The Mother Country delivers

Maurie Mulheron

What is the relevance of the recent UK election for Australian teachers and our public education system?

Quite a bit, I would argue.

For almost 40 years, Australia has blindly followed the UK into its education wars. So many of the damaging education policy settings pushed by Australian politicians and many senior advisers have had their origins in the UK.

The 10 June edition of the Sydney Morning Herald carried a NSW Department of Education job advertisement for an “Executive Director Delivery”, with an annual salary of $287,580.

Delivery? This is not an accidental word. It has no local origins. It comes directly from the UK, where Tony Blair championed the notion of “deliverology” so that a government “reform” agenda could be delivered.

His adviser was a Sir Michael Barber who even co-authored a book called Deliverology 101: A Field Guide for Educational Leaders. After leaving government, he worked for giant edu-businesses such as Pearson and other corporations like the Boston Consulting Group.

Barber is also a champion of for-profit schooling, chairing the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund which establishes costly fee-paying school chains run on a profit basis in some of the poorest countries in the world such as Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. These schools, often no more than tin sheds, employ unqualified “teachers” who read from a standardised curriculum script.

But for the first time in decades, we are now hearing the language of fairness and equality rather than competition and choice returning to the main political discourse.

At first, it was Bernie Sanders in the US presidential campaign last year and now Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in the UK. And people, particularly young people, are excited by it.

In the 2017 UK election, we witnessed the first serious push-back against neoliberal economic orthodoxy that has sought to divide the world into “wealth producers” and “wealth consumers”.

The first effective politician to turn these concepts into policy was the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Her political manifesto was founded on an uncompromising belief in the right-wing ideology of an unfettered market, the privatisation of state enterprises, the deregulation of financial institutions and opposition to labour rights and organised trade unionism. A former Tory education minister, she lost no time as PM in training her gunsights on the British education system.

With the appointment of the extreme monetarist, Keith Joseph, as her education secretary, the battle-lines were drawn. His view of public education was that it was a wealth taker: a leaner, not a lifter.

In 1986, Thatcher appointed Kenneth Baker as secretary of state for education. Thatcher commanded Baker to change the system and gave him a month or two to devise the policies and the strategies.

Baker set about the task of changing the school system with some enthusiasm unburdened by any knowledge but very aware of how the politics should be played.

The void created by an absence of any serious theoretical basis for the changes was filled by political ideology, motivated by hostility towards teachers and an enduring hatred of comprehensive schooling which continues to this day.

The Conservative Party in this recent election called for academically selective schools for everyone. Think about it. Academically selective schools for everyone. No comedian could improve on that oxymoron.

But this is the same party that said that all schools had to ensure every student was above average in test scores.

Any hope that British Labour upon returning to government in May 1997 might reverse the damage was short-lived. New Labour’s education policies were driven by the same old ideology of “choice and diversity”. Selective and specialist schools continued to be established to undermine comprehensive education.

Blair reflected the same antipathy towards comprehensive schools as had the Conservatives. Labour began to complete the destructive agenda established by Thatcher. Tony Blair’s belief in market forces was as strident as Thatcher’s.

When asked what her greatest achievement was, Thatcher is said to have replied: “New Labour”.

Under Blair, the Tory education agenda continued, with Mr Deliverology by his side for much of it.

League tables were published. Schools were named, shamed and closed. More academically selective schools were announced. Privatisation was encouraged. Business became more involved and previous local authority roles were handed to private companies. “Public/private” partnerships were created. An expanded role for churches and charities in education provision was encouraged.

Under Blair, England’s education system became even more of a marketplace with the opening of a plethora of competing religious schools, private schools, grammar schools, specialist schools, beacon schools, church schools, foundation schools, academies and so on.

Yet, what ultimately has been delivered? The UK continues to slide in international rankings, teacher morale is low, schools are seriously under-funded, the curriculum has narrowed and children endure a battery of meaningless, high-stakes tests throughout their school life.

The lessons from the UK for Australian teachers are there. We have to learn from the history of the last 40 years. We have to understand that ideas are not neutral. In short, the globalisation of destructive education policies is not accidental.

Above all, we must continue to disrupt the agenda, just as we are doing with our TAFE anti-privatisation and schools funding campaigns.

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