Class divide at the heart of our education

Amy Field, Chair of the YCL London District

I’m sure everyone reading this is aware of the deep class divisions within the British educational system. The disparities could not be more glaringly obvious. Children of rich bankers go off to Eton, while the heating of the local comp still hasn’t been fixed. Fairly common knowledge.

While the existence of public schools such as Eton is one of the most obnoxious examples of the way that class divide is embedded within education, and thus in maintaining the rule of the capitalist class, there is another more subtle way in which class divide has found its way into the classroom, and its happening inside state schools across the country.

Cast your mind back a decade to 2010. This was the beginning of a decade of Tory rule and in turn the unveiling of Tory attitudes towards education. The 2010 Conservative conference saw the invitation of an unusual speaker, Katharine Birbalsingh, who went on to be the headteacher of Michaela Community academy, a free school in North London that attained notoriety as ‘Britains Strictest School’.

In this speech Birbalsingh essentially outlined what was to be the attitude of the government towards educating disadvantaged students. It was all very much the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ type rhetoric typical of those on the right, ignorant and dismissive of the societal but also material disadvantages faced by working class students. It’s hard to study if you don’t have a quiet place to work, I am however sure, that there is study space abundant at Eton. 

What followed was a quiet revolution in the nature of which inner city children were educated. Birbalsingh was very much a flag bearer of the ‘no tolerance’ type approach to teaching that became so widespread within schools serving large proportions of disadvantaged students and in particular children from ethnic minorities. This approach, emphasised the role of the teachers authority in importing strict disciplinary measures, for example ‘silent corridors’ are now a feature of many state schools, and the use of walled isolation booths has become commonplace. In schools serving wealthier areas, such measures are less widespread. Stressed also was a style of teaching in which the teacher simply imparted information and the student absorbed, diminishing the role of debate and discussion. 

For many I am sure that this approach regarding education sounds appealing, I don’t denounce the role of discipline in education, but it is clear that the basis of this approach is deeply problematic. By weaving the concept of ‘obeying ones betters’ into every aspect of school life, the Tory government has forged an effective tool in stopping the seeds of class consciousness from being spread. 

The model championed by front runners such as Birbalsingh, and embraced by Gove, the Secretary of State for education at the time, did nothing to acknowledge and overcome the disadvantages faced by working class children. The farce of meritocracy was ruthlessly pushed, while in reality, class divisions under austerity grew ever deeper. 

Furthermore, I myself find something deeply concerning with this idea that inner city children who are often from from ethnic minority groups, must be ‘kept in line’ with an iron rod, unlike that of their wealthier peers. This is especially damaging for students on the autistic spectrum or with mental health problems, who, often facing the brunt of budget cuts, face especially poor outcomes.

The ruling class have created a strategy in which the state educational system actively serves their interests. In underfunded state schools students are taught a curriculum that works to actively demonises left wing ideas, the AQA A level Textbook on Russian History is particularly blatant with its McCarthyism.

However, as communists, it is our duty to reach out to our younger comrades are provide a counterpoint to the narratives being presented with in schools. As such our work in Marxist education becomes more important than ever. Today, it is more important that ever to resist all forms of class divide, and work to inspire class consciousness amongst Britain’s youth. 

Amy Field

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