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Tuesday 14 September 2010 at Manchester Metropolitan University, Didsbury


Education under the ConDems

John Schostak

Revised immediately following the conference

I recall when starting my career as a lecturer and researcher a sense of things still
being possible. Research just might be able to feed practice to contribute to making a
difference in people’s lives. That was the early 1980s. The Thatcher government had
recently been elected, public services and trades unions were under attack. It was the
neoliberal onslaught at full speed. I was then in the process of undertaking my Ph d
research that involved a study of a school in an economically depressed area in the
north west of the UK. At one point during a discussion of whether it was possible for
a school to engage in such a way as to make known the real issues the children and
their families faced, a teacher said ‘our role is to keep the lid on the dustbin’. The fear
was that if things were stirred up, there would be violent revolution in the streets. Of
course, a few months later there were the riots that took place in various cites around
the country. I wrote a book based on my research called Maladjusted Schooling
(Schostak 1983), meaning schools were maladjusted to the real needs and interests of
people. It seemed to me that real democratic practice had to be embedded in schools
if real change was to be promoted.

When I became a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, one of my research

projects involved a First School where I could begin to explore what it would mean to
develop genuine democratic practice throughout the school. In brief, the children
became decision makers in all aspects of their school lives, ‘sorting out’ their
problems with each others in terms of behaviour as well as making decisions about
curriculum matters. Children, teachers and other staff all contributed to the culture of
democratic decision making. This seemed like a real practical model for education
and not just schooling. However, it was also the time of the 1988 Education Act that
brought its version of the new managerialism into schools through the imposition of
the National Curriculum and inspection systems. Increasingly, it seemed that the time
when teachers could be curriculum innovators had passed. With it the confidence, the
practical knowledge and experience required to make change also seemed to vanish.

The Education Education, Education of the Blair years was more of the same – a
different colour but the same new managerialism with its ‘instruction to deliver’
(Barber 2007).

With the election of the Cameron-Clegg coalition in 2010, aptly termed the ConDems,
what is at stake today that has not always been at stake?

I shall answer this in three parts.

First part: Education and the hatred of democracy

Education has long been reduced to being an instrument of political control, if we
mean by education the whole apparatus of schools through to universities on the one
hand and the multiplicity of media, the organisation of labour to meet the demands of
contemporary markets, and the everyday forms of socialisation through which minds
and bodies are moulded.

After the Reform act of 1868 that extended political rights to certain of the working
classes Robert Lowe is claimed to have said ‘now we must educate our masters’.

And Bernays, the father of contemporary spin doctors and one of the pioneers of the
modern public relations industry wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and

opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those
who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible
government which is the true ruling power of our country.
(Bernays 1928: 27)


Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority

who know how to regiment and guide the masses.
(Bernays 1928: 127

Bernays’ contemporary influence on the politics of the Western world, and in

particular that of the UK and the USA was highlighted by a BBC documentary
(2002). Consent is to be manufactured or engineered to support the policies of
governments who in turn are either largely financed by the wealthy or manipulated by
the demands of corporate elites (see: Klein 2007, Herman and Chomsky 1988). Over
the last 3 decades what is being manufactured is consent to neoliberalism, a political
economic doctrine that privileges the pursuit of profit, inequality, private property,
individualism, the accumulation of wealth and equates free (that is, unregulated)
market economics with freedom and democracy (see Harvey 2005). Neoliberalism
abhors the State, collective action, the public sector and welfare. In promoting the
reforms to embed neoliberal privatisation of publicly owned industries and services
Thatcher famously said there is no alternative, and in the face of rising unemployment
and poverty she said there is no such thing as society. Instead of democracy as
founded upon the voices of all people, there is only the election of elite national
management teams who decide and act on behalf of millions. There is, as Rancière
(2006) wrote, a Hatred of democracy. This hatred is seen in transformation of all
public space into Private space, private property and the accumulation of wealth.
Private organisations owned by wealthy elites have no need of democratic decision
making. As the banking crisis has convincingly shown, global financial institutions
have the power to blackmail governments. And at ground level, people have no
democratic institutions to resist and fight back through collective decision making.
There is a paucity of countervailing forces.

Part two: Education and the hope of Democracy

We could also regard education as a necessary condition for emancipation. Education
can be seen as the radical moment when belief in the certainties, values, and forms of
organisation through which everyday life is managed is ‘suspended’. In this moment
through the faculty of imagination, education ‘draws out’ the possibilities for
alternative forms of social organisation as a condition for thinking and acting
differently in everyday life. LaBoetie back in 1552 expressed his amazement that so
many millions would submit to the will of one person, a tyrant. Imagine if everyone
took his advice: ‘Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed.’

It is in imagining that this is possible that hope is born. And in hope democracy is
born, hope that is, for a world where people can be free from want and free to develop
a better life for themselves in security and in community with others. Freedom as the
French political theorist Balibar (1994) notes is coextensive with equality. If access
to certain social goods is limited to the wealthy, then the freedom of the poor is
limited. Without equality, there can be no universal freedom. For democracy to
come into being, there must be the freedom and equality of all to be engaged in the
decision making processes of all the community organisations and institutions that
impact upon the lives of people. Democracy thus depends upon the creation of public
spheres where people have free and equal access to engage in the debates and
decisions that inform and legitimise action.

Education is critical to the accomplishment of democratic forms of social

organisation. Rather than the national curricula, training programmes and forms of
examination that today pass as education, a curriculum can be reconceptualised as an
course of reflection, expression, decision making and action developed in free and
equal community with others. Education, in this sense, is thus on the one hand the
practice of continually emancipating people from whatever prevents them from
engaging freely and equally in public space. On the other hand it is also the creative
process of engaging with others to express their free individuality as co-equals in
community with others.

Part three: The ConDems and the Big Lie

Now we can think of education under the ConDems.

Plato wrote of the necessity of the ‘noble lie’ to maintain social order - people were
classified hierarchicallyaccording to their function in society. It was declared to be
natural. There is something of this in the notion of the ‘Big Society’ that conceals the
ConDems version of the neoliberal desire for small government as a mechanism to
enforce legislation through violence if necessary for the protection of property rights
and the accumulation of wealth. The ‘Big society’ idea makes one of its appearances
in what Gove calls ‘free schools’. In what way are they ‘free’? They can be seen as
breaking up state provision. Or, they can be seen as genuinely placing power back
into the hands of people. However, the idea was greeted by early cynicism. Baker in
a Guardian article described how the education secretary Michael Gove is picking his
advisers and abolishing the QCDA in order to get direct control over the curriculum
So, we have the prospect of the planned new national curriculum being shaped
by advice from the education secretary's hand-picked committee of experts
and then implemented by his own department. Not much room for dissent or
argument there. One very experienced former curriculum adviser believes the
department's civil servants simply won't know how to challenge the advice
that comes from Gove's curriculum appointees.
(Mike Baker, Guardian Tuesday 15, June, 2010)

And, in the view of Peter Wilby (The Guardian Tuesday 25, May 2010) it will be
private companies rather than parents who will run the free schools. Indeed, as
reported by Patrick Barkham and Polly Curtis in the Guardian (Monday 31, May,

The government has "no ideological objection" to businesses seeking profits

from the new generation of academy schools and free schools, Michael Gove
has said.

But the education secretary said his preference was for teachers and other
experts to decide how to run and improve schools and said he expected most
academies to be run as philanthropic projects.

Place this in the context of other moves, particularly in health care where GP practices
are already run as businesses and the new plans for the NHS are to create even more
opportunities for private profit making. Place it too in the context of massive cuts in
benefits and services where the private sector are expect to ‘take up the slack’. What
is taking place is a massive attack on the public sector in all its forms.

Is there no alternative?

There is. But first we must make a clear separation between society and State,
between ordinary people and Nation, between democracy and the election of elites to
manage the State. It is the powers of ordinary people that are either managed in the
interests of elites or freed to engage in democratic, mutual associations for a common
benefit in the production of the ‘good society’. Society begins, it seems to me, in the
recognition that we are all equally co-dependent on each other. This being so, we
each need a free and equal voice in the creation of our social goods and their
allocation. This contrasts with the ‘there is no society’ notion of the private sector
where there is the survival of the fittest in the competition for the private
accumulation of individual wealth.

Possibilities for a different social and political form of organisation and thus a
glimmer of optimism seems to me to exist within our current conditions.

Alongside the neoliberal move to the privatisation of everything publicly owned for
the benefit of elite controlled market interests, there is also the co-operative
movement. It is well known for its retail, manufacturing, financial, health and other
services. It is less known that it has already something like 100 Co-operative Trust
schools in existence with more on the way. The Trust partnerships are composed of
community focused organisations. Rather than values of competition, profit seeking
and individual greed, there are values of co-operation, collective action and mutual
development. The co-operative movement has a long history and has developed what
may be called an alternative sector to that of the private and that of state public
control. Its resilience in the face of the financial crisis has been proven. Co-operative
pedagogies are, or at least potentially are, quite different to those required for
competitive markets focusing on individual competition and inequality of reward. It
provides a different notion of the ‘Big Society’. It provides a way of thinking about
how to use the word ‘free’ differently from that of ‘free market economics’ and how
to use the word society differently from that implied in the ConDems use of ‘Big

The word ‘free’ is tricky. Its meanings cannot arbitrarily be limited. If people get the
taste of freedom, they tend to demand it. And the demand is for equal freedoms with
others. There is no freedom without equality nor is there freedom without the public
space within which to demand freedom with equality. Rather than ‘Big Society’ we
might talk of ‘Big Democracy’ as a condition for the good society. Political theorist
Chantal Mouffe (1993) described democracy as the unfinished and unfinishable
revolution. The task is to build democratic practice in all the institutions of everyday
life. The co-operative movement may provide one means of thinking about how to do

But we need a radical rethink on how to accomplish this (see Schostak and Schostak
2008, 2010). The task is massive. For example, where do we actually see and
experience real democracy in our lives? And how are we as children prepared for a
life of democratic practice? If schools were to be assessed on their democratic
practices in all matters of school life, how many today would achieve above zero?

What sort of education – not just in schools, but across all the organisations,
institutions and forms of everyday life - would we need to produce this, this new
vision of a Big Democracy, a democracy big enough to challenge the biggest of lies?


What is at stake, and has always been at stake, is control. That is: who is to control
the production and allocation of wealth and social goods? Is it to be elites? Or is it to
be the masses?

Balibar, E. (1994 ) “Rights of Man” and “Rights of the Citizen”: The Modern
Dialectic of Equality and Freedom, in Etienne Balibar, Masses, Classes, Ideas:
Studies on Politics and Philosophy Before and After Marx, New York: Routledge.
The original is: “La proposition de l'égaliberté”, in Les Conférences du Perroquet, n°
22, Paris novembre 1989

Barber, M (2007) Instruction to Deliver, London: Politico’s

BBC (2002) The Century of the Self, BBC documentary, broadcast: Monday 29
April - Thursday 2 May 2002, 7pm-8pm
Bernays, E. L. (1928) Propaganda, New York: Horace liveright

La Boetie, E. (1550s) ‘The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary


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Herman, E. S., and Chomsky, N. (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political

Economy of the Mass Media, New York: Pantheon Books

Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine. The rise of disaster capitalism, Allen Lane

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Murray, C. (2005) ‘The Advantages of Social Apartheid. U.S. Experience Shows

Britain What to Do with Its Underclass--Get It off the Streets, Sunday Times April
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Norton, A. (2004) Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, New Haven
and London: Yale University Press

Rancière, J. (2006) Hatred of Democracy, by Jacques tr. Steve Corcoran London:


Schostak, J. F. (1983) Maladjusted Schooling: Deviance, Social Control and

Individuality in Secondary Schooling, London, Philadelphia. Falmer.

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and writing research to make a difference,, Routledge: London, UK

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and the Rights of People, Routledge: London, UK