Appel pour une école démocratique
How should we respond to what we see Labour doing in education? In the relentless pursuit of 'modernisation', education for global competitiveness, for social fairness and personal development go, it is claimed, hand in hand. Yet the resulting policy agenda as it unrolls provokes a very mixed response of approval for some elements and disapproval, if not outright opposition, for others. How do these fit together?
In this chapter we want to argue that Labour has a coherent project for education, and that the principal driving force behind it, which gives it that coherence, is the interests of big business. The business agenda for education is increasingly transnational, generated and disseminated through key organisations of the international economic and political elite such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which comprises the 30 richest countries in the world. In that context there is a project for education at the European level which represents the specific agenda of the dominant European economic and political interests, coordinated by the European Commission and its subsidiary bodies, and organisations such as the European Round Table, a grouping of 45 leaders of major European companies from 16 countries which is the most powerful pressure group of European industrialists.
The reason for the business agenda for education can be summed up in one word: globalisation. In 1989 the European Round Table published a report called Education and competence in Europe. It considered education and training as 'strategic investments vital for the future success of industry', and argued that 'the technological and industrial development of European businesses clearly requires an accelerated reform of the systems of education and their programmes'. In the 1995 ERT report Education for Europeans: Towards the Learning Society a much more urgent note is sounded. European industry, it says, has responded rapidly to globalisation.
But the world of education is too slow to respond. [...] In nearly all European countries there is an ever-widening gap between the education that people need for today's complex world and the education they receive. [...] This is a major economic and social concern [...] It is time to raise a cry of alarm...
The key themes of the business agenda for education at school level are as follows:
The school is the producer of human capital, the key factor in competitiveness
Knowledge is changing rapidly, so we need a competence-based curriculum combining basic skills with an emphasis on flexibility and adaptibility
Citizenship education is necessary for social cohesion
In order to respond rapidly to economic change, the school system must be deregulated and schools given much more autonomy
In order to feed into a differentiated labour market, there must be more diversity and differentiation in schooling
Information and communications technology is a top priority for schools
School management must be strengthened and teachers regulated
This is a neo-liberal project whose principal aim is to make schooling more profitable, in other words to shape and harness it much more closely to the new needs of capitalist competition. Of course, it is not put forward as representing solely the interests of the employers. One of its distinguishing features is that the reforms the employers want are presented as being in everyone's interest, and often include a particular concern for lower-achieving pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The language of social democracy veils the neo-liberal policy dynamic. But it is not just a question of being taken in by the rhetoric. There are elements of Labour's programme and the business agenda underpinnining it which resonate with the aspirations of progressive teachers and parents. They need to be understood not as good bits and bad bits but in their overall context of a project whose aims are to su8bordinate education even more closely to the needs of capital.
This transnational agenda applies unevenly to different countries. Some of its elements, particularly those to do with deregulation, were pioneered by the Thatcher government and fed by the Conservatives into the international agenda, and are only now posing a serious challenge in some other European countries such as France. Other elements, such as citizenship education, are more recent arrivals on the British scene than in many other countries. Furthermore, there are other local factors affecting government education policy in each country apart from the business agenda. For example, in the UK the grammar school issue is clearly affected mainly by Labour's electoral considerations. Nevertheless, the overall picture is of a gradual homogenisation of education systems in the advanced capitalist countries, and particularly so in Europe, under the pressure of the business agenda, eroding national peculiarities.
So Blair, Blunkett and key advisors like Michael Barber are not the original source of Labour's education agenda; they are translating into the British context the objectives of a neo-liberal project to remake school education which has been constructed over the last decade or so by the economic and political elites of the advanced capitalist countries. But this policy process is two-way - Labour is also contributing to the formation of the international agenda of education reform, and in some respects playing a leading role, thanks mainly to the headstart given to Britain in the race to reshape education by the Thatcher and Major governments and inherited by Blair. Labour's distinctive contribution today is the discourse of 'school improvement', in which Britain is now a global market leader exporting its expertise around the world.
We now want to provide evidence for each of the features we have identified of the business agenda. We will not, with the exception of one or two recent developments, spell out how they are actualised in British education - they are exemplified in Labour's White Paper Excellence in Schools and in the well-known initiatives it has given rise to.
According to the secretary general of the OECD, Donald J Johnston (1998), 'Among the historic factors of economic growth - land, capital, work - human capital has become the most important'. The precise form of human capital which the systems of education and training are expected to produce is spelled out in numerous recent policy documents. (This is not to say that they understand the complex and contradictory character of the labour powers needed by different forms of capital. See Rikowski 1998). According to the European Commission's White Paper on growth, competitiveness and employment (EC 1993), it is:
the ability to develop and act in a complex and highly technological environment, characterised in particular by the importance of information technologies; the ability to communicate, make contacts and organize etc. These skills include, in particular, the fundamental ability to acquire new knowledge and new skills - "to learn how to learn" throughout one's life.
Similarly, the Group for Reflection on Education and Training, a satellite body of the European Commission, defines what the 'user of the service', that is, the employers, want from the schools:
they must educate for the jobs most in demand, and to meet this demand, consider their speed of change, provide the key transferable competences which enable change, increase the level of technological understanding, and provide the basics of interculturality which will allow them to move in an international environment. (EC 1996)
To education is transferred the responsibility for remedying the socially damaging consequences of the capitalist economy. The ERT (1995) says that 'the causes of the high level of unemployment in Europe, or at least of its increase, (...) are to be found in the inadequacy and outdatedness of its systems of education and training'.
Knowledge and competences
The main impact of globalisation on the school is seen as the rapidly changing nature of knowledge. Edith Cresson (until recently the European Commissioner for Education) explains that
Knowledge is nowadays, in our fast-moving societies and economies, a perishable product. What we learn today is outdated or even redundant tomorrow. We need to renew and update our knowledge permanently, to keep up with - or indeed to set - the pace of change, instead of being overrun by it. (Cresson 1998)
The school needs to respond by moving from a knowledge-based curriculum to a competence-led curriculum. According to the OECD report Education Policy Analysis (1998):
It is more important to aim at educational objectives of a general character than to learn things which are too specific. In the world of work, there exists a set of basic competences - relationship qualities, linguistic aptitudes, creativity, the capacity to work in a team and to solve problems, a good understanding of new technologies - which have today become essential to possess to be able to obtain a job and to adapt rapidly to the evolving demands of working life.
As the European Commission says, 'The accent must be put on a solid basic general education and a portfolio of competences favouring innovation' (EC 1997a). In this light, the Conservatives' National Curriculum, in guaranteeing a 'broad and balanced' common curriculum for all until 16 years, was a deviation from the employers' agenda, which has subsequently been steadily dismantled at key stage 4 on the grounds of being unsuitable for less academic students, in keeping with EC policy. 'To delay access to vocational courses can diminish their attraction for young people' (EC 1998). The next step is to reconstruct the curriculum on the new principle of competences. This is exactly what is being advocated in the recent report Opening Minds published by the Royal Society for Arts (RSA) in June 1999, which promotes a competency-led or skills-led curriculum. It is expected that EAZ schools, which can opt out of the National Curriculum (as well as CTCs) will trial it (Hackney LEA has already expressed its enthusiasm). The report exemplifies the nexus of policy-makers at the heart of Labour's education project: the project director is Valerie Bayliss, formerly director of youth and education policy at the DfEE, and the report is sponsored by Andersen Consulting, an arm of the international management company Arthur Andersen which is closely involved in Labour education reform. (Guardian Education 15 June 1999).
The rapidly changing nature of knowledge means that the reduction in the knowledge-base of the secondary curriculum, while it is seen as particularly desirable for lower-achieving students, is regarded as appropriate for all students. As the EC White Paper says, 'Education could be rationalised by providing a shorter period of general education which is better tailored to market needs' (EC 1993). Charles Clarke, the British schools standards minister, recently announced that high-achieving 14 and 15 year olds were to be encouraged to opt out of part of the curriculum at key Stage 4 to enhance their employability and learn more about work (Times Educational Supplement 9 July 1999).
The labour market is highly differentiated. It does not require that all its future workers are educated to a common high standard. Instead it requires a stratified workforce with different sets of competences. As the 1998 report of the OECD Education Policy Analysis says:
The activities of the service sector can privilege the employment of the young in part for positive reasons - for example, because they need competences in informatics, an aptitude to adapt or the mastery of foreign languages. Nevertheless, certain sectors such as the retail trade and tourism, where the young are over-represented, offer numerous jobs demanding few qualifications.
Consequently not 'the common school' but 'diversity' becomes the key word - diversity of institutions, of curricula and of tracks through them. 'It is necessary to increase the richness and diversity of education and training to provide the European economies with all the necessary competences for an efficient and competitive industry' (ERT 1993). In particular, separate class-based academic and vocational routes are emphasised: 'for those who have difficulty in following an academic education, a broader range of possibilities should be made available in the field of vocational education, preferably including work experience' (EC 1997a). Differentiation of provision is justified by the revival of the concept of 'aptitudes'. (An interesting example of how potentially progressive ideas end up serving the business agenda is provided by the current advocacy in the UK, by Tim Brighouse, Chief Education Officer for Birmingham, and others, of Howard Gardner's notion of 'multiple intelligences'. Intended to valorise other forms of achievement apart from academic attainment, it ends up providing a new justification for old forms of differentiation by aptitude).
Globalisation exacerbates the social tensions in capitalist societies. The responsibility is assigned to the school to shore up social cohesion.
It would be to simplify things too much to consider that the sole mission of the school is to transmit knowledge, and that one can therefore transfer this task to the computer. The school has always had broader purposes, notably its social functions, the importance of which must increase now rather than diminish, as a result of the weakening of institutions such as the family and the local community which has made the socialisation of young people both more important and more difficult. For some, the school should constitute some sort of social unifier of communities otherwise divided and individualised. (EC 1998)
In consequence there is a renewed emphasis on the ideological function of school in the form of 'citizenship education'. It is a conception of citizenship which has at its centre the socialisation of the future flexible worker. According to the EC (1998), 'the learning of active citizenship includes access to the capacities and competences which young people will need to participate effectively in the economy in a context of technological modernisation, of globalisation of the economy, and, very concretely, of transnational European labour markets.' Consequently socialisation into the 'world of work' is central to the citizenship curriculum. The ERT report (1989) deplored that 'industry has only a very weak influence over the programmes taught', that teachers 'have an insufficient understanding of the economic environment, business and the notion of profit' and that 'they don't understand the needs of industry'. The EC (1995) insists that 'the understanding of the world of work, the knowledge of business and the perception of the changes which mark the activities of production are elements which the school must take on board'.
Deregulation of schooling, regulation of teachers
The OECD report Education Policy Analysis (1998) makes clear that the neo-liberal project entails a fundamental change in school as an institution and teaching as a job: 'globalisation - economic, political and cultural - renders obsolete the institution implanted locally and anchored in a determinate culture which is called "the school" and, in the same way, "the teacher".'
It means decentralisation of the school system, much greater autonomy for each school from governmental control, because 'Experience shows that the most decentralised systems are also those which are the most flexible, which adapt more quickly allow the development of new forms of partnership' (EC 1995). This means of course freedom of school managers from democratic constraints. The ERT (1995) says that 'As industrialists we believe that educators themselves should be free to conduct the same kind of internal searches for efficiency without interference or undue pressures exerted from the outside.' The coordinated international character of this shift is illustrated by the conference organised in 1997 near Chicago by the ubiquitous Arthur Andersen management company for 700 leading educators and business people from 44 countries to study 'how to apply modern techniques of management to the school.'
Just as flexibility is the key quality sought in the future worker, so it is in the new-model teacher.
Flexibility is an aspect of the professionalism of teachers which puts traditional notions perhaps most directly in question. Teachers must accept that the professional competences which are expected of them can change many times in the course of their careers and must not appeal to the pretext of professionalism to oppose change. (EC 1998)
The problem is how to change the deep-rooted public service ethos among teachers. 'The natural resistance of the traditional public education must be overcome by the use of methods combining encouragement, the establishment of objectives, the orientation towards the user and competition, notably that of the private sector' (EC 1996). The ERT recommends that 'teaching career structures and pay policies should reward competence and encourage greater commitment and achievement; this should be done as part of regular assessemnt procedures', and 'systems of making teaching appointments for life should be reviewed' (ERT 1995).
It is this imperative that gives rise to the continual attacks by Labour politicians and government officers on teachers. The most recent occurrence was a speech by Tony Blair to Britain's venture capitalists, which he used to contrast their entrepreneurialism with public sector workers' resistance to change (Guardian 7 July 1999).
Deregulation does not stop at institutional autonomy within the state system - it also opens up state education to the private sector. One powerful motivation is to hold down the education budget.
In the current economic climate it is doubtful that educational public spending will show a marked upturn, so attention is turning towards private investment in education and the better management of education budgets. From their own experience in restructuring for greater competitiveness, industry believes that it is better to spend available funds more effectively than to spend more. (ERT 1995)
The same report recommends that 'partnerships should be formed between schools and local business'.
A second reason for private sector involvement is that it would make schools more responsive to the needs of industry and business. 'There are many today who think that the time for education outside school has arrived, and that the liberation of the education process which it would make possible will result in the control of education by providers who would be more innovative than the traditional structures' (EC 1996).
Information and Commmunications Technology
In the neo-liberal project there is one panacea for the ills of the present school system - information and commmunications technology. It is prominent in policy documents and the subject of the 1997 ERT report Investing in Knowledge: The Integration of Technology in European Education. ICT is vital both for learning in schools today - it opens up the world of knowledge, it allows individual enquiry, and it powerfully motivates - and for work tomorrow. But ICT is also central in more specific ways to the business agenda. First, it facilitates the sort of individualised and flexible learning which is required for the modern worker, who is expected to be individually responsible for the management of their own human capital in the market-place. Secondly, ICT diminishes the role of the teacher, which is regarded as desirable on both ideological and financial grounds.
The development of different sources of information and knowledge is going to bring about a rapid decline in the monopoly of educational institutions in the domain of information and knowledge.
Even within the schools and colleges, the greater degree of individualisation of modes of learning - which are flexible and demand-led - can be considered as supplanting the formulas which are too heavy and dominated by the provider. It announces the consequent decline of the role of teachers, which is also demonstrated by the development of new sources of learning, notably by the role of ICT and of human resources other than teachers. (EC 1998)
There is a third, overtly commercial, reason why ICT in education is central to the neo-liberal project in Europe, as Edith Cresson explains.
The European market remains too narrow, too fragmented, the number of users and creators is still too weak and penalises our industry. However the multimedia and new education services sector promises a rapid take-off. That is why it was indispensable to take a certain number of measures to help and stimulate it. That is the objective of the plan of action called "Learning in the information society" which the Commission launched in October 1996. This has two principal aims: to help the schools of Europe to access as quickly as possible the technologies of information and communication; and to accelerate the emergence and give our market the dimension which our industry needs. (Cresson 1995)
In short, massive state spending on ICT in schools and colleges is necessary to stimulate and subsidise the European ICT industry.
It is doubtful if our continent will keep hold of the industrial place which it has achieved in this new market of multimedia if our systems of education and training do not rapidly keep pace. The development of these technologies, in a context of strong international competition, requires that the effects of scale play their full role. If the world of education and training does not use them, the European market will become a mass market too late. (EC 1996)
What conclusions can we draw from this analysis of the international business agenda for school education? It refutes the common-sense idea that Labour's education agenda is essentially devised by Labour and its advisors, and that its objectives are chosen by them, albeit in response to the economic imperatives of globalisation. Education policy is not distinct from and a local response to globalisation, it is itself part of globalisation. In other words, globalisation has an integral education dimension. Furthermore, that response is not being devised primarily at the level of each separate nation-state. The increasingly transnational nature of capital means that capital develops its education agenda on a transnational basis, though of course taking due account of national specificities. Within the wider context, European capital has its own specific needs. International and European capitals have organisations to construct and advance their collective interests: the OECD, the EC, the ERT, among others, and international education fixers like the Arthur Andersen company. It is through these organisations that the direction of national education policies is shaped in a two-way feedback process of combined and uneven development, as the path-breaking innovations in one country are transplanted to others.
The process we have just described began in the 1970s with the end of the post-war boom and the opening of a new political period. In education it was signalled in the UK in 1977 by Callaghan's Ruskin speech calling for education to be more responsive to the needs of industry, and translated into policy by the Conservative reforms. What is clear is that these represented only the beginning, not the end, of the business-inspired reform agenda, and that what Labour is carrying through is a continuing fundamental transformation of schooling.
We want to say something here about the implications of our argument for education research and development: specifically, for the school effectiveness and school improvement movement. Let us put a blunt question to the school improvement movement: how do they see the body of theory and practice which they are developing relate to the neo-liberal agenda which is driving government policy? We will take as a typical example a recent state-of-the-art book, Improving Schools: Performance and Potential, published in 1999, which is co-authored by six leading academics in the field (Gray et al 1999). It sanguinely states that 'There is much in the school effectiveness research that resonates with [...] the apparently increasing concern of government to intervene with a view to improvement' (p29). They give a number of examples, including: beginning with the Conservative Education Acts, the school is seen as the main unit of change; Labour's Excellence in Schools draws on the idea of 'pressure and support'; Ofsted is committed to 'improvement through inspection'; strong school leadership is vital. To what extent can it be claimed that this represents 'a 'merger' of concerns, traditions and methods' (p33)? Does the Tory marketisation of the school really represent what school improvers mean by the school as the unit of change? How closely does Michael Fullan's conception of pressure and support correspond to the pressure exerted by Chris Woodhead's regime? Is their notion of the role of the head the same as that envisaged in the Green Paper, controlling teachers through performance-related pay?
The answers are: of course not, there is a gulf between them, which the school improvement movement typically (with some exceptions) prefers to gloss over. In Improving Schools: Performance and Potential, Gray and his co-authors scarcely mention key elements of the official agenda such as increased selection and differentiation, and make no mention at all of the drive towards commercialisation and privatisation. The school improvement movement tends to avoid debate about the ends of school reform, preferring to restrict itself to generic processes of change which can be harnessed to any educational agenda. It exemplifies that form of depoliticised 'policy science' which accepts the problem agenda as given and concentrates on seeking technically effective answers.
The neo-liberal agenda for education is now sweeping with gathering speed through the school and college systems of Europe and the other advanced capitalist countries. The practical political consequences of our analysis is that, because it is driven by an external business dynamic, it is not susceptible to more than minor amelioration without serious organised opposition. However, there are signs of just that. In 1996 there was a long strike by teachers in francophone Belgium. In 1998-9 teachers in France took unprecedented strike action against the neo-liberal offensive of education minister Claude Allègre. (See the account by Robert Noirel, 1998). This year in England and Wales teachers are threatening strike action against performance-related pay. The attempt by dominant economic and political interests to impose their common agenda provides the basis, more than ever before, for a coordination of experiences, ideas and campaigns across national boundaries by those teachers and others who want to resist it.
While defensive struggles over teachers' pay and conditions may provide the initial impetus for resistance, the neo-liberal agenda is much broader than that and poses some questions to answer. They can be grouped around four themes:
Business and school
The world of business is encroaching on school in numerous ways. While some such as moves to privatise the running of schools - evoke straightforward opposition, others are more insidious (e.g. commercial sponsorship; a work-related curriculum; business 'partnership' with LEAs). We need to clarify where we stand and where we draw the boundaries.
Knowledge and curriculum
It is true that many aspects of knowledge are changing fast, But it is also true that there are areas of knowledge which are vital to be able to critically understand society and to act to change it. ('Citizenship education' should be seen in this context). The answer for lower-achieving students is not the dumbing-down of the currlculum in the name of competences, but a curriculum and pedagogy which brings together 'academic' knowledge and the real experiences and purposes in a meaningful way.
Power and the school system
Greater autonomy for schools and new regimes of management raise issues of democracy a dn power. How can democratic and popular participation, influence and power best be stimulated and structured?
ICT relates to all the other themes: business involvement; curriculum and pedagogy, the role of teachers. We recognise the enormous progressive potential of ICT. How can it be released from its subordination to the business agenda?
Most of the quotations from official documents and reports are taken from the forthcoming book by Nico Hirtt, L'enseignement sous la coupe des marchés (Education under attack from the market. (Translations from quotatations in French are by RH). For further information see Nico's website: http://users.skynet.be/aped
Cresson, Edith (1995) speech on the Socrates programme, Tours, 3 March. (Ref: speech/95/21).
Cresson, Edith (1998) Putting our knowledge to work: a second chance for young people, speech, Harrogate, 5 March.
European Commission (EC) (1993) Livre Blanc sur la croissance, la compétivité et l'emploi, Brussels, 5 December.
European Commission (EC) (1995) Enseigner et apprendre: vers la société cognitive. Livre blanc sur l'éducation et la formation, Brussels, 29 November.
European Commission (EC) (1996) Rapport du Groupe de Reflexion sur l'Éducation et la Formation "Accomplir l'Europe par l'Éducation et la Formation", resumé et recommandations, December.
European Commission (EC) (1997a) Pour une Europe de la Connaissance, COM(97)563.
European Commission (EC) (1997b) Rapport sur l'emploi 1987, Un ordre du jour pour l'emploi à l'horizon 2000: enjeu et politiques.
European Commission (EC) (1998) L'Apprentissage de la Citoyenneté Active, 18 November.
European Round Table (ERT) (1989) Education and competence in Europe, Brussels
European Round Table (ERT) (1993) Les marchés du travail en Europe. Les perspectives de création d'emplois dans la deuxième moitié des années 90.
European Round Table (ERT) (1995) Education for Europeans: Towards the Learning Society, Brussels, June.
European Round Table (ERT) (1997) Investing in Knowledge: The Integration of Technology in European Education
Gray J, Hopkins D, Reynolds D, Wilcox B, Farrell S, Jesson D (1999) Improving Schools: Performance and Potential. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Johnstone Donald J (1998) L'apprentissage à vie pour tous. L'Observateur 214, October/November.
Noirel R (1998) French Teachers on Strike. Education and Social Justice, 1 (1) 44-6.
OECD (1997) Politiques du marché du travail: nouveaux défis. Apprendre a tout âge pour rester employable durant toute la vie. Réunion du comité de l'emploi, du travail et des affaires sociales, au niveau ministérial, Château de la Muette, Paris, 14-15 October, ocde/gd (97).
OECD (1998) Education policy analysis, Paris.
Rikowski G (1998) Education for Industry: A Complex Technicism. Unpublished paper, University of Birmingham School of Education, March.