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Proletarian issue 29 (April 2009)
Education update: Shifting the blame onto parents; Cambridge report issues devastating criticism
Shifting the blame

According to figures recently released by the Ministry of Justice, 133 parents were jailed between 2000 and 2007 for failing to prevent their child’s truancy. The rate of imprisonment for failing to prevent truancy is increasing every year, along with one-off penalty fines.

According to the Guardian of 12 February, the number of court-issued penalty notices went up by 12 percent to 7,793 last year. In spite of the government’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach, it has failed dismally to meet its 1997 election promise of reducing truancy by a third – indeed, the current rate of unauthorised absence in England is a third higher than it was in 1997.

It took David Laws, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, to point out the obvious to the press: “While parents need to take responsibility for their children’s behaviour and have an obligation to ensure they attend school, the government’s draconian strategy is failing. Truancy rates across the country remain sky high ... Extra investment to cut class sizes and provide more one-to-one support will enable teachers to work with individual children and make sure that they are engaged in the classroom.”

Along with parents, head teachers have been coming under fire for failing to perform miracles. According to BBC News Online of 6 March, the number of senior secondary leaders sacked each year has increased five-fold, with at least 150 dismissed in England last year. “The Association of School and College Leaders believes that the increase in dismissals is down to the higher expectations placed upon school leaders to turn around school results.”

An obsession with so-called ‘effective leadership’, combined with a refusal to discuss the social and economic causes of failure in education, has been a recurring theme for the Blair-Brown Labour government. Needless to say, it is primarily in underprivileged areas that head teachers are being highlighted as the root of the problem.

The BBC report points out: “When a new Academy is formed, often from a low-performing school, the private sponsor and the government may wish to appoint a new senior leadership team.” This is phrased as if it were a perfectly natural and understandable phenomenon, but what it adds up to is the increasing prevalence of corporate, jobs-for-the-boys management within schools.

While the government is busily blaming parents and head teachers for the state of the education system, the Social Mobility Commission has reported that a “child’s chances of success still depend largely on the background and earnings of his or her parents” .

The Times of 12 January reports: “The Social Mobility Commission, reporting the day before a long-awaited white paper on the subject, finds that social class accounts for much of the gap in attainment between higher and lower achievers. It is evident from the early years that the gap widens as children get older.

"Increased spending on education has disproportionately favoured the middle classes, the report says. Last year only 35 percent of the poorest pupils obtained five or more good-grade GCSEs, compared with 63 percent of better off children.

"While the proportion of poorer children getting degrees has risen by just 3 percent, the increase among those from wealthier backgrounds is 26 percent.”
('Children of poorer families face as big a hill as ever’ by Philip Webster)

Cambridge report issues devastating criticism

After three years of investigation by more than 70 respected academics, the Cambridge review of primary education has finally been published. In the words of Polly Curtis, the report “presents a damning view of the primary curriculum, which it suggests has failed generations of children” . ( The Guardian , 20 February 2009)

The report points to the failure of the national curriculum to give pupils either breadth or depth in education, and it severely criticises the practice of ‘teaching to the test’ that has accompanied the introduction of Standard Assessment Tests (Sats). “National testing at 11 has meant schools focus on short-term learning at the cost of children’s long-term development.”

The report states that the over-emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic for very young children “limits children’s enjoyment of school and risks severely compromising their natural curiosity, imagination and love of learning” . Further, “learning that requires time for talking, problem solving and exploring ideas is sacrificed for ... a ‘memorisation and recall’ style of learning”.

The authors are planning to publish a full set of proposals later in the year. Their preliminary proposals include the scrapping of Sats, the scrapping of league tables, and a scaling back of the national curriculum so that it covers only 70 percent of lesson time, leaving 30 percent for schools to develop their own ‘community curriculums’.

Much as the government would like to completely ignore the review, they will have difficulty doing so, since it is backed by the teaching unions, head teachers and other major educational bodies.

Concerns over biometrics

At the St Neots Community College in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, sixth-form students are taking part in a pilot programme that replaces the pupil register with a biometric identification system, where, every time they enter or leave the school, they have to enter a PIN number on a keypad and look at a camera, which takes a photograph of them and compares it with a reference photograph held in the school’s database. The time of arrival and departure is then recorded in the unit’s internal computer.

Scott Preston, deputy principal at St Neots, says that the system offers an easy way of gathering accurate data about sixth-form attendance, so students can claim the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) – a government grant for poorer students in post-16 education. That is to say: the school is being bribed into introducing this system.

According to Kim Thomas: “Biometrics technologies are now widespread in schools: an estimated 1 million children have had their fingerprints taken for activities as mundane as borrowing library books or paying for school dinners ...

“Because biometrics are a useful way of controlling access, they are being adopted by other organisations, such as nurseries. At UK borders, passport officials are being replaced by cameras that check travellers’ faces against the image held in their passports. One of the concerns for civil liberties campaigners is the blurry line between access control and surveillance: in Newham, east London, face recognition has been used in conjunction with CCTV as a means of identifying criminals in a crowd.”
( The Guardian , 5 March 2009)

Of course, the potential for increased political repression is what the state really has in mind for this technology.

The government’s proposals for the introduction of ID cards and further general use of biometric data have met with a hostile reaction from the public. By introducing similar measures for children – without inviting parental choice or wider debate – they are attempting to normalise a high level of state monitoring, so that in a few years’ time there will be very little opposition to its extension to the whole of society.

David Clouter, a parent activist from the pressure group Leave Them Kids Alone, regards the use of biometrics in schools as “a disproportionate response to a nonexistent problem” and believes it is a “giant softening-up exercise for the next generation to accept biometric identity in some form ... Every traffic warden, every minor official, will go round fingerprinting everybody. And people won’t see it as out of the ordinary, which it most certainly is.” (Quoted in ibid )

Terry Thomas, professor of Criminal Justice Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University, writes: “A whole generation of children not involved with any criminal behaviour may be growing up thinking fingerprinting is just a ‘normal’ way of being identified, and innocuous phrases like school ‘kiddy-printing’ only further minimises what is going on. At worst, children are being inducted into the world of the ‘surveillance society’ without really knowing what it means.” ( LeaveThemKidsAlone.com )

Shift in behaviour

There has been much discussion in the education press about pupil behaviour, following the release of The Class ( Entre les murs ), a low-budget French film shot in a Paris school featuring real pupils and teachers.

“For most French parents it has been the first sight of what goes on in the 21st-century classroom – and they don’t like what they see. The scenes are played out with an undercurrent of racial tension and violence between the children, who insult each other’s race and religion. So much of the teacher’s time and energy is spent controlling the disruptive pupils that those who want to learn are neglected.” (‘Scenes from the new class war’ , Guardian , 1 March 2009)

The consensus seems to be that there has been a marked increase in the number of behavioural problems in schools over the last 10-20 years. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, claims that the problem is partly due to the policy of including children with special needs in mainstream classes, which, in the absence of proper support for the teachers , can cause problems for the whole class.

As we have pointed out before, cuts in education spending are directed precisely at those ‘extra’, ‘invisible’ services that can be quietly cut with minimal uproar from parents. However, the significance of the inclusion of special-needs children in mainstream classes (itself in many ways progressive) pales in comparison with the effect of the general deterioration of capitalist society, where people – poor people in particular – are suffering from increasing unemployment, reduced benefits, increased prices, wage cuts and the ever-intensifying onslaught of negative bourgeois propaganda.

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