With the rise of Obama and the anticipated fall of New Labour - Jamie Audsley and Randall Lahann ask where UK and US policies are taking education and how they fit with aims of a progressive left.

“This agenda starts with education. A highly-educated and skilled workforce will be the key not only to individual opportunity, but to the overall success of our economy as well…We cannot be satisfied until every child in America has the same chances for a good education that we want for our own children.”

When President Obama spoke these words in financially ravaged Flint, Michigan, he was greeted with cheers and adulation. Had the audience examined his message in more depth however, the applause might have dulled. Obama’s words reveal the degree to which we have reached a point, both here and in the United States, where education is mainly prioritised as a tool of economic productivity. Is GDP another school league table, only once removed? Is there more to education than just the preparation of future workforces? Well of course there is, but we are in danger of losing the ability to deliver an education system which creates equity and opportunity in society for its own sake -not just to feed the economic machine. After the crunch, regurgitation of the more of same is hardly the “A” grade thinking we need to deal with an unprecendented global crisis.

Because we both prioritise the value of education as a tool of social justice we were attracted to the social aims of two teacher training schemes – Teach First (UK) and Teach America (USA). These programs were set up to overcome the obstacles of deprivation and improve educational opportunities by placing high quality graduates in some of our nations’ most challenging schools. Entering classrooms in London and California we took with us the mission we had regularly and willingly repeated during our training, “to address educational disadvantage.” We served a variety of roles: subject experts in class, pastoral leaders with our tutor groups, but by what standard should we judge ourselves? How would we know when we could say “mission achieved”?

During our time in the classroom, we were both struck by the scale of the obstacles faced by many students, not the least of which was their perceived lack of agency to overcome them. For example, Dane, a perceptive 12 year old living in South East Croydon remarked on the extent to which his area was under resourced, “We’re isolated. We haven’t got enough jobs, we need more youth clubs, and a cinema would be nice.” Fighting educational disadvantage seemed to require more than just excellent teaching in our classrooms. If education is really about changing the world, where was the opportunity for Dane to be part of that change, act on his concerns and start to address the barriers which create educational disadvantage?

At Dane’s school the headline vision aims to “improve life chances by raising standards”. Recent governments have driven standards by focusing on improving access to the curriculum, raising achievement and attempting to increase student aspiration. Improved access has meant supporting the needs of pupils, be that in terms of language, learning difficulties or individual wellbeing. Achievement has focused on measurable progress against test results, while aspiration has linked to extending time in education, opening access to higher education and delivering cultural change through new schools. These are not antithetical to our mission of “addressing educational disadvantage”, but to be sure of making real progress a greater discussion of what social justice means in our nations’ schools is needed, and indeed, why we value education in the first place.

When discussing the fundamental purpose of public education recent curricular theorists have divided thinking into four categories: scholar/academic (knowledge for knowledge's sake), child-centered (whatever serves the unique interests of the individual child), social-efficiency (a utilitarian approach which values the good of society as a whole), and social-reconstructionist (education as a tool of social justice). We write from this final perspective because as we said, it was the reason we entered the teaching profession. Moreover, while we were frustrated by the lack of clarity in the progressive goals of our respective programs in tackling educational inequality, this short-coming is not all that surprising since the educational establishment in both of our countries, including policy-makers, practitioners, and academics has struggled with it as well.

These discussions of the fundamental purposes of public education belong not only in the halls of universities, but in classrooms, boardrooms, and legislative chambers. We feel that a de facto vision of neoliberal social efficiency, masquerading as social reconstruction has come to singularly dominate current thinking on education. From this perspective “Closing the achievement gap” has value only to the extent that it means that all students are better prepared to do their part in the global economy, rather than to fundamentally achieve equality and social change. Meanwhile, because of the lack of public debate on these essential questions, our countries conceive of education as a purely technical problem, rather than a philosophical, moral, and democratic one.

In the UK more of the same looks likely, with the shadow school’s secretary Michael Gove calling for an extension of Blair’s choice agenda – the supermarket offer of schooling which normalises us to the neoliberal education system. You get to choose (state a preference) for the school you want but you don’t get real choices about what’s on offer. Essentially it’s a simplistic choice which fails to open up the debate of what our schools are really for.

An alternative is to promote the “voice” agenda and provide a fundamentally democratic opportunity that would see students, parents and teachers allowed to influence the direction of education. This could be done if more decision-making power was given to governing bodies, school boards (USA), school councils (run by students) and teachers. The success of the UK’s Summerhill school provides inspiration. A leader in democratic schooling, giving pupils radical choice on what they learn, it avoided closure despite the fact that it didn’t fit the government’s philosophy on how schools should run.

If we don’t open up this debate we aren’t preparing young people to be agents of social and political change. Instead we normalise them to keep the cycle of inequity that’s implicit within a neoliberal social and economic agenda. Allowing students to decide the direction of what their education should achieve and provide opportunity for young people to take action is therefore required. London Citizens’ Schools Alliance is a good example of learning that is delivered this way. It joins students, parents and governors to develop local community campaigns and aspire to achieve changes that matter to them. More activities like this are needed and the development of a broader, more radical citizenship curriculum will enable it to happen.

The attempt of Academy (UK) and Charter (USA) schools to provide aspiration is laudable but the danger with their version of aspiration is that it maintains the status quo at the cost of addressing underlying systemic factors of education inequity. Policy First, a policy document written by Teach First teachers outlines how academies are “consciously forming their identity away from the local community, in a quest to help pupils to aspire to something beyond”. Thus in their view “ …. the academy model is entirely appropriate, enabling pupils to see beyond the constraints of their local community." While we of course support all students having the broadest range of experiences beyond their local area, aiming to remove schools from their locality becomes problematic if students are merely encouraged to escape as opposed to take action and change their reality.

Aspiration can’t just be about something beyond, something that is always being chased, something external. It has to be aspiration in the here and now: improving transport, creating jobs, helping create local low carbon communities, building youth clubs. Furthermore, academies have often been imposed against the wishes of local communities, removing their ownership of local education and excluding them from identifying with their local school. As educationalist Richard Hatcher has argued, allowing someone to buy and control the vision of a community’s education is another way in which inequalities are maintained and Others retain the power to make the real choices. Academies thus represent cultural imperialism in our own communities.

In its present form the education system largely silences the value judgement of social justice behind a wall of technical, economic, neoliberal education policy. Students, teachers and parents are largely excluded from being able to discuss what education is for, what a good school means, and how schools should contribute to society. We believe we need a clear debate over the ways in which schools should help reconstruct society more justly and in doing this we must accept a mission of proper democratic education for our schools. We don’t claim to have all the answers but believe Dane needs the chance to not only voice his concerns but to be encouraged to act on them.

Jamie Audsley and Randall Lahann

Thanks to cobalt123 for the photo published under Creative Commons