Can education end poverty?

BBC SENIOR journalist John Humphrys last Monday evening presented a documentary on BBC Two entitled Unequal Opportunities about England’s education system, examining the recent statement by Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove that, “Rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children” in our school system.

The programme was all about the huge gap between education services provided for the middle and upper classes and those for the working class. Humphrys demonstrated that working class children are not inherently stupid by finding three inner city schools — one was an academy and the others were not — that had succeeded in “turning round” their schools’ performances under the strong leadership of new, very dedicated, head teachers. These heads had instituted new, more strict regimes and longer working hours for the children but had won their co-operation by making them believe in themselves and giving them confidence in their ability to achieve and get good university places — leading to a better, happier life.

The children responded well and exam results improved. But the changes involved spending far more time, attention, money and resources on each child. Humphreys saw this as the key issue and the secret of ending poverty and deprivation. But he predicted, gloomily, that under the current Government the necessary investment would not be forthcoming; indeed the swingeing public sector cuts in the pipeline will make things worse, not better.

But ending poverty is much more complex. If every child in the country had a really good education, it would improve their lives and they would understand a lot more about themselves and the world they live in but it would not get them all good jobs or lift them out of poverty.

Already we have serious graduate unemployment. What we would get is highly educated factory workers, shop assistants, bus drivers, hospital porters, refuse collectors and so on. And they would all be feeling terribly disillusioned that their degrees had not made them better wage earners than their neighbours. From the bosses’ point of view, they would not be better workers.

The real answer to poverty lies in the general raising of wages, especially among the lowest paid sectors. And the young people, who currently end up in these dead-end jobs, however inadequate their formal education, learn very quickly — more quickly than they could learn in any university — that bosses are bastards who exploit them mercilessly in every way they can.

They learn to hate the bosses and the capitalist system and about the need for working class solidarity. But too few now learn how to achieve it, because work places have changed so much from the days when Britain was a great industrial power. Most of the factories, where workers could organise and put real pressure on the bosses, have gone.

Now jobs in the service sector are mainly short-term and in smaller fragmented work places. It is harder for unions to organise but nevertheless we and the unions must make the effort.

The education these children need is how to fight the class struggle, the history of working class struggles and the class system; how to organise in trade unions; how to agitate and how to win. They need to know how to win higher wages, better conditions and the restoration of state welfare and a fair education system.

It’s a harder subject than any they teach at bourgeois universities; it requires determination to struggle on in the face of setbacks and ruling class attacks on the unions. And it requires confidence to go beyond the basic economic struggle for wages and to take on the political struggle with the ruling class, to understand the depth and breadth of the bourgeois state and to lead the workers to smash it and build their own working class state.

It’s a very hard task but ultimately it brings the greatest rewards: the opportunity to start building socialism with improving living standards, health, education, leisure and opportunities for all workers.

First we must build the self-belief and the self-confidence of the workers, especially those who are most exploited and most oppressed.