of councils who placed teenagers in bed and breakfast for a month or more in 2013-14.36

So what is the answer? There needs to be a clear policy on education for the whole child. While there is much to agree with in the developmental and educational comments in Too Much Too Soon, there is a better way of approaching the matter. The writers look to the rights of parents, to individual preference and to exemptions for specialist schools. Communal solutions are of much greater importance. The whole community—and indeed, the whole society—is responsible for the education of all of our children. That is why local authorities, answerable to the community, should be in control of our schools. Any solution to the problem of education, as of all other problems in society, must lie within the community as a whole.

Here are my initial thoughts on the matter. I have no doubt that others more experienced in particular areas can develop these, but I believe that the principles within these ideas are sound. Most mothers and fathers bond closely with their babies. Occasionally mothers don’t want to and it isn’t automatic. It happens in the process of mothers and fathers interacting with their babies. The right to have the time to do this should be recognised. Babies are necessarily dependent on being breast fed or otherwise fed and looked after when born—we have to accept biological facts.

The first three years of a child’s life are a time when they increase their relationships to other people. They are years in which they develop, not least in their brains. They need the appropriate environment in which to do this. This includes spending time with other children. This is truly a period of learning through experience and also learning through play, an idea that the Tories and the right hate. Play is often considered as something frivolous or a waste of time. The psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith devoted his life to a study of play.37 In an article entitled “Play Theory: A Personal Journey and New Thoughts”, he describes how this came about:

Play somehow ceased to be for me just something embedded in the sports I so robustly enjoyed. Play became as well a set of positive verbal images and representations and even fantasies. Play consisted of ideas, not just of actions; it became something inside my head, something subjective, something that forever afterward affected my existence in peculiar but positive ways. Just as some scholars spend their lives consumed by the metaphysics of literature or history or philosophy or theology—you name it—I came to spend mine in search of the metaphysics of play.38

And yet we deprive our young children of this experience in their early years in order to ram their brains full of information that they would absorb naturally at a somewhat later date if only we trusted the natural develoment of young minds.

Development continues between the ages of three and seven in a widening environment. At this age they are still not ready to be taught but they do need input, especially in the form of the spoken word. Children need to be talked to, and we need to listen. Storytelling is an important aspect of the day’s activities. This input must be child-centred.

As we move into the years of more conventional education, greater attention needs to be given to the advice from those who have worked with children as well as those who have studied in detail how children develop and learn. All teaching has to be centred on the learner. The question of class size is related to this. There is a limit to how many children a teacher can relate to and they must be able to give each child the help, support and encouragement they require.

What is of greatest importance is what is to be taught and when it is to be taught. In this the curriculum that directs the work must be appropriate. In 2011 Michael Gove, then education secretary, launched the new curriculum. In an essay in Reclaiming Schools, entitled “What is Wrong with the New Curriculum”, Terry Wrigley complains that it is extremely prescriptive for English, Maths and Science but threadbare for other subjects. He compares it unfavourably with an example from Finland which:

has a democratic vision (“human rights, equality, democracy”), recognises diversity (“tolerance and intercultural understanding”) and sustainability (“natural diversity, preservation of environmental viability”). Rather than teaching young people to fit in, it wants education “to create new culture, revitalise ways of thinking and acting, and develop the pupil’s ability to evaluate critically”.39

Wrigley notes that within the new curriculum there is no recognition of children’s readiness to learn: “Stringent premature targets have been set in an attempt to outdo potential competitors, with many demands placed on children a year or two younger than in the highest achieving countries in the world”.40

What infant teachers are now finding is that not only are SATs results held to be important but they are also expected to show evidence that the test result is valid. This is inhibiting the progress of those children who understand what they are doing but fail to show the method by which they reached their answer. Children may formulate ideas in their heads before they have reached the stage at which they can write them down.

Teaching in junior schools is becoming dominated by results in tests. How often are parents told that their child knows how to do something but failed to do it in the test? All of this is undermining the role of teachers who are not being allowed to use their professional skills. The most glaring example of this is in the teaching of phonics.

Considering the curriculum for ages 11 to 14, Wrigley notes that the emphasis on subject base and lack of interdisciplinary learning continues. After this stage, he says, “all coherence is lost. Only English, Maths and Science are compulsory, plus a smattering of ICT, PE, Citizenship, RE and Sex Education. Beyond that, everything is geared to maximising GCSE scores”.41 Some schools are adopting a traffic light system for selection at this stage. Those judged to be achieving take three sciences with the result that pupils have limited choice for other subjects. Middle band pupils take two sciences. Those judged to be least able have the widest range of subject choice because they are only required to take one science. This means that bright children who are interested in the humanities and arts have to give up subjects that they excel in to follow what for them is a more difficult path, and one contrary to their inclinations and desires. Nicky Morgan is particularly distainful towards the arts. At the launch of the campaign to promote STEM subjects (Science, Technology and Mathematics) she suggested that young people choosing to study arts subjects could be held back for the rest of their lives.42

There is also a lack of guidance given to pupils regarding the books they should read. There appears to be a gap between the level of reading ability and the content of books written for young people. With the exception of authors such as Malorie Blackman (Noughts and Crosses series), Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), John Green (Looking for Alaska and others) and Alan Gibbons (The Legendeer Trilogy and others) few books seem to deal with the issues that confront young people. Not all young people, nor their parents, are aware of what books do exist.

Valerie Coultas at Kingston University argues for “more talk and less tests”. Her approach is relevant for pupils of all ages. She gives the example of studying a text, suggesting that pupils write in the role of a character. This would be prepared for by a listening and speaking activity and the assessment would involve all aspects of language. “Such assessments”, suggests Coultas, “stimulate collaborative thinking and encourage originality, evaluation and problem solving. These higher order skills are valued in the workplace and will help pupils to enter the adult world with more social and academic confidence.” She further notes that “students learn more by finding out and teaching others than they do by just being filled with information. Students will listen closely to their peers, particularly when they know that a lot of preparation has taken place beforehand.” She sees no reason why, in every subject, oral components cannot form part of a system of assessment, but says that “speaking and listening and assessing reading aloud have to rely on teachers’ judgements and no government seems to be willing to allow teachers to make those judgements”.43

Teachers are best able to decide how they should work with the children in their care. The question arises as to how schools can be organised to enable teachers to fulfil their role. There are certain key matters to be dealt with. First the professionalism of teachers should be respected. The Early Years Foundation Stage should be scrapped, as it is inappropriate, along with external tests such as SATS and the whole concept of league tables.

Howard Stevenson says that “teachers should be able to assert decisive influence in relation to three ‘domains of professional agency’”: “shaping learning and working conditions”; “developing and enacting policy”; and “developing professional knowledge and professional learning”. He argues that if teachers are to assert real agency they must do so collectively and that this can only be done by teachers joining, and becoming actively involved in, trade unions. This is due to the democratic structures and independence from government of the unions.44 While fully in agreement with these views, I do believe that teachers have to be involved with subject associations and within their local communities and in politics generally.

As far as school organisation is concerned, we should return to the professional structure within schools, which would mean getting rid of the management structure that has come to dominate them. Schools are best run as collegiate organisations in which teachers work together with respect for the experience that comes with time spent on the job, and openness to the views and ideas that newly trained teachers bring to a school. All schools should be returned to the control of local communities. All children without exception should attend their local primary and secondary school. This means no academies, and no fee-paying schools. Most importantly, there should be no selection of pupils on any basis especially on the basis of wealth or ability. However, we would defend Muslim schools from racist attack. In general socialists are ultimately against selection based on religion but at times we have to temper our absolute ideas to counter other situations which arise in a world not of our choosing. Children belong to the community; they have their own rights and cannot simply be considered as the property of their parents. This places upon government and local authorities the responsibility of ensuring that all schools provide an equivalent education. This immediately raises the questions of child poverty highlighted by the Sutton Trust research. To prevent discrimination between schools, the gross inequality that exists within society must also be ended—equal schools demand an equal society.


The GEMS research mentioned at the start of this article is narrowly based and leads to conclusions that are at odds with the goal of producing well rounded young people ready and able to transform society. Some argue that the economy must have priority; everything else has to be sacrificed to achieve a flourishing capitalist economy and only then can we start to improve life experiences in general. The fallacy with this argument is that the majority have had to make sacrifices, but for the rich, ruling elite there has been no sacrifice. They in fact have improved their wealth, position and power. Moreover, is it not the capitalist economy that has led the world to its present state at the cost of everything else that is worthwhile? There is no way of transforming capitalism in order to make life better for everyone. A small minority will get richer as most people become poorer. Others argue that they would like to see the type of society that I have tried to outline but, like Brian Lightman, feel that it can only happen in an ideal world. To those people I would say that anything is possible if enough people want it to happen. Those of us on the left of politics are often described as extremists, not because we are violent people, but because we believe that a better world is possible. This frightens our rulers because they would lose their special powers if the ideas proposed above were put in place. If you believe in what is suggested above, then join the fight to achieve it. Only a socialist society can satisfy the needs of the world and prevent mankind from destroying all that is worth keeping.

The election of a Tory government in 2015 leaves us in no doubt as to the prospects for education. Even by their own terms, the system is failing. The evidence is there for all to see. It is not enough just for a coalition of parents, heads, governors, pupils and teachers to deplore the situation. We have to act, to challenge and demand that our young people be given the education they need and deserve.

Ralph Tebbutt is an active socialist, a retired teacher and a trade unionist.


1 I would like to thank Alex Callinicos, Camilla Royle and Sheila McGregor for their help and advice and for encouraging me to continue with this article. I would also thank Bethan and Caitlin Iley for their technical assistance and for helping me understand more of how young people react to the modern world. Despite this help, the faults that remain are entirely my own.

2 Go to

3 Dolton, Marcenaro-Gutiérrez and Still, 2014.

4 Berry, 2015.

5 Adonis, 2014.

6 El Zayat, 2014.

7 Blanchard, 2014.

9 Still, 2014.

10 Still, 2014. See also

12 Strauss, 2013.

13 Wilby, 2013.

14 Orange, 2011.

15 McInerney, 2013.

16 Sutton Trust, 2014.

17 Burns, 2014.

18 Burns, 2014.

19 HM Treasury, 2003.

20 United Nations, 1989.

21 Fabian Commission on Life Chances, 2006.

22 Fabian Commission on Life Chances, 2006, p1

23 Fabian Commission on Life Chances, 2006, p23.

24 Fabian Commission on Life Chances, 2006, p27.

25 Maguire, 2015; Thomson, 2015.

26 Taylor, 2006.

27 Note the figures for 2007/8 are based on a different social class schema and therefore are not fully comparable with previous data.

28 Morgan, 2014.

29 Morgan, 2014.

30 Chan, Roland and Martin, 2013.

31 Edmond, 2015.

32 Amsler, 2015.

33 Department for Education, 2015.

34 House, 2011, reviewed in International Socialism—Sullivan, 2014.

35 Department for Education, 2014.

36 Adjacent Government, 2014.

37 Daily Telegraph, 2015.

38 Sutton-Smith, 2008.

39 Wrigley, 2015.

40 Wrigley, 2015.

41 Wrigley, 2015.

42 Leach, 2014.

43 Coultas, 2015.

44 Stevenson, 2015.


Adonis, Lord Andrew, 2014, “The Policy Perspective”, in Dolton, Marcenaro-Gutiérrez and Still.

Adjacent Government, 2014, “Young people leaving care placed in B&Bs” (8 September),

Amsler, Sarah, 2015, “Education Should not be for Profit”, in National Union of Teachers, Reclaiming Schools,

Berry, Jon, 2015, “Some Historical Perspectives: How did we get into this state?”, in National Union of Teachers, Reclaiming Schools,

Blanchard, Jack, 2014, “Schools Forced to Teach Children in Classes of More Than 70 Pupils under Tory-led Coalition”, Mirror (18 August),

Burns, Judith, 2014, “Tuition and Hobbies Helping Richer Children”, BBC News (4 September),

Chan, Szu Ping, Denise Roland and Ben Martin, 2013, “Spending Review 2013: As it Happened”, Telegraph (26 June),

Coultas, Valerie, 2015, “We need more time for Teaching with Talk—Not more Tests”, in National Union of Teachers, Reclaiming Schools,

Daily Telegraph, 2015, “Brian Sutton-Smith, Psychologist—Obituary” (28 April),

Department for Education, 2014, “Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage” (March),

Department for Education, 2015, “School and College Funding and Accountability, Appendix 2: Reception Baseline Assessment”,

Dolton, Peter, Oscar Marcenaro-Gutiérrez and Adam Still, 2014, The Efficiency Index: Which Education Systems Deliver the Best Value for Money? (GEMS Education Solutions),

Earlham Sociology Pages, 2015, “Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: The Data” (20 July),

Edmond, Nadia, 2015, “Why Universities Must be Part of Teacher Education”, in National Union of Teachers, Reclaiming Schools,

El Zayat, Nelly, 2014, “Lessons from Finland: A Conversation with Pasi Sahlberg”, Al-Fanar Media (6 May),

Fabian Commission on Life Chances, 2006, Narrowing the Gap (Fabian Society).

HM Treasury, 2003, “Every Child Matters” (8 September),

House, Richard (ed), 2011, Too Much, Too Soon? Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood (Hawthorn Press).

Leach, Anna, 2014, “Cabinet Minister says Arts Degrees don’t get you anywhere, except into the err Cabinet” Mirror (13 November),

Maguire, Meg, 2015, “We Need to End Child Poverty”, in National Union of Teachers, Reclaiming Schools,

McInerney, Laura, 2013, “What’s the Big Difference between Charter Schools and Free Schools?”, Guardian (15 July),

Morgan, Nicky, 2014, “Secretary of State for Education: Our Plan for Education” (27 November),

Orange, Richard, 2011, “Doubts Grow over the Success of Sweden’s Free Schools Experiment”, Observer (10 September),

Stevenson, Howard, 2015, “A Real Voice for Teachers: Teacher Professionalism and Teacher Unions”, in National Union of Teachers, Reclaiming Schools,

Still, Adam, 2014, “Executive Summary”, in Dolton, Marcenaro-Gutiérrez and Still.

Strauss, Valerie, 2013, “How Public Opinion about new PISA Test Scores is Being Manipulated”, Washington Post (1 December),

Sullivan, Terry, 2014, “Much too Much, Much too Young”, International Socialism 143 (summer),

Sutton-Smith, Brian, 2008, “Play Theory; A Personal Journey and New Thoughts”, American Journal of Play, volume 1, issue 1,

Sutton Trust, 2014, “Richest parents four times more likely than poorest to pay for extra lessons for their children” (4 September),

Taylor, Matthew, 2006 “It’s Official: Class Matters”, Guardian (28 February),

Thomson, Pat, 2015, “Poverty and Education”, in National Union of Teachers, Reclaiming Schools,

United Nations, 1989, “Convention on the Rights of the Child”,

Wilby, Peter, 2013, “Don’t let Dubious PISA League Tables Dictate how we Educate our Children”, Guardian (1 December),

Wrigley, Terry, 2015, “What is Wrong with the New National Curriculum?”, in National Union of Teachers, Reclaiming Schools,