Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Michael Gove’s Educational Reforms: A Utilitarian Education System with Little Use Value

By Keely Hughes, PhD student in Sociology

Last week we saw Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) take a “U-Turn” on his decision to scrap General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSE’s) in core academic subjects and replace them with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBC’s). He stated in the House of Commons that the decision to replace GCSE’s with EBC’s was “one reform too many” … “a bridge too far”. The questions to be asked are; exactly how much of a reversal is this for Gove? And what type of education system is Gove trying to form?

The Coalition set out their aims for education in the Importance of Teaching White Paper 2010 where a tighter curriculum, rigorous exams and a restructuring of league tables were of high priority, alongside toughening academic subjects, reforming vocational education and increasing schools autonomy. In the context of the aims set out in the 2010 White Paper, the reversal for Gove on the EBC’s is small, as academic rigor will still be enforced, only now through GCSE’s. Gove’s vision for education is a splitting and distinction of the academic and vocational, where the academic becomes the greater good of the two but both nonetheless Gove claims are important for Britain’s economy and society’s contemporary needs. The rhetoric is that these reforms will enable Britain to compete globally with the world’s best education systems and more importantly will provide economic prosperity for Britain’s future. On the surface this does not appear problematic, why shouldn’t our pupils have the right to a world class education securing them a “valuable” position within our economy whether it is academic or vocational. Gove’s vision shows similarity to the tripartite system of education during the post-war era which created to some extent a stasis, where we had pupils trained in vocational education upon which leaving school would take their place within the working class labour force and an academic middle-class high-tech worker maintaining power and generating wealth off the labour force. I believe that this is what Gove is trying to recapture. The problem is however, that during the post-war era we had an industrial sector, which through Thatcherism and the rise of neoliberal capitalism has been eradicated.

Gove is backing away from the idea that every individual can go to university and become a high-tech worker. His two tier education system suggests that he is trying to re-construct an old working class, but there is a problem, we no longer have a working class industry. The implementation of state education for all in the 1870’s was based on utilitarian principles, on a need to train the working-class for the economy. However, the reality today of training individuals as workers for an industrial workforce which does not exist will only lead to our young falling out of the bottom of the working class and joining the ever increasing unemployed class. We have witnessed increasing unemployment levels during the recession and I fail to see how an education system constructed for the training of individuals for an industrial economy will reduce unemployment in the current neoliberal system, which is committed to privatisation, marketization and competition, and which centralises the economy and society around the mechanisms of “consumption”.

I believe that current reforms will leave us with a utilitarian education system which has little “use” value. If we train pupils in vocational education within markets which (1) have a limited use for vocational education and; (2) give higher “value” to academic education, vocational education and training becomes “value-less” and will provide our young with little or no stake in the economy. Youth unemployment, as we have witnessed over the last few years, has risen dramatically and even those with university qualifications are struggling to find work, taking lower-paid jobs which do not match the skills and qualifications gained from university. For individuals where low-paid work matches their skills and qualifications they are again being pushed out of the bottom of the economy by other individuals who are over-qualified taking these limited available jobs. I think that ultimately, a massive underclass will develop. These individuals will be young with no stake in society and in order to survive in an ever increasing high end consumer society will have to take what they cannot buy. This will lead to a rise in the penal state but with cuts in the penal system also, school for those who cannot compete and become high-tech workers will become a disciplinary institution in which education will become about creating workers for an economy without work and socialising behaviour to make people more compliant. This is a million miles away from Gove’s rhetoric of a world-class education for every individual which will secure each individual with a “valuable” place in our economy.

My PhD research at Keele University focuses on these contemporary educational issues, on the relationship between contemporary neoliberal discourses of economic value and its impact upon education for ‘advantaged’ and ‘dis-advantaged’ youth groups, aiming to understand the ways in which social class impacts upon the experience of education in a period of economic stress and educational reform. My main concern is with the extent to which neoliberal education reproduces class division and inequality through its focus on the relationship between education and economic usefulness.

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