Nick Stevenson, University of Nottingham

When progressive rock band Pink Floyd released their song ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ in 1979 little did they realise that it would continue to resonate through the neo-liberal era. That same year Margaret Thatcher’s government would begin the process of bringing to an end post-war social democracy. However, despite the efforts of Keith Joseph to impose a voucher system on education, the first wave of neoliberalism made little direct impact upon the schooling system.

The song became an instant worldwide hit and is more usually associated with the thought control evident within state-dominated societies. However, lines such as ‘we don’t need no education’ and ‘no dark sarcasm in the class-room’ point to how we need to make a distinction between schooling and education. If schooling is the process by which individuals are prepared for their role within society then education – at least since Socrates and certainly since the Enlightenment – has meant the ability to think for yourself and to do so critically.

This basic distinction means that there is no value-neutral education and that, when looking at the current debates and transformations in respect of schooling, it is important to remember this fact. If we are in the midst of a profound transformation within the school system we need to think carefully about what this tells us about the world in which we live today and the values we think important for our young people. 

The English school system is currently going through a set of changes as profound as the arrival of the comprehensive system after the Second World War. Despite appearances to the contrary, there now exists a considerable amount of agreement between the Coalition government and so-called third way socialists as to how schools should be run and governed. The arrival of the academy system – initiated by the previous Labour government and extended by the new Coalition government – has instituted a revolution from above in the name of pragmatism and ideological neutrality.

Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, who in his recent speeches has been defending a liberal view of education, has through the expansion of academies eroded the autonomy of teachers, enhanced the power of school heads and generally expanded the control of the state. If the meaning of education is now determined by neoliberal ideals of upward mobility, teaching to the test and, of course, education for global competitiveness then this has meant increased state involvement in the governing of schools. Schooling is now less a matter of professional judgment and more determined through school league tables, Ofsted and the running down of local authority through central state control.

This assertion of central control is largely justified by supposedley poor educational standards evident within so called ‘bog standard’ comprehensive schools. The recent media reaction to the Pisa report offering international comparative data across sixty-six countries was revealing in this respect. Not surprisingly, both Labour and the Conservatives took the report as an excuse to attack the other side with neither stopping to think whether the comparisons were in any way meaningful. This is largely because the current education agenda on school’s across the Left-Right divide is so similar.

There are of course a few voices of dissent that have emerged in the anti-academies alliance and through columnists such as Peter Wilby and Michael Rosen but mostly critical perspectives on the rise of the academy have a hard time making themselves heard in the mainstream public sphere. The current policies being promoted by an alliance of charities, politicians and think tanks exclude any investigation of different educational philosophies and traditions or the idea that the current practice is a matter of ideological debate and choice. The remodeling of schooling to enhance entrepreneurialism, promote class mobility and enhance international competiveness is neoliberal to the core.

The emergence of the post-comprehensive era in respect of English schools and the arrival of academy schools is a legacy of the New Labour era. Third way socialism’s mantra of ‘education, education, education’ quickly identified that the comprehensive school system required not simply more resources (which it did) but more long term structural reform. In this respect, Labour Lord Andrew Adonis is one of the key architects of the academies era whose work has received high praise within the political elites of both Right and Left. Adonis’s main argument (best expressed in his recent book Education, Education, Education) is that academies need to be promoted to move away from the educational apartheid of a state sector set against the private sector.

Academies, then, hold out the prospect of increasing class mobility through pressure from a battery of external agencies like Ofsted, increased powers for head teachers and most importantly a new ethos that refuses to accept excuses for exam failure. There is then no good reason as to why poor children cannot succeed at school within an atmosphere governed by academic rigour and discipline. In this understanding schools become engines of social mobility, enabling the poorest to compete with their better off counterparts. According to this perspective, in the past comprehensives had low expectations of working-class children and failed to provide an ethos of order and discipline that enabled learning to take place. But what is missing here is any wider sociological understanding of the working of the class structure, the differential allocation of cultural capital or the impact of poverty.

On the political Right, while some still wish to return to the grammar schools of the past, many have followed Michael Gove by seeing tremendous political potential within the academies model. If the political Right has long been frustrated by the egalitarian ethos of comprehensives then within the academy system the argument that schooling should emphasise order and discipline from above offers many attractive features. In his more recent speeches, Michael Gove has sought to return to the ideas of nineteenth century liberal and Romantic writer Mathew Arnold. What seemingly attracts Gove is Arnold’s idea of education as offering working-class children ‘the best of what has been thought and said’.

On one level, the phrase is meaningless as in a global and multicultural society it is no longer (if indeed it ever was) very clear what this means. However what it does perhaps reveal is the educational philosophy that lurks not far beneath the surface of the academy school, being one where children are simply directed to learn the knowledge delivered to them by experts and teachers. The increasingly authoritarian make-up of academy schools and the intense distaste for the more experimental pedagogies of the 1960s offer a view of children less as the active citizens of the future and more as ‘empty vessels’ of knowledge. If the comprehensive era failed to encourage the idea of active learning it did at least seek to inter-mix children from different class backgrounds, involve local education authorities and think about education in broader terms than exam ‘success’.

Absent from the current debates is much discussion on what an education suitable for a democratic, multicultural and global society might look like. In this respect, nostalgia for the comprehensive era is misplaced given that it developed during the welfare compromise after 1945. However the extent to which the educational logic of schools is now almost entirely dominated by the market was evident in some recent remarks made by David Cameron on his trip to China. It is because of the economy that we are now likely to see greater emphasis being placed on the need to learn Mandarin rather than ideas of global citizenship and inter-cultural dialogue. Is this the kind of schooling that we want?

Of course, this is not to argue that education does not need to have a relationship with the economy, but this should not be allowed to completely determine its direction and ethos. Instead new ideas are needed to develop a generation of differently abled and genuinely curious young people whose skills and talents cannot be measured by standardised tests. Indeed one of the reasons why there has been little political or, indeed, public reaction to the disappearance of the comprehensive is that it is the place where many citizens learned to fail. It is simply the place where they learned that learning and creative thinking was not for them. This is not only a massive waste of human resources, but also a missed opportunity where many found little to be interested in or anything of much value.

Education continues to matter as a place where we can discover new ideas, experiment and take risks. This, however, is a long way from the more regimented and hierarchical version of education being offered by a newly emergent academy system. In the eighteenth century the philosopher Rousseau argued that in any genuine education what is learned must be meaningful for the learner if it is to be of value. These and other more progressive ideas are fast disappearing from a world built less on the imagination and more on what Pink Floyd would have identified as ‘thought control’. It is time for new voices to be heard in what is becoming an increasingly sterile debate where education is seen to have value only in terms of economic success. Wider questions related to the quality of life, sustainability and inter-cultural dialogue appropriate to the 21st century have yet to make themselves heard.

Nick Stevenson is a Reader in Cultural Sociology at the University of Nottingham, and is the author of Education and Cultural Citizenship published in 2011 by Sage. He has three differently abled children currently making their way through the school system.