Present-day schools teach failure more than they teach anything else. They are inefficient at teaching knowledge.
A recent survey found that MPs and business bosses, despite mostly having had many years of schooling, can’t work out the probability of getting a head and a tail when a coin is tossed twice; and we all know that many of them cannot write adequate English.
Yet, by the time they have finished school, most young people will have had one big idea drummed into them: that they are failures.
Not just that they have failed at something. We all often fail at things. Schools drum into students that they are failures: that, despite endless “interventions” and impositions, they have failed more or less irrevocably to jump through the hoops of success.
A socialist society would, over generations, change education radically. Some changes could be made fast.
Number one: an end to petty discipline.
In an industrial society, we all must learn to work in a disciplined and cooperative way with others. Fundamentally I do not even hold it against present-day schools that they instill capitalist work discipline. As Marx put it, a necessary foundation of the socialism is the “general industriousness” bred by capitalism: punctuality, sustained effort, care with materials.
I do hold it against schools that they often try to “put down” students in a way attempted only by the bossiest, most overbearing, capitalist employers, and do it through a range of demeaning and harassing punishments.
Teenagers generally prefer capitalist work discipline, in their part-time jobs, to school discipline, because capitalist work discipline treats them with more respect.
Other methods are possible in schools. In other countries, although there is still too much petty discipline, many schools have systems which explicitly reject punishment. They “work” at least as well as the punishment-based systems current in Britain.
In some countries, teachers are not allowed to send a student out of a classroom to stand in a corridor. In Britain it’s routine. Many schools reject detentions. In Britain they are routine. When my daughters, brought up in Australia, spent time in a British school, they were shocked to find collective punishment there: because my younger daughter’s class was reckoned ill-behaved, the class had to carry a class report card, and since my daughter was reckoned well-behaved, she got the penalty — having to carry the card and get it ticked by teachers.
No group of workers with self-respect, let alone union organisation, would tolerate those methods. Imagine being sent out of the workshop to stand in the yard. Or having to carry your work-team’s report card and get it signed off by the manager. Or having to stay after work for an hour because of some misdeed.
Schools should instill work discipline, but they should also instill a sense of the rights of collective resistance to limit and civilise that discipline.
They do not do that. Instead, they train young people in the idea that they are chronically, habitually “badly behaved” — and simultaneously train them in methods of individual resistance or dodging the system. Since the punishments are limited, schools often see individual students “getting away with things” — but rarely students being able by collective action to correct or redirect their teachers.
Schools cannot be complete democracies. For students to vote on which of two chunks of knowledge, both unknown to them, they should study, would be sham democracy. An orchestra cannot play if the violinists or the drummers are heckling the conductor or trying to set a different tempo; a teacher must be able to manage the classroom.
But schools can and should be much more democratic than they are, with real student control over many details of school life.
Number two: an end to uniforms and strict dress codes.
Uniforms are a major part of the petty harassment school students face. And easily avoidable: in France, Germany, the USA, school uniforms are rare. Students have the right to dress as they wish — as workers do in most jobs where a uniform has no practical justification.
Some people defend school uniforms on the grounds that without uniforms students will compete to wear the most expensive designer clothes. There are four answers to this argument.
One: that school uniforms are expensive, and the student from a poor home is more stigmatised in a shabby, hand-me-down, ill-fitting uniform than in cheap regular clothes. Two: that if the competitive pressure is so great, it will work in out-of-school time as well as school. Three: that schools operate without uniforms, in many countries, without tension.
Finally: that if consumerist competitiveness is so intense, that is not human nature — not even human nature under capitalism — and it would be better to check the competitiveness, by making education generally less competitive and more cooperative, than to try to deflect it by uniform codes.
Occasionally school uniforms are defended as training students to dress tidily for work. But no worker gets about in anything so bizarre as the blazer-and-tie garb compulsory in many schools.
School students are compelled to dress bizarrely not for any good reason, but as part of petty discipline. It is as aberrant as the strange school custom of having students call teachers “Sir” and “Miss”, and even having them refer to teachers in the third person by those titles: “Sir said X”.
Even the most swivel-eyed capitalist manager will have workers call her or him by first name, or at worst “Mr X” or “Ms Y”.
Number three: abolition of all exams in schools.
This goes together with a transformation of schooling into a fully comprehensive system, without selection (a good approximation of which exists already, in capitalist Finland).
Schools can do without exams. One state in Australia, for example, has no public exams: no equivalent of A level, GCSE, SATs, none at all. That helps learning, since less time has to be spent on cramming for exams.
The occasional “diagnostic” test may be justified in schools. Plumbers or nursery workers or teachers should have to pass an exam or test of competency before getting jobs in their trade. But school exams are quite different.
No school exams (and very few university exams) qualify anyone to do a job. The function of school exams is to brand students as failures and to filter them in a perverse way: if you fail an exam in maths, for example, thus showing that you need more maths teaching, you may be... barred from studying maths further.
Without exams, how would it be decided who gets into university? Everyone who wants to study at university should be able to. Entry should be as free as it is to “two-year colleges” in the USA, or to the main universities in France (if only you have achieved your “bac”).
Wouldn’t universities then be flooded? Not necessarily. Not everyone wants to spend three years studying topology or medieval history, when instead they could get a decently-paid job using skills they already have or can develop on the job.
At present many young people are pushed into going to university at 18, although they have no clear idea what they want to study there, because schools judge their success by university entrance, and because employers take university degrees, be they in Aramaic or Zoology, as an index of young people’s ability to jump through hoops and thus of their suitability for better jobs or training courses.
Make it possible for people to go to university at any time of life, at the point when they have developed an intense wish to learn about quantum physics or social anthropology, and more young people would go into work earlier, gain experience and confidence from it, and get more out of university eventually.
Perversely, so far, the expansion of university education has diminished social mobility. Before mass university education, few jobs required degrees, and a determined working-class kid could often overtake a dim middle-class kid by promotion on the job. Now almost all the children of the middle class go to universities, and many jobs are inaccessible without a degree (usually one irrelevant to the work). We should break the degree fetish.
Without exams, how will it be decided who gets into the posh universities and who into the less-posh? Initially, I suppose, by lottery. After a while, the hierarchy of universities from posh to less posh would be broken down. That’s good.
The perversity of the current system is illustrated in Australia where, since almost everyone goes to a local university (because of the great distances), end-of-school grades determine more what course you get onto than what institution you go to.
To study dentistry at the University of Queensland, for example, you need an end-of-school grade in the top 2.7%. You can study physics with any grade in the top 55%. That is not because dentistry requires more intellect than quantum physics. It is because dentists are higher-paid than physicists. The exam system interweaves with and bolsters unjust social hierarchies.
Number four: closer integration of schools with the world of work.
Often, today, socialists complain that schools are over-geared to producing workers for capitalist workplaces. Actually, they are only inefficiently so. They are geared more to producing jumpers-through-hoops for capitalist society. The integration of schools with the world of work is an old socialist idea: “the unified labour school”.
Schools should help young people to acquire varied productive skills, to become confident and proud in their productive skills, to think critically about what they produce and how, and to cooperate with others both in production and in collectively defending their rights and dignity as workers.
School syllabuses today are packed with fiddly information which most students will forget as soon as they have done the relevant exam. Much of that should be junked. But syllabuses should not be “more relevant”.
Education should introduce us to ideas and avenues of thinking which are outside what we are immediately spurred to think about by everyday practical life: learning about poetry as well as learning how to fill in forms; learning about the rules of mathematical proof as well as learning how to check your change.
Schools should teach more skills, too — touch-typing, sewing, knitting, cooking, tying knots, simple electrical and mechanical repairs, child care — so that young people become confident and proud about their ability to deal with daily life.
Older school students have part-time jobs sometimes (or often, in countries like Australia or the USA, where over 60% do). That is not bad. What is bad is that their jobs are almost always in sectors where they work only with other young workers, have few rights, and learn few skills.
Teenagers should have access to productive work in which they work with older people, have rights, get paid decent rates, learn new skills, and are able to interrelate their work and their studies. Both at work and in school, they should learn to work cooperatively, to help their workmates, rather than being locked into the individualistic and competitive model of education shaped by the exam system.
Schooling at present is more a filter than a pump. It enables young people to learn some good stuff. It is much better than no schooling. But at the same time it pushes students into competitive individualism. It exalts hoop-jumping above critical thought. It brands most as failures. It should be changed.