Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What's Wrong With Education: Bursting of the 'Comprehensive' Bubble (1974)

From the May 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

So the cat is finally out of the education bag — at last. The cracks have finally broken through the paper!

The situation in the Inner London schools is now so disastrous that teachers are telling the papers how, in many of them, it is practically impossible to teach. Truancy has reached catastrophic proportions. According to Dr. Rhodes Boyson MP (late Head of Highbury Grove Comprehensive School) 500,000 children play truant every day; he says “it is creating a new criminal sub-class”. Nobody really knows how many truants there are, because without frequent spot-checks absence is uncontrollable. The kids are voting with their feet. Many of those who sit through the morning to get the school dinner vote with their eyes, glaring balefully at the monkey up front in silent vicious hatred.

All the millions in money, the shiny new glass and plastic buildings, the innumerable experts (there is no field of human endeavour with more bloody "experts” than education!) and “advisers”, the gimmicks and stunts to keep the kids at it till 16 — have, in about half the schools population, lamentably failed.

Above all, it is the dismal failure of the so-called comprehensive schools. These are the hot-beds, the fertile source of the troubles. For twenty-five years the love-child of every sentimental “Lefty”, eventually official Labour Party policy, “comprehensive” was to be the magic key to crack the education problem. It was to give “equality of opportunity” to all, including the academically backward.

Only those who are actually inside the school racket (sorry — “educational profession”!) know the full story of the incredible goings-on in the most notorious giant London comprehensives. The one in North London where the kids piled the desks and chairs in the middle of a class-room and set fire to them. The other one in South London where when the teacher shouted “Will you shut up?” thirty-three boys shouted back in unison “No, we will not!”

So bad has the situation become that the Inner London Authority now has special Truancy Centres (staffed by “experts", of course) where the kids who just will not attend, any school do what they like. According to the London Evening News “what they like” is smashing things up.

The ILEA now wants to abandon “comprehensive” policy and build no more. Having scrapped the smaller, despised “Secondary Moderns” to set up vast comprehensives, small schools have become a desperate administration’s new ideal. Quite outside all the high-minded and noble educational sentiments and theories, the main motive for comprehensives was simply economy — as it was foolishly believed: saving money.

Your contributor was actually present at a meeting of several hundred London teachers in the early days when Mr. Houghton, Chief Education Officer, told them: “I don’t care whether you are for or against comprehensives — I’ve got to find a quarter of a million places on the ninth of September!” A comprehensive school saves at least three headmasters’ salaries (about £5-6,000 p.a. each) and makes many practical economies in buildings, power, heating, maintenance, catering, etc., by working on a large scale. With the result that, with the raising of the school-leaving age, 2,000 or even 2,500 children have been crammed into schools bursting at the seams.

After the war, the Labour Government set up a committee to enquire into education. It came up with the Hadow Report, which was the Bible of the teachers’ training colleges in those days. The old system of sorting elementary-school sheep and grammar-school goats was to be replaced by juniors up to 11; then Grammar, Technical and Secondary Modern up to 15. The now-notorious eleven-plus examination would decide that each child would receive education according to “his age, aptitude and ability”.

Almost as soon as this tri-partite system was introduced, the howls of protest started. True it is that the eleven-plus produced some fantastic results (like the boy whose card was sorted into the wrong box at the office — an eleven-plus failure — who went on to get a Ph.D.). The theory behind “comprehensivation” — yes, that’s what they call it! — was “equality”. Even if a boy couldn’t do differential equations, analyze a sentence, or speak German, he wore the same uniform and played football on the same pitch (although frequently he couldn’t play football either).

Faced with the fact that various kids have different aptitudes — and certainly Socialists have never thought otherwise — an elaborate system of “streaming” and “sets” was set up, to shove some through the university-animated exam, system. The teachers themselves got together and drafted a completely new examination, the Certificate of Secondary Education. Still only a few responded. A flood of learned books has poured out; teams of research sociologists have “proved” that a boy (or girl) in a “home” where money is tight, the telly never stops, there is no spare room and, above all, the parents can hardly read and despise learning—has little chance against a well-fed, contented child with ample room, warmth, light, and (most important of all) the practical example of a genuine delight and pleasure in books and learning.

Outside the school, the lure of money is compelling. A hefty well-built lad of sixteen can get a job as a hod-carrier at a man’s wage. Small wonder that the bait of examination passes fails to attract!

Thousands of teachers leave training colleges annually filled with a genuine vocational idealism and the intention to dedicate their lives to the education of our children: only to have “their hearts broken” (as they say) and leave to do anything — barmaid, petrol pump, shop — rather than “be driven mad” teaching. Four out of five girls leave in the first year.

The zealous educational reformer has now to swallow the bitter bread of humiliation. The old submissive obedience has gone. The kids are sceptical, intensely suspicious and inquisitive. To them we would say: “Why waste time and effort harassing and barracking the teacher? They are victims of the capitalist system no less (even more) than you. They are working men and women trying to do an extremely onerous and impossibly demanding job. There is something to be learned from even the worst teacher!” And: "Ignorance never helped anybody ’ (Marx).

To the teacher we say: You will never get educational equality in capitalist society. All you can do is maintain an efficient Union to protect you from abuses.

During the recent General Election the school debating society at a large north-west London comprehensive ran a mock election. The Socialist candidate, a sixteen-year-old boy, denounced the Labour Party and exposed nationalization. To cheers from the audience he declared : "We’ve got to learn, we’ve thought too much about Lenin; we’ve got to find out more about Karl Marx!” And they will, too. After all, they are finding out about practically everything else!

Gold! Gold! Gold! (1976)

From the June 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

Further shattering revelations by the BBC! First, the programme on “Where Keynes went wrong”. Now, the documentary on Gold. The Radio Times of 24th April said plaintively:
  Why do we dig gold out of a hole in the ground, carry it across the world, and bury it in other holes, with guards over it? There are millions of tons of it lying in the vaults around the world, yet nobody can touch it. How did we get into this insane situation?
Could it be that Simon Campbell-Jones (the producer) is a listener to the SPGB in Hyde Park? There, our speakers, in dealing with the absurd contradictions of capitalism, frequently refer to precisely this absurdity as the most bizarre of all: surpassing the glut of dairy produce, the millions of bricks, the wine lake, the motor-car crisis, and now the 74 laid- up super-tankers.

The programme was quite well done, even amusing in parts, but giving not the slightest hint of an explanation of this insanity, preferring to leave it at that. May we suggest a solution of this perplexing problem? First, the programme was in error in stating that gold buried in the ground by man “is quite useless and has no value”. The reason that 80 per cent. of the world’s gold is re-buried is because it does have value, not because it has none. If it had no value it would be thrown away. It has value because it contains human labour. This is the reason why it is so carefully hoarded, whether by individuals or governments.

Gold metal is preferred to everything else as a “universal equivalent” (“as the hart pants for cooling streams—so pants the Commodity for gold”, wrote Marx) because it is practically indestructible, conveniently divisible, and immediately measurable (by weight). Our original “One Pound” was a pound weight of pure silver, then ousted by gold. Bankers quickly found that it is not necessary to ship actual gold bars to settle debts. After all, its specific gravity is 19.00. Most accounts could be settled by clearing banks debiting one client against the credit of others. Paper documents, Bills of Exchange, Promissory Notes, cheques, bonds, securities, are all ways of transferring goods without any move of gold bullion.

But, however complicated and extensive, the credit system still depends in the end on gold for solvency and stability. Gold: the one commodity everybody wants, because it reflects all the others. Who has gold, has everything. Gold is real wealth—tangible, shining, weigh-able labour—its value determined, like the value of everything else, by the amount of labour it contains.

Neither is it true that “nobody can touch it”. Not so! Today’s news is that the government has spent over £2,000 millions in gold, to try to bolster the falling paper pound. Those who push it down vaults —can pull it up again. Indian peasants hoard gold ornaments, Stalin insisted on payment in actual gold bars and not paper pesetas for the arms supplied to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Shylock demanded a bagful of real gold ducats in exchange for the paper promise.

What finally sparked the invasion of Russia by the capitalist powers in 1918 was not the Bolshevik “dictatorship of the proletariat” or Lenin’s red banner, but the fact that he confiscated the gold in the Czarist banks. This writer has actually been shown a wad of Czarist banknotes by a poor fellow in the south of France, confident that when the Romanoffs are back he’ll have it made.

When Trotsky was removed from the War Ministry and placed in charge of the Concessions Committee, one of his first visitors was Averil Harriman, the American banker. Harriman was proudly taken by Trotsky to the famous Lena goldfields and informed by him that “beneath that terrain was one of the richest seams in the world—and above it one of the best Communist Youth organizations in Russia”. Harriman was reported as saying on his return home that had the position been reversed he would have been ready to talk business.

When Ivor Montagu, the Communist scion of the Swaythling merchant banking family, visited the USSR to further his researches into the smaller mammalia, his father mentioned to him that they had regular confidential reports on the Bolsheviks’ gold reserve— hinting that confirmation of these would be much appreciated. The banker needed to know how much gold the Bolsheviks really had.

Capitalism has now reached the stage where even the BBC sees the absurdity: vast amounts of labour are wasted digging gold, to bury it again. But this does serve a function under capitalism; it is the real backing to the paper promise. What to do with the vast hoards of the stuff left buried by capitalism may be a problem in Socialism. Thomas More suggested that it be used for children’s toys. William Morris thought it might line lavatory pans, though porcelain is more hygienic. Apart from capping teeth, it seems foredoomed to ornamental use.

Condition of Blind Leaders Deteriorating (1976)

From the July 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

How hopelessly ignorant can these trade union leaders get?

Here we have John Boyd, the Secretary of the Engineering Union, on television the other night talking about “the Marxian phrase Surplus Value or what is the same thing, Profit’.

Dear Mr. Boyd, surplus-value is not the same as profit. Profit is calculated on the capitalist’s total outlay including Constant Capital (machinery) and Variable Capital (labour). Surplus-value is calculated on the difference between necessary and surplus labour. It is called “surplus” because it is over and above the value needed to reproduce the workers’ pay.

For instance: An investment of £10,000 (£5,000 Constant and £5,000 Variable or wages) with a rate of surplus-value of 100 per cent, produces a profit of 50 per cent. Why? Because, silly Mr. Boyd, the capitalist has to pay for machinery and raw materials besides labour. Therefore, even if the worker works 4 hours for himself and then 4 free for the capitalist, the boss still doesn’t make 100 per cent. profit: only 50 per cent. on his total outlay.

What Mr. Boyd can do for his members when he doesn’t even know what profit (and therefore wages) is, nobody knows! Perhaps he had better stick to playing the trombone in his Salvation Army band.