Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Education as tainted by capitalism (2010)

From the December 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

State schools have always turned out various grades of worker. Now universities are to be allowed to charge the going market rate for their courses.


The Browne review of higher education in England proposes the abolition of the £3,290 cap on tuition fees and declares that there should be no limit on what universities can charge their students. It plans for typical fees of up to £12,000 per year for a degree course, with a continuation of the system of loans. In addition to a loan for the tuition fees, most students would have a further loan (for maintenance) of £3,750 and would have interest to pay on that, as well.

Once in employment, former students would begin to repay the cost of their loans (together with interest) from a salary level of up- to over £9000 per annum, upwards. This is not a high income to have to start paying back the loan, particularly for workers living in cities, where the cost of living is higher. Therefore, huge numbers of young people, on modest salaries will face these loan repayments, on top of either having to pay high rents for accommodation or taking out large mortgages. Economists have been advising people not to get further into debt but the Browne Report will undoubtedly contribute to the level of debt rising significantly for many.

The university guide, Push, estimated in August 2010 that student indebtedness could rise to £25,000 for a degree course. Clearly, for many with the extra expenses of accommodation, books, other course materials, etc, the figure would be substantially higher, quite likely, in access of £30,000.

So, the result of this is that most working class students will have an unenviable choice: either (1) to enter higher education and to be burdened with enormous amounts of debt, especially when accommodation and maintenance are considered, or (2) having to give up higher education altogether, with the probable consequence of stunted intellectual growth, temporarily, at the very least.

This is all capitalism can offer the vast majority of people: a huge burden of debt which induces a form of enslavement or missing important opportunities in life in order to reduce the debt.

As regards schools, dubious methods are being resorted to by more affluent parents in an attempt to get their children into schools which occupy a higher position in the league tables of the exam treadmill. Many of these better off parents often try to segregate their children from those of poorer backgrounds, through the use of tutors, private schools and faith schools. Desperate efforts are made by some parents in an attempt to get their children into the desired schools. The measures employed include moving house into the catchment area of the targeted school or allowing their children to move temporarily into the homes of relatives or friends who live in the sought after catchment area. All of this, in an attempt to deceive the LEA (Local Education Authority).

Then, there are the exams themselves: GCSEs, AS-levels and A2-Levels, with the perennially critical claim that “standards are dropping” in comparison with the past. Lesson time is largely devoted to the demands of passing these exams, rather than giving students a real understanding and appreciation of the subjects which they are supposed to be studying. In fact, many believe that lessons are much more about how to pass the exams rather than learning about the subjects for their own sake. Numerous teachers complain about the rigidity of the syllabus and about how their lesson plans are being constantly supervised, something which previously only applied to those who were in their first six months probationary period.

Aims of the Education System
Political leaders and mainstream educationalists usually claim that the purpose of education is along the following lines:

(1) Acquisition of knowledge, development of mental and physical skills and personality to enhance the life of an individual.

(2) The achievement of the above, it is then declared, will enable individuals to make a contribution towards the overall economic, social and cultural wealth of society.

To a limited extent, in the developed countries at least, much of this has been partially achieved. However, in a class-based society such as capitalism education, like much else, is subordinated to the interests of the ruling class. Those interests fundamentally involve the creation of profit which is a vital source of the wealth of the capitalists.

Although on occasions, mainstream education may refer to isolated ideas which criticise some of the policies of ruling elites (generally policies which took place in the distant past, such as Britain’s involvement in the slave trade from the 16th to the 19th century), the reality is that the education system has rarely radicalised students, apart from a brief period in the 1960s and 1970s. Usually it has taught them to accept the status quo and to fit into it. This lack of radicalisation of students has been maintained through the following factors:


  • The very limited nature of the education received by many students. Most of that education is geared to the demands of industry and commerce.




  • Capitalism has so far at least, managed to pressure most students into thinking more about getting employment at the end of their course, rather than to consider becoming radical.




  • The prevalence of status quo ideas in the education system: the values of religious organisations in feudal times and, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the values of the capitalist class.




  • In more recent times most people’s understanding of the society in which they live has been influenced hugely by an expanding media, much of which is controlled by wealthy corporate owners and other commercial interests.



  • In the present society the main aim of education is to provide the knowledge and skills base necessary for employment in capitalism. A workforce educated according to the demands of the profit system will then maintain and, in favourable trade cycle periods, boost the wealth of the owners of the means of production.

    An obvious consequence of these objectives of education has been a strong emphasis on subjects considered to be relevant to employment: maths, English, science, computer and business studies. The Education Reform Act of 1988 set up the National Curriculum which was designed to standardise what was taught in schools. The intention of this was to facilitate assessment and led to the creation of “league tables” showing the academic performance of schools in exams. Most significantly, maths, English, science and information technology were established as compulsory subjects up to the minimum school leaving age of 16. In contrast, under the 2002 Education Act, subjects such as history, geography, foreign languages, art and music could be dropped at the age of 14 since most of them were thought to be less relevant to the employment process.

    Education and Income Group
    Under capitalism, there has always been a very strong income factor determining educational achievement. Children from better off homes overwhelmingly do better than those from poorer families. The children from deprived backgrounds are frequently and erroneously labelled as being “less able” by those educationalists who are entirely ignorant of the vital socio-economic factors influencing educational development and the gaining of qualifications.

    A useful book which refutes the claims of the “less able” educationalists is Education and Working Class by Jackson and Marsden, written in 1962 and which has been on the reading lists of many teacher training courses. The authors concentrate mainly on differing levels of educational achievement within the working class itself (as mainstream sociologists frequently do). They show by statistics and surveys, how children of unskilled manual workers are far more likely to leave school early, with few qualifications. In contrast to this, those with white collar, managerial parents, were more likely to pass a greater number of school exams and then to go on to university. Aspects of the book may be criticised by socialists for its emphasis on the material, social and economic divisions within the working class itself, rather than including a comparison with the children of the capitalist class. Nevertheless, it is still of significant value since it illustrates clearly how a lack of material resources and encouragement can seriously affect a child’s progress in education.

    In 2007 a report entitled Chicken and Egg: Child Poverty and Educational Inequalities by Donald Hirsch, shows how little has changed, after another 45 years of capitalism. By the age of three, Hirsch concludes that “being in poverty makes a difference equivalent to nine months’ development in school readiness.” He continues: “At each stage of compulsory schooling, the poverty gap grows. In particular, there is a big jump early in secondary school, with poor children nearly two years behind by the age of 14.”

    Hirsch adds: “Children who do badly at primary school are less likely to improve at secondary school, if they are poor. Children who are only slightly below average at primary school are more likely to be among the worst performers at secondary school, if they are poor.

    Young people with parents in manual occupations remain far less likely than others to go to university. Even though their prospects have improved, they have not been the main beneficiaries of university expansion. Children of non-manual workers are over two and a half times as likely to go to university than children of manual workers.”


    Like Jackson and Marsden, Hirsch is mainly looking here at different layers of the working class. All the same, it is a clear demonstration of how material circumstances in capitalism affect outcomes in education.

    In February 2010 the Sutton Trust supported research which showed that “the vocabulary of children from the poorest backgrounds lags more than a year behind that of their classmates from richer homes by the time they start school.”

    “Those from the poorest 20 percent of homes, where household annual incomes averaged £10,300 before tax, had an average developmental age of 53.6 months…Children from families in the richest 20 percent, on around £80,000 reached a development age of 69.8 months.”

    In other words, children from the more affluent homes had a developmental age more than 16 months ahead of those from poorer homes. This is clearly a result of material circumstances.

    Certainly, the demands of the capitalist education system, to restrain monetary expenditure and investment, cause highly significant barriers, particularly for children from more deprived backgrounds. Additionally, these cutbacks create real problems for many other working class children from less deprived backgrounds. The wealthy can purchase places for their children in private schools and universities, usually without any fear of indebtedness. For the rest of the population (the working class), the situation is very different and in recent years these inequalities have been increasing rather than diminishing.

    Education in Socialist Society
    So, what would education be like in a socialist society? A detailed description obviously cannot be given since it will be up to the people at the time to decide upon exactly which forms education would take. However, it is very clear that, in complete contrast to capitalism, socialism will put human need first. The welfare and needs of people, both as individuals and as a community will be treated as a priority.

    The importance of developing to the full, the mental, physical and social abilities and talents of everyone, as individuals, will undoubtedly be recognised. Most significantly, education will inevitably be considered a lifelong process and certainly not something to be compartmentalised into time slots, like happens under the present system. As a result of this, people will be able to lead far more satisfying lives than could ever be even remotely achieved under capitalism. This satisfaction would derive from the contributions to the overall material, intellectual social and cultural wealth of society which people would be able to make and, of course, from the fact that, as individuals, they would be able to enjoy the fruits of the common store.

    A quotation from Chapter 2 of the Communist Manifesto sums up the situation well:

    “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”


    Here, the term “free development” can be taken to include education. In socialist society, there would be no financial constraints since the monetary system will have been abolished and production will be carried out solely for human need. The stresses and strains of cutbacks and needless austerity measures will finally have been abolished forever and at last, humanity will be able to move forward, considerably through genuine and effective education, towards real progress, both as individuals and as a community.
    Vincent Otter