With victories for students and teachers spreading across the UK, Michael Doyle examines the ideological and class assumptions of the post-Blairite era.
One of the most pertinent points made in a recent article on Conter about the (now UK wide) school student grades debacle was with reference to the New Labour ideal of education as the engine of social mobility; and ideal that successive Scottish governments have adopted:
“Ever since devolution, successive Scottish governments have carried New Labour’s faith that ‘education, education, education’ was actually abolishing the working class into the new middle class. Blairism embarked a voyage into occultish notions of self-help, positive thinking, and Ted Talk cant. Education was worshipped as an alternative to social democratic reform. Problems would no longer require class justice, just new thinking about schools and self-esteem.”
In 1996, Tony Blair made two interrelated claims: that “education, education, education” would be his government’s top domestic priority and that class was an outdated sociological concept in a society in which “we are all middle class now”. New Labour’s aim, carrying on from their Tory predecessors, was to abolish the working class as a collective identity where one feels social and even political belonging, and that one does not seek to escape by ‘self-improvement’. They sought in this and other ways to mystify the continuing reality of class conflict under capitalism.
New Labour emphasised individual self-help, positive thinking and a motivational ethos, partly imported from the US. A central locus of this project was childhood and adolescent education. The element of the education system that Scottish and UK governments of various hues emphasised as the key metric of success was GCSE/A-level exam results in England and Wales and Highers in Scotland. New Labour’s education policy was guided by various neoliberal tenets, and one of its most central was the theory of ‘social exclusion’. The idea has since become a kind of common sense in much thought on education policy – and far beyond this to inequality in other spheres of social life.
Social exclusion is a pseudo-academic conceptual framework employed by successive Scottish Labour, Labour/Liberal and SNP administrations in Scotland. It is valuable to interrogate the ideas of social exclusion theory to understand how the Scottish Government (and now governments across the UK) arrived at the debacle in recent weeks and how, after the chaotic semi-resolution of recent days, we should understand what really drives inequality.
Social exclusion theory was prioritised so highly by the incoming Labour government in 1997, that it established a special Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) that operated out of the Cabinet Office. The SEU defined social exclusion as follows: “Social exclusion is a shorthand term for what can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown”. Social exclusion is one of the key concepts that mystifies class antagonism while reinforcing class reproduction. One of the paradoxes of social exclusion is that although it is working-class people who live in areas of high social deprivation, they are very much included and central to the capitalist mode of production. The working class are classified as excluded, even though they are central to value creation in the economy. Social exclusion is, at best, a faux-paternalistic sentiment on the part of the ruling classes that uses language like the ‘left-behind’ to describe working-class communities brutalised by forty years of neoliberalism, and at worst a pernicious example of doublespeak that justifies the maldistribution of wealth inherent in the capitalist mode of production. It is also related to conceptions of social class derived from New Labour’s ‘Third Way’: everyone is middle class except for a small lower class of dependents (excluded), class categories are as much about consumption and lifestyle as production, and so on.
For the ruling class, the reasons more working-class pupils do not escape deprivation is because of individual faults, the social conditions cited above and poorly-financed schools with teachers and managers who have low expectations that most working-class pupils are unable to achieve this ideal of success. Marx said: ‘the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships’. Social exclusion theory is one form of the material and mental relationships of production.
Working-class pupils who do achieve high exam grades are escaping from working-class disreputability and moving into middle-class respectability. Under normal circumstances, individual successes prove ‘social mobility’ and cement the thesis of social exclusion. We can see here how social exclusion helps to re-enforce the acceptability of educational ‘failure’ and the maintenance of class hierarchies.
The assumptions about class positionality are numerous. In education, social exclusion is a “condition from the unsuccessful participation in education and training”. Success in education is defined in a narrow and quantifiable form – top grades in once-in-a-lifetime examinations. This definition of success which is the ability to commit to memory large chunks of information which are subsequently forgotten once the examinations are over is designed to identify and select for the middle class and some more clerical forms of working-class production. It is a metric that the ruling class trusts to uphold social class reproduction. However, over the previous couple of decades, the ruling class have become obsessed with a phenomenon called ‘grade inflation’. Every August, a quaint debate rages on whether exams have become ‘dumbed down’. When the number of students from ‘socially excluded’ areas began receiving A*s and As increases, this is held up as an example of grade inflation and a threat to the ‘integrity of the exams system’. This means that it is a threat to the central purpose of the education system which is to put working-class students onto a different life-path from middle-class students: to be the surplus-value product for the ruling class. The unwelcome disruption to this system in Scotland and England over the past few weeks makes clear cut class differentiation and the reproduction of class inequality difficult.
What is required is an education system that does not function as an adjunct of the capitalist system, which requires as Marx said “a change of social circumstances…to establish a proper system of education”. We want social circumstances that render the concept of social exclusion redundant. When Jimmy Reid gave his seminal 1972 rectoral lecture at the University of Glasgow, he said: “I am convinced that the great mass of our people go through life without even a glimmer of what they could have contributed to their fellow human beings. This is a personal tragedy. It’s a social crime. The flowering of each individual’s personality and talents is the pre-condition for everyone’s development.” Sadly, the UK wide education scandal illustrates that the education system still upholds the class system Reid and others reviled. A class-based analysis is required to combat the failings of such a system.