Around this time of the year—when A-level and GCSE results are released—there is a flurry of discussion in the media about how to interpret them. For a brief period, we can read about ever increasing pass rates, exams becoming easier, higher grades, more students getting into university, standards slipping, and so on. In the background, for the rest of the time, we hear about parental "choice", about the need for "reform", and about how the "one size fits all" comprehensive model doesn't work.
Within this debate, it is possible to identify two broad camps. On one side are the supporters of "traditional" education. These bemoan the fact that more students pass every year, that exams are getting easier, that standards are slipping, and that excellence is being sacrificed. On the other side are the "progressives", with their less structured more "hands on" approach, who favour letting students learn from their own experiences, and who place less emphasis on the formal conventions of writing. This is the side which tends to prevail—and with which much of the left identifies.
It is true that the traditional system of education—with its 11+, grammar schools, and secondary moderns, together with private schools for those who could afford them—failed the majority. But the progressive approach is no better. More students are passing exams, but many of these have difficulty in composing a coherent paragraph. More are going to university, but many get there with little idea of the rudiments of the subject they will be studying. Students who begin a physics degree at a prestigious university without knowing what a millimetre is have their progressive education to thank.
This is a false debate. The idea that resources should be concentrated on enabling a small minority to achieve high standards, and the idea that "dumbing down" is needed to ensure access for the majority, are both based on the same false premise: that it is not possible to educate the majority of the population to a high level. The end result is the same.
Another recurring theme is that so many students are now getting A grades that it is difficult for universities and employers to distinguish between applicants. This gives an indication of the real problem: education is becoming increasingly geared to the production of economic units for industry, rather than rounded and intellectually capable individuals, and to equipping a small minority to rule.
These priorities are not ours. Education should allow almost everybody to acquire certain essential skills and habits—such as the ability to read and comprehend books and articles, and the desire to do so. People should be able to express themselves verbally and in writing, and to construct and follow an argument. Accurate spelling and punctuation, as well as correct grammar, are not impediments to free expression and creativity: they are their prerequisites, and signposts on the way to liberation. People should be comfortable with numbers and statistics, be aware of the world around them, be able to appreciate the best in human culture, and have sufficient knowledge of history to have a sense of how we got to where we are. This would open the way for real popular participation in decision-making, and begin to dissolve the distinction between those who rule and those who are ruled.
The battle for education and culture will have to be a major priority of a future revolutionary government. In the meantime, the development of millions is stunted. This disenfranchises them as effectively as any constitutional mechanism could, and contributes to the deeply undemocratic character of the present social order.