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Free schools are Marxist? Then I’m a banana

Michael GoveMichael’s Gove’s latest pronouncement is that free schools are a Marxist ideal, a comment so outlandish and preposterous that it might at first seem that the hot weather has gone to the Education Secretary’s head.

If free schools are a Marxist idea, then I’m a banana. What’s Marxist – or even democratic – about schools that are set up without any consideration of the needs of the wider community and are largely run by ‘educational charities’ like Ark? Surely this is just the ultimate example of trolling – coming out with ridiculous statements that make minimal sense and cause maximum offence.

Yet this imply that Gove is simply motivated by offending his enemies, and as much as he wants and is willing to do this, it aint necessarily so. Whatever you think of Gove, he is not a fool. He cleverly twists language to reframe the debate – the obvious example is the word ‘academy’. Under New Labour, academies were failing schools, usually in the inner city which were given some extra money to turn things round. Now any school can become an academy and many are forced to do so.

Likewise the word ‘free schools’; the term was associated with the educational experiments of the 1960s; today’s breed could not be further from the truth. The only way in which they are ‘free’ is that they are free from local authority control. In other words they are not democratically accountable.

As a teacher – recently rated Outstanding – I don’t actually hate everything Gove says. I believe there is a serious literacy problem in this country and applaud any attempts to teach kids grammar at an early age. They need it and the kids I teach at FE level are annoyed they haven’t been taught what’s right and what’s wrong. I also think too much coursework at GCSE gives opportunities for cheating. But that’s about it. I despise Gove’s fetish for the past – the 1950s in particular – as if this was some kind of golden age of education.

Obviously I’m talking about the grammar school system, which was thrown out because it basically left 80 per cent of the population on the educational scrapheap.

I recently read a fascinating book (bought for a pound at my local Labour Party’s book sale) called Education and the Working Class, by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden.

The book basically challenges the myth that grammar schools were this magical engine of social mobility; the people who succeeded were, on the whole from the middle class, while working class kids were more likely to leave school with a couple of O Levels. Yes, some children from poor homes did well, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

I’d like to lend this book to Michael Gove, but I doubt he’d read it. He’d dismiss it as lefty clap trap, and carry on imposing his vision on teachers, parents and children. He’s also unlikely to deviate from an ideology that effectively boils down to a commitment to privatising the education system.

It’s easy to dismiss such claims as conspiracy, but a glance at the Register of Members’ Interests shows that Gove received donations from private equity boss Edmund Lazarus in the run up to the 2010 election. Lazarus also finances a chain of private schools – the Cognita group, founded in 2004 by that notorious Marxist, former Ofsted chief inspector Chris Woodhead.

Gove is not a troll – and knows exactly what he’s doing when he comes out with preposterous statements like saying free schools are Marxist. His mission is to confuse and distract, as he carves up the education system. But perhaps when he comes out with remarks like this, we should react like we would to the trolls, only with the added caution that the modern-day Tory education brigade means serious business. That is, we should ignore his silly remarks, but remain focus on making sure we protect our schools from his latest crazy schemes.


  1. Mat says:

    Well, I think you missed what he was getting at. Free schools, while not marxist per se, could be a tool useful to developing educational facilites congruent with basic marxist principles.

    The free school program allows teacher-owned consortia to build schools. Broadly allowing worker control of the means of production (for what value those words have in the context). Moreover, it would be entirely possible to establish free schools with parental directorships (or whatever) which might help move toward common determination human objectification (doubly so because, y’know, they’re schools). And if those are both desirable things (as I well suspect they are) then they should be able to out compete more hierarchical models of education.

    I’m no fan of Gove, nor even a Tory voter, but I think what he’s issuing here is more of a challenge to Marxists; put your creative efforts where your mouth is and use the free school regime to demonstrate how Marxists models might actually function in the real world; and I think he has a fair point.

  2. Rod says:

    “protect our schools from his latest crazy schemes”

    Certainly. But how to do it. Labour has thrown in the towel as a opposition. The shadow cabinet are asleep on the job. And there’s no political organisation capable of doing the protecting.

    Sure, in time, a viable opposition will emerge. But Gove will have enacted all his crazy schemes by then.

    There’s nothing left but the long game.

  3. James Martin says:

    The term ‘free school’ is misleading. In legal terms they are merely starter (rather than converter) academies. One of the reasons Gove prefers them to academies is for that reason, as academies are covered initially by TUPE and staff at the beginning on their previous nationally negotiated pay and conditions of service (although this has not always lasted very long). With free schools you can, and often do, have non-qualified ‘teachers’ paid a lot less, and that in turn aids the whole privatisation agenda that is behind all his bluster.

    Don’t forget, one of the most interesting facts to come out of Leveson was that the minister who had had most meetings (by far) with Murdoch was Gove. This was more than the fact that he was an ex-Murdoch hack, but intimately connected to Murdoch’s own ‘investments’ in privatised education in the US that he was looking to export to the UK (a Murdoch academy in London was on the cards at one stage). Indeed, Rebekah Brookes was also part of this, serving until she was forced to resign as a governor at Fulwood academy in Preston, a school that lurched from one round of redundacies to another, along with adverse changes in working practices for its staff who remained.

    Of course there are some on the left who have brought into the whole academy lie, notably the Blairite dominate Co-op Party who support the fact that the Co-op is now one of the largest chains of academies and trust schools (the latter are semi rather than fully detached from local democratic control), and despite the mutualist rhetoric each of their schools marks a further blow to properly accountable state schools.

    Gove is dangerous not because he is clever (the almost constant disasters at the DfE show that he isn’t), but because he has in many ways won the public debate due to the absence of a proper opposition to hold his privatisation agenda to account. Twigg is little more than a Gove mini-me in practice, as he fails to see the disaster taking place, and merely seeks to do the same things but call them ‘one nation’ (whatever that means).

    Add to this mix the fact that while teachers have one of the highest union membership densities, they remain dangerously split between rival unions that weaken them, while there isn’t even a left/socialist rank and file group across all the education unions that could potentially bring them together from the bottom up and by-pass the ineffective and sectarian leaderships.

    Oh, and Gove isn’t even right when it comes to grammar. His top-down imposition of phonics at the expense of all other reading English methods in priimary schools will condemn yet another generation to be incapable of spelling a language that cannot be squashed into a phonic box, while ensuring that those kids with disabilities like dyslexia are left even further behind.

  4. Rob the cripple says:

    Labour have stated not all Tories ideas are bad and this is one.

  5. Simon says:

    He’s not completly wrong. Marx was strongly opposed to any state involvement in education beyond funding it.

    Essentially he favoured a co-operative free school system, which is exactly what socialists’ response to free schools should be: setting up co-operative free schools.

  6. James Martin says:

    Well let’s see what that means in reality rather than theory Simon. Perhaps we should start, therefore, not with what we think education may look like in a future socialist society, but what we can create and defend under capitalism.

    So what would you want? A locally accountable system of schools where local need can be adequately provided for in terms of both the types of schools and the numbers of places would be a good starting point wouldn’t it? And then you would surely want national collective bargaining for both teachers and support staff to try and prevent wages in places like the NW and NE being even further depressed? Sounds good so far? I hope so, because that is what was created by the rather good 1944 Education Act that sought to provide socialised education for all against the previous divide of well resourced private schools and the ‘ragged’ schools for the poor.

    But what of these new free schools in reality? Because if you take your logic and apply it elsewhere what do you end up with? The NHS for example -do you advocate that socialists should approach the current debate by setting up their own cooperative hospitals even in places where they are not needed and that would draw away funds from their nieghbours (which is what free schools do now)? Or would that miss the wider point of what we need to defend? And what of real control and local accountability? Free schools, even the ‘cooperative’ ones give you none, and are comepletley under the centralised control of the DfE.

    Indeed, there is a valid argument here that aside from the longer term wish of Gove to have a few large multi-national education providers running schools for profit in England in a similar fashion to how the privatised railways are run, the whole academy/free school programme is also at heart a further serious attack on local democracy and democratic input into welfare state service provision.

    The Labour academies programme came from the right of the Party, and was enthusiastically adopted by the Co-op Party (that is also the last bastion of the Blairites, a not unrelated fact). The only reason the Labour academies were not as bad was that firstly there were a lot less of them, and secondly they had extra cash boosts at start up which had some usefu short-lived. effects on results. Now of course there is no evidence at all that academies and free schools improve results (in fact judging by recent Ofsted inspections in terms of free schools they are a positive hinderence to academic achievement).

    Now there is no extra cash for academies and free schools compaired to schools remaining in the maintained LA family, and their creation will be a mask for future cuts to the education budget in the same way as other locally outsourced LA services to the third sector have been.

    Of course there are those on the right of the Party that still welcome them, just as they trumpet the ‘cooperative’ model for the delivery of council services (that allows others to have to impliment the cuts), but the left shouldn’t be so easily fooled.

    Oh, and one other thing that seems to have escaped Twigg. The reason why Gove has announced the previously unheard of unilateral English redesign of GCSE’s and has deliberately excluded the Welsh is simply because this then allows for a far harder academic comparison between England that is full of academies, and Wales that has none at all. I suspect he fears that the academic contrasts over the next decade will become quite marked here (in the favour of non-privatised Welsh education) and he is moving the goal posts now in anticipation.

  7. Rod says:

    James Martin: “he [Gove] has in many ways won the public debate due to the absence of a proper opposition to hold his privatisation agenda to account.”

    It’s not just a “proper opposition” that is absent it’s any opposition.

    I suppose the main priority for the PLP now (as exampled by the fabricated Falkirkgate event) will be to remove any trade union influence in choosing the Labour Party leader. This will open the way to a complete Progress takeover following a Labour defeat in 2015.

  8. Simon says:

    A co-operative school would be infinately more accountable than a LA school because it is directly owned and controled by the members of that co-operative, whether that be the local parents, teachers or some combination of the two.

    As for national collective bargaining agreements, this is rather like refusing to trade a penny for £50 note. There is no need for collective bargaining in workers’ co-operatives because they are owned by their workers, who democratically get to decide what they would be paid.

  9. James Martin says:

    Oh Simon, please! Have you even looked at the legislation around free school academies? If you had you would know that their purse strings are directly controlled by Gove. And what does Gove need to do to make schools for profit a reality? Get rid of national pay and conditions of service that would then allow the 15% minimum profit margin mark up the privatisers require.

    Bot look more carefully at your cooperative model. A LA has to look at the bigger picture, and plan for demographic growth or decline. For example, on many regions there is a large expansion needed of primary places (due to a combination of increased birth rate and mainly eastern european immigrants either bringing children with them or having them here) at the exact same time that seconday numbers are contracting due to the lower birth rate of that generation and the lower nombers of older immigrant children.

    LA’s are best placed to cope with those very difficult changes, and deal with the workforce issues (redundancies, redeployment, retraining or recruitment) that can arise from them. But what does a free school run by parents or teachers do? They do not – and indeed cannot – look at the bigger picture, as their sole rationale is the survival of their own school even if it is half-filled and draining resources away from other schools that need them more.

    And what you are then left with is competition for the wrong reasons that leads to increased costs and funding not being allocated properly. Just like the NHS the only way to provide a proper service is via national coordination on the basis of need and not local competition on the basis of who can survive by undercutting their rivals (usually by driving down staffing costs).

    I don’t dislike worker cooperatives, but free schools (even ones run by the coop) aren’t either socialist or indeed very progressive, but a way of helping destroy state education as we know it.

  10. Simon says:

    Your whole narrative of draining resources is warped. Resources should be allocated to schools based on the number of children they enrole, that way the schools that offer what parents/pupils want will start to win out and those failing to offer that will have to adapt or die.

    There’s nothing socialist about sending the children of poor parents to shit schools just because of the post code they live in.

    There’s nothing socialist about the idea that workers’ organisations can’t allocate funding and plan better that the little bonapartes in the LAs.

    There’s nothing socialist about the idea the state needs to tell the plebs where their kids can go to school rather than letting them make the decision.

    There’s nothing socialist about the idea that education workers’ aren’t capable of running a school better than the administrators who currently do.

    There’s nothing socialist about the idea that school teachers should be singled out as workers who are forbidden from owning their own places of employment.

    There is a bias running through your entire comment: workers are unable to organise the education of their own children directly (in any form) and require bureaucrats in the state to do it for them.

    Of course Gove isn’t a socialist. Of course Gove isn’t doing this for socialist reasons. Of course Gove isn’t doing this in a socialis way. His motives aren’t relevant, he’s given us an opening. Socialists should reject education by the state and the church and the private firm in favour of building a co-operative worker-owned education system in the here and now. Yes, we should demand changes from Gove, but we cannot demand that he take away our right to organise our own schools and call it socialism.

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