Elections don’t matter . . .

May 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

for-coverAbout a month ago I had to write the editorial for the Summer number of Forum. Writing before the election result was known presented some challenges, and as the text below indicates, my sense of the outcome was inaccurate.  I am not sure however that the substantive argument has changed one iota – indeed I would argue that the outcome of the election has made the arguments, and its implications for action, only more pressing (see Mary Bousted’s analysis of what is to come here).

Where the argument in my editorial needs much further development is in relation to the ‘how’ of building the ‘mass movement’ I refer to. It is the worst form of ultra-leftism to assume that all we have to do is urge people to the barricades, and that if we do it long enough and loud enough, they will follow.  The real challenge is to understand how we develop ‘movements from below’ – in quite difficult times (election defeats may engender anger – but they also encourage pessimism).  My recent research has focused on ‘movement building’ a good deal, by looking at community based campaigns that have challenged academisation.  There is much to learn – from both the successes and the failures – and in the months ahead I have plans to develop this work, and to use it to try to support both community organisers and union activists in defence of public education.  What is now abundantly clear, is that if public education is to be salvaged, and the drive to marketisation is to be challenged, then we must, collectively, ‘mobilise’. But how we make that happen needs hard thinking, those offering easy answers are best given a wide berth. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will . . . always.

Anyway, my Forum editorial here . . .

Education: looking beyond (the) election(s)

Due to Forum’s publishing schedule the summer number of any volume is presented to the publisher for production in April. This year that is particularly significant because it presents the challenge of writing an editorial about the politics of education in advance of a really significant political event for education – the general election. At the time of writing, three weeks prior to polling day, the opinion polls seem certain about only one thing – that the outcome will not produce a single party majority government.

How much of a challenge does this provide for an editorial writer without the benefits of a crystal ball? Perhaps at one level, not very much. In the Autumn 2014 number of Forum, Clyde Chitty’s editorial entitled ‘Life After Gove’ chastised those who set too much store by the Secretary of State’s departure and argued that all that could be reasonably expected in a post-Gove Department for Education was ‘business as usual’. Clyde acknowledged that personalities do matter, but argued we need to look at a much bigger picture to see the likely direction of travel of future policy. In this article I want to argue something broadly similar – much of the future of education policy in England can be predicted regardless of the outcome of the election.

This is not to argue that the result of the election will make no difference to education policy. Elections do matter, and a government with Ed Miliband as Prime Minister will be different to one in which David Cameron continues in the role. Those differences will be meaningful, and to very many people, in some form, the defeat of a Tory-led government will make a very real difference to their lives.

However, there is always a danger, and particularly at the time of an election, that we focus too much on what are small details in policy, and we also neglect the many forces outside a national government that have a stake in shaping the reality of what education really feels like to those who study and work in schools. This tendency to parochialism is already illustrated by this editorial. Nearly 400 words in and the reader could be forgiven for thinking that not only is the only election that matters the UK election, but that the only education policy that matters is English education policy.

This issue of Forum seeks to look beyond the outcome of the UK election, and beyond the borders of any one nation, and to locate developments in our schools in a much broader context – that of a neoliberal age in which national borders are becoming less and less relevant. National governments still matter, but there are powerful commercial interests that matter more. Understanding these global developments better is how we can hope to challenge them. (For a full list of contents see  here – the issue will be available in July).

The articles in this issue of Forum therefore seek to do two things. First, is to draw on the experiences of teachers and researchers from various parts of the world to illustrate how the global education reform movement (or ‘GERM’) is impacting schooling in different national contexts. Second, is to understand how those who challenge these developments are seeking to build ‘movements from below’ to speak back to the neoliberal ‘revolution from above’.

We are delighted to include a number of articles that help illuminate developments and struggles in some key parts of the globe at the current time. For example, Pavlos Charamis and Themis Kotsifakis from the Greek teachers’ union OLME, give an insight into the crisis facing Greek students and teachers as they look to Syriza to turn the tide on austerity. Carol Caref and Kristine Mayle provide an account of developments in Chicago where an alliance of union members and the community has had considerable success in challenging school closure programmes and other reforms. Fintan O’Mahony and Halil Buyruk provide accounts of how neoliberal reforms are reshaping schooling in Ireland and Turkey respectively and highlight the need to understand how global pressures intersect with local contexts and how that results in the specific experiences of students and teachers in different nations. Alison Milner provides a fascinating insight into the experiences of four teachers working in Swedish Free Schools and the challenges posed to their sense of professionalism working in schools driven by profit.

Several of these articles seek to connect the experience of market driven reforms with those who have organised to challenge these developments. Within these articles the emphasis is on trade union organisation, although what also emerges is the need for such mobilisations to build alliances with a much wider range of forces such as parents and students. What also emerges from these accounts of resistance is the need to connect activism with ideas and to understand that the counter-hegemonic challenge to neoliberalism must be constructed intellectually as well as in the classrooms and on the streets. One of the great strengths of what Stuart Hall called the ‘great moving Right show’ has been its ability to mobilise intellectual resources as part of the battle of ideas and we see this very clearly in education today. One effort to challenge this is an initiative by academics and researchers to mobilise their reasources in alliance with the organising strategy set out by Kevin Courtney and Gawain Little in the summer 2014 number of Forum. The project has called itself ‘Reclaiming Schools’ arguing ‘There is an urgent need to reclaim schools from the corporate interests that increasingly drive education policy… We will play a part in the struggle to reclaim schools for a more optimistic vision of education.’ . It seeks to provide the evidence and arguments to help activists in their campaigning work, and in this issue of Forum we carry three contributions from the Reclaiming Schools project – the articles by Susan Robertson, Pat Thomson and Peter Moss.

In all of these contributions it is always important to balance an understanding of the global, with a focus on the local. There are hugely powerful global pressures, but they play out in different places in different ways (see Terry Wrigley’s article on the curriculum or Alex Kenny and Baljeet Ghale’s contributions on ‘British Values’). The remaining articles in this issue do focus on England – but they highlight the extent to which England has acted as the laboratory for neoliberalism’s huge experiment with public education. Competition (Eddie Playfair) and crude performativity (Phil Taylor and Andy Richards) combine with the heavy hand of Ofsted (Colin Richards) to create a toxic mix of markets and managerialism in the English state system, with many of these developments now being replicated in their own ways across the world.

What is apparent, is that by the time this editorial appears in print, and the outcome of the UK election will have become clear, the challenge facing those who believe in the principles that have always guided Forum for over 50 years will remain the same. Whatever the colour of the government, public education needs a mass movement in which teachers, parents and students mobilise around an education system that places the values of social justice and democracy at its heart. It would be nice to believe that such a movement could emerge from the type of initiative that Eddie Playfair sets out in his brilliant article in this issue. A new ‘Great Debate’ in which we collectively engage with the fundamental questions in education – what is education for and what type of education system do we really want? Given that whoever is in government beyond May 2015 this is unlikely, then there is no option but to build from below and, borrowing from the American Federation of Teachers, reclaim the promise of public education.

Howard Stevenson, April 2015.


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