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Master or Servant? The Error of Personalising Radical Unpopular Change in Schooling in England

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To many in the teaching profession Michael Gove generates deep seated animosity. However, Andrew Lambirth, Professor of Education at the University of Greenwich, argues here that these feelings dangerously miss the point, and that teachers need to focus their attention far more heavily on the economy, not personality.

economic wordsSince the advent of the Conservative Party led coalition government in the UK and the implementation of its policies for education, strong negative feelings have grown towards Michael Gove amongst many of those who teach in schools and colleges. Indeed, from my experience, mere mention of his name in staff-rooms is greeted with a reception worthy of the entrance of the Demon King, Dick Dastardly, Captain Hook, Lex Luther, J.R. Ewing or even Simon Cowell.

But should we explain the reasons for Michael Gove’s policies purely in terms of his personality or even his personal ideology? Is it really all down to an individual’s whim?

No, there is a far greater and more powerful driver than Michael Gove. It’s called the economy and if Gove was not in charge today somebody else equally devoted to capitalism would be doing more or less the same thing – even a Labour Secretary of State. The reason: because they have to.

I think it’s time to approach our analysis of contemporary education policy differently or we may find ourselves blaming mere personalities for the demise of our democratic education system rather than finding the true source. Although it’s cathartic to look for the baddy and personalise the reasons for unpopular change, I believe we need to examine the material conditions that influence the reasons governments manage the country as they do. Gove too is a servant, a servant of capitalism and the only ideology which drives him is his dedication to serving this economic system. The present economy is in trouble and can no longer afford levels of education spending to which we have grown accustomed. I believe that if the economy was booming we would be witnessing a very different and more generous education policy which would determine the structures and pedagogies being developed.

Bear with me: a very brief and basic economic history lesson crucial to understanding what Gove is up to.

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s I benefited from the economic boom period that had followed 1945 when governments adopted the Keynesianism model of economics (Fletcher 1989). Keynes advocated increased government expenditure and lower taxes to stimulate demand. Yet, this boom was less to do with the model of economics applied and much more to do with an unprecedented expansion of world trade that was partly stimulated by post-war reconstruction (Brenner 1998).

As part of this boom, whole new industries were established like plastics, atomic energy and computers and so on. There was massive investment in expanding the productive forces in Japan, the USA and Western Europe (Woods 2008). This was a very progressive period and governments could afford to invest in schools and housing.

I can remember my mother telling me when I was a child that one day we would all fly on Concorde.  There was a belief that things really would get better. Ordinary people secured jobs with good pensions and new careers were developed that provided hope in the prospect of social mobility. The leaders of the Tory party with their policies in the 1960s would look like ‘lefties’ to us today.

But alas, this was not to last. The 1970s was a time of high inflation and the economy across the world entered a period of economic turbulence resulting in booms and slumps that has continued to this day.

We are now experiencing a slump in the economy of enormous proportions. Despite recent shallow signs of improvement for some, the economy of the world is stuck in a crisis of over-production which is endemic to capitalism (Marx 1991, D’Amato 2006) and has left huge levels of excess-capacity. Over many years there has been too much produced and not enough demand to buy it. The world market has become too narrow and the capacity too great (Brenner 1998, Woods 2008).

The answer that leaders of the world have come up with is free market economics and austerity. But don’t be too hard on them; anyone who believes in preserving the future of capitalism would have to do the same. No other tinkering will make any difference. It is estimated that austerity measures will last for more than a generation. Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman believes that we have entered a period of permanent economic slump. The economy we are experiencing today has become the norm. We can no longer afford lasting reforms. It is the epoch of counter-reforms and attacks. The party is well and truly over.

Education policy is directly related to the economic climate and it baffles me that many involved in policy scholarship and analysis won’t concede this to be true (perhaps because they secretly hope and pray it isn’t). My argument is not locked in a form of economic determinism, but is part of a call to recognise how material conditions can indicate and give rise to the policies and constraints of the day.

Those who manage the economy know that they increasingly can no longer afford the levels of education that was offered to young people back in the 60s and 70s or even during the mini boom days of the New Labour government. Post war educational reforms are being withdrawn in front of our very eyes and Michael Gove is the latest economic custodian to join in in this period of counter-educational reform.

Further to the explicit cuts in education spending we have already seen, there has been a return to the old model of ‘free market’ capitalism, or how it’s also referred to:  ‘neo-liberalism’.  It has replaced Keynesianism; a choice between inflation and deflation has been made.

Policies based on neo-liberalism are far from new; instead they are an expression of the crisis in the economy as I have described. A looting of the state is underway by business and this includes our education system and the schools therein. There is money to be made in schooling and many companies are waiting on the side-lines.

If you like your schools run by businesses rather than an elected local authority your time has come, but as much as the present Secretary of State may enjoy what he does, he is a long way from being the architect.

What is needed is a mature analysis of what drives the managers of the economy.  Indeed, there may be a need to think again about notions that capitalism will be here forever. Teachers, parents and school students may need to consider democratically removing not just Michael Gove from power, but also the economic system he serves which is no longer capable of providing education that our children deserve. Is it time to create a genuinely democratic society which can prioritise education as a means of enrichment of the self, society and freedom.

References

Brenner R. (1998) ‘Uneven Development and the Long Downturn: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Boom to Stagnation’ New Left Review 229, May-June 1998

D’Amato, P. (2006) The Meaning of Marxism Chicago: Haymarket books

Fletcher, G. (1989). The Keynesian Revolution and Its Critics: Issues of Theory and Policy for the Monetary Production Economy. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Marx, K. (1991) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3, trans. David Fernbach: London: Penguin

Woods, A. (2008) Reform or Revolution: Marxism and Socialism of the 21st Century London: Wellred Books

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