MATs – The Ideological State Apparatus

The Marxist Louis Althusser saw education as part of the ‘ideological state apparatus’ which prepared the working class to accept a life of exploitation. Schools are seen as a mechanism to ensure the working class is kept in a state of ‘false consciousness’. Many of us educators on the left conveniently park this idea. It gets in the way of our mission to use progressive education ideas to counter ‘false consciousness’ and give pupils the knowledge and skills they need to build a better world. Preferring Paolo Freire to Althusser we do not want to see the institutions we work in or more importantly the colleagues we work with as agents of social control.  

Education in England is a forum for struggle between those who uncritically accept the edicts of the establishment and the teachers, students plus a very small number of schools who challenge it. The way the National Curriculum has been reconfigured marginalises the knowledge and skills students need to promote change. Instead it focusses on ‘the best that has been thought and said’. This turns out to be highly subjective and excludes the thinking of feminists, environmentalists, socialists and those who have been victims of imperialism and colonisation. Schools have always been responsible for the transmission of knowledge, values and culture which has the approval of the ruling class. However, pre-Gove there was space, depending on the school or local authority, for teachers to promote alternative perspectives. Vibrant arts curricula giving students the means to explore and communicate ideas, the inclusion of black poets and writers in English schemes of work, as well as alternative historical perspectives, were all part of the curriculum in some schools actively promoted by left leaning LEAs. Now Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) act to promote the narrow and prescriptive curriculum put in place by Gove. 

The balance of forces in the struggle has shifted very much towards the right. Why? The Tories have been aware for some time that the expansion in higher education under Blair was at least partly responsible for their poor polling among young people. James Kanagasooriam in a research paper for the Tories (Polling and the Conservative Loss of Political Ascendancy 2018) shows that the average age of Labour voters is decreasing (now 45) and that the average age of Conservative voters is rising (now 56). This cannot be good for them particularly when the proportion of educated people, who are less likely to vote Conservative, among the different age groups is so markedly different.  9% of people aged 25 to 34 have no qualifications where as a massive 53% of over 65s did not achieve any. 18% of over 65s have level 4 qualifications where as 44% of people aged 25 to 34 do. There is little doubt that the shift in tactics under Johnson to attract less educated working-class voters in ex industrial towns was because of this awareness. But an attack on the nature of education itself must also take place.  First the Tories have to change the content of education to prevent engagement in topics for study which might persuade pupils that a better and fairer world might be possible. Esther Mcvey speaking on a panel at a Conservative gathering last September said, ‘I think [it] needs to be removed from the whole educational system – a left-learning bias or an educational bias in the whole of the education platform.’ Recent edicts telling schools not to use materials from ‘anti-capitalist groups’ and banning mock elections are evidence of their intent. Second the assessment system with its linear exams and grade rationing is designed to the limit numbers of young people going to university. 

Far subtler is the marginalisation of standpoints critical of the record of capitalism on the environment and of cultural perspectives which affirm the identity of black and ethnic minority students. The failure to properly address gender equality too is now having profound consequences. This marginalisation has led to student protests in schools.  It appears too that it is in the schools most allied to the right-wing ideological project, in the main academies, selective schools, and even the private sector, where protests against oppression are the most prevalent.  

First, the failure to properly address the climate crisis in the curriculum has been the cause of Friday strikes and the growth of student led groups in school such as Teach the Future entirely run by school students. By fragmenting aspects of the climate emergency across geography, science and beyond, the DfE is preventing school students from getting a clear picture of the extent of the crisis and possible solutions to it. Ironic, when it is the generation in schools now who will experience the consequences of inaction. COP26 is in doubt because of the pandemic. If it were to take place there is no doubt that young people who could now be criminalised because of the new anti-protest bill, will be organising demonstrations. As the restrictions around the pandemic lift, groups such as UK Student Climate Network and Teach the Future will organise again. 

The murder of Sarah Everard prompted hundreds of testimonies from girls and young women outlining the sexual harassment, assault and rape they had been subjected to in schools. Evidence at first was from students in the private sector in schools that had not always had a coeducational history. The extent of the abuse reveals school cultures in which male objectification of women and the subsequent abuse goes unchallenged. Complacency on the right has caused the growth of this culture against a background of increasing access to pornography by young males. Always suspicious of any course of study in schools which does not come under a subject banner and still harbouring a lingering prudery about explicit sexual content, right wing traditionalists have fought against the introduction of compulsory sex and relationships education. Finally, statutory guidance on RSE came out in 2019. It is weak on consent, the role of pornography, the power imbalance between the genders and is still not compulsory for all students. The testimonies on ‘Everyone’s Invited’ have led to an outcry to which the DfE response is an investigation by OFSTED. Surely it will reveal what feminists have always argued. Girls must be empowered to tackle the culture of male objectification of women, sadly often brought into school by many boys, head on. Or Will it? 

Part of the right’s project has been to present Britain at the centre of the liberal western cultural tradition which they see as inherently superior to any other. They have avoided the exploitation inherent in colonialism, and the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade in their version of history without which, the economic growth underpinning cultural development would not have happened. Hence, their curriculum now stripped of most black history and non-white writers, causes reactions like this from a year 13 South London student.    

‘The lack of diversity in the curriculum, especially as it relates to history and literature, was something that was so disheartening because, in my eyes, it was a refusal to acknowledge the presence and importance of black people in the history of the world, and the history of the UK in general.​ Having to continuously learn about the World Wars, whilst only featuring the contributions of white Britain and white America, effectively erased the contribution of black Americans and British soldiers from the Britain’s colonies, without whom Britain would not have won the war. Additionally, ​the fact that​ ​the history of Britain’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade is never comprehensively taught, that British Colonialism and British Empire is NEVER DISCUSSED, and that certain figures in British history are portrayed as heroes when their actions were in fact monstrous, is not only a disservice to the many black and non-black POC in UHS whose history and heritage were directly impacted by Transatlantic chattel slavery, British Colonialism and British Empire, it perpetuates the lies in books of history that Britain is innocent. Additionally, this ​propagandist manner of approaching ​history, and education in general, refuses to acknowledge how integral Black people have been to the construction of Britain as an economically and culturally relevant core state in world affairs.’  

Protest from students in South London has erupted in academies and grammar schools. The most high profile of these has been the actions of students in Pimlico Academy (ironically previously an ILEA flagship) in protesting against racist hair rules, the flying of the Union Jack and the content of the curriculum. It is in this area the right is weakest. They hide behind a cloak of ‘levelling up’ and better opportunities for black and working-class students but either do nothing or actively work against this aim. Pimlico is run by Future Academies which in turn is run by Lord and Lady Nash, Tory peers.

Future Academies was established to improve the life chances of children through an education that is built on the importance of knowledge-rich teaching by subject experts and of raising the aspirations of all……..A knowledge-rich aspirational curriculum with a focus on cultural capital delivered by expert teachers is our raison d’etre and is transforming the life chances of the children and young people in all our schools. 

Warwick Mansell, Education Uncovered, has revealed what this means in practice. The notion of cultural capital here, prominent in the new OFSTED framework, means nothing less than a cultural whitewash. This happened literally in the Pimlico corridors where pictures of black achievers, including Tammy Abrahams a Chelsea player and alumnus, were removed and the walls whitewashed. No black perspectives in the curriculum have been allowed, including even Black History Month. Instead students are subjected to a parade of white kings and queens masquerading as a history curriculum and worse the trust insists on, in the name of cultural capital, students learning all the Greek and Roman myths. These are presented in the most tedious prose and followed by the inevitable comprehension questions. Check out the website. All this is not surprising as the curriculum is devised by a group led by Lady Nash who is not a teacher and has no educational experience. The idea that by teaching such a curriculum the Pimlico students will be able to overcome the barriers to success they face and compete on level terms with private school students supposedly well versed in the classics, is a nonsense and a dangerous lie. The imposition of such a curriculum exposes a truth that those with power are imposing their white establishment view of the world on everyone else and that the notion of racial equality in  our academized marketised system is a myth. Future Academies are admittedly outliers but they are only making explicit what the Tory’s education project is really all about. The academies system has enabled them to do it and stay at arm’s length from the DfE. What is Nick Gibbs’s view? He struggled in a recent petition committee hearing to justify the lack of  a black perspective in the National Curriculum claiming the reason it was not laid down to give teachers more flexibility.  Because of the academies system he does not have to take direct responsibility for the Pimlico debacle. 

The academies and free schools programme was sold as a way of improving standards by. encouraging innovation. There is a small minority of schools who have taken advantage of the programme to genuinely innovate. However, two thirds of free schools have been created by existing MATs. Rather than innovate, the CEOs of MATs have worked with the government to deliver the ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, support the government’s core content framework on pedagogy, advise OFSTED on its new framework to ensure schools comply and contribute to the CPD programme to ‘improve teaching’. The resulting education school students receive is designed to control, by deliberately restricting access to alternative perspectives in order to maintain Tory hegemony. Fortunately, school students and teachers are starting to fight back. The struggle will need a coherent strategy to not only change the content of education and the way it is delivered and assessed but to also deconstruct the state apparatus, in this case the semi-privatised academies, the Tories have created.

Author: James Whiting, General-Secretary, SEA
Edited by Joseph Cowling, Digital Communications Officer, SEA

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