England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Social crisis hits Britain’s schools

The UK education system is in crisis, facing a catalogue of critical issues from recruitment of teachers to schools literally falling apart. However, it is not an isolated example, it is the same in all public services and across society as a whole. Capitalism is a crisis ridden system and it is felt economically, politically and socially. We have reported on the economic crisis facing education throughout the educator strikes, but the impact is felt in a multitude of ways beyond being able to afford pay rises or glue sticks. And in turn, the social crisis prevalent in society is reflected in the education system.

By a secondary school teacher

Last year, an unprecedented strike took place when NEU members at Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey walked out over pupil behaviour. Teachers called for ‘zero tolerance’ to pupils threatening staff with sexual violence or throwing chairs and tables at them, with students receiving an immediate ten-day fixed term exclusion.

No worker should ever be faced with violence and intimidation whilst attending work – especially without the resources, training and support to be able to deal with that violence. In this school, it isn’t just teachers who feel unsafe, with more than half of the pupils not attending regularly. And it isn’t just in this school where behaviour management is a growing issue. A national survey found that teachers were taking 50 minutes out of teaching each day to deal with behavioural issues.

School staff are reporting an increase in issues with parents too, with a YouGov survey finding that 45% experienced verbal abuse and 10% physical abuse. This can partly be explained by an alienation many parents feel from the education system, maybe because of their own experience as a child or because of problems they face with schools and finding it hard to speak with overworked teachers. Having to deal with a suspended or excluded child is also extremely stressful for parents, as is trying to fight for the right kind of support if your child has special educational needs or disability (SEND). Almost all of the cases that go to tribunal rule in favour of the parent seeking additional support for their child after the school or local authority have refused.

Fragmented education system – not fit for purpose

Exclusion rates are now above the pre-Covid levels, after a ‘moratorium’ on exclusions during the pandemic, with many students on waiting lists for specialist provision because the funding is not there. The autumn term of 2023 saw a 39% increase in suspensions compared to 2019 – this equates to one in 17 secondary school students being suspended, mostly for one day. However, persistent suspensions are usually the main reason for permanent exclusions.

Socialists generally oppose exclusions. It doesn’t deal with the source of the problem – poor behaviour is usually a way for a child to communicate that something isn’t right. It leads to labelling students as ‘naughty’, which can affect how they are treated by schools and other professionals, creating a spiral and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Behavioural issues are not isolated from the wider crisis within society. Poorer students, for example those who received free school meals, are four times more likely to be suspended and Black children are twice as likely to be excluded than white children.

Exclusions are not just a reflection of behaviour, but also of a fragmentation of the education system through academisation. An increase in competition and focus on league tables to secure more funding has meant that schools are keen to ‘get rid’ of problematic pupils who may not receive high grades or make it more likely to get an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating. By excluding, the school can shirk its responsibility and pass it on to someone else, with little regard for the young person.

Mental health crisis

Covid is seen as a watershed in terms of mental health issues for young people – a significant factor in behavioural problems and persistent absence from school. Schools are increasingly having to take initiatives to deal with anxiety such as providing quiet areas and passes for students to leave lessons. Many young people need interventions to develop their social skills after the experience of lockdowns at key ages when they would have acquired them by being at school and around other people.

For teachers as well, mental health is a problem, shown in the number of teachers leaving the profession. According to the National Education Union, 13% of teachers leave within the first year of the job. 72% of headteachers say that the job has a negative impact on their wellbeing, with increased staff turnover in the last year. The government has missed its own recruitment target for secondary-level initial teacher training by 50%. As a result there are increasing numbers of non-specialists teaching many classes, including an increasing number of unqualified teachers. No wonder that schools are struggling with recruitment and retention, with increasing workload and decreasing pay, becoming a teacher is not an attractive career for many.

This is not helped by long waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, with a third of children referred to mental health services not being seen, meaning that more of the burden of dealing with mental health issues is being placed on schools and teachers themselves.

There have been calls for mental health training as part of teacher training, but there is no extra money and no time set aside for educators to perform this additional skill. Counsellors in schools would help with supporting young people who need this but with school budgets being cut, it is not a reality for most schools.

This in turn has an impact on attendance. During the autumn term, almost 25% of pupils were persistently absent (meaning attendance of a pupil is less than 90%), much higher than before Covid, with almost 65,000 more penalty notices for unauthorised absences being issued last year compared to 2019. A majority of the fines were given because of unauthorised family holidays, driven in the main by the increased cost of going away during school holidays. However, there are real issues with thousands of children regularly not attending school and a shift in attitudes from a layer of parents who do not see it as important that their children have good attendance.

Attendance, of course, will also affect attainment; along with the ‘catching up’ necessary to sit GCSEs and A-Levels as a result of interrupted learning during lockdowns and anxiety around sitting exams. Those sitting exams in the summer of 2023 were the first to do so under ‘normal’ circumstances since Covid – in proper exam conditions and without guidance from the exam boards about what would be on the paper.

Despite the rhetoric by the Tories that it is easier than ever to get good grades, there was actually a grade deflation by the exam boards. In fact, the number of young people leaving school without English and maths GCSEs has increased significantly since 2019, with those in the most deprived schools being most severely affected.

Class divide in education

Poverty is a key issue when it comes to behaviour, attainment and attendance. In the UK, child poverty levels have soared by 20% since 2012. One in ten young people miss meals at least once a week because their family doesn’t have enough money. Being hungry has a direct impact on a child’s ability to learn. Schools are trying to plug this gap by providing breakfast clubs and hosting food banks or collections for the poorest families.

Families living in poverty for long periods of time can become alienated from the institutions that make up the superstructure; if you feel that no one is there to help you, that you do not gain anything from society, then why would you want to contribute to it? Margaret Thatcher once said, “There is no such thing as a society, only individuals and families.” This neo-liberal ideology that was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, whilst challenged today by a growing collective fightback by the working class, still has a lingering effect particularly amongst the most downtrodden people who have been abandoned by the political elite. It creates a ‘dog eat dog’ mentality where people feel the need to look after themselves, thinking that no one from ‘the state’ is going to help you.

UNICEF aptly entitled a report into the crisis in education “Child Poverty in the Midst of Wealth”, in which it found the UK to be third from the bottom when it comes to child income poverty levels (only ahead of Turkey and Colombia).

Marketisation of education

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the poorest schools have been forced to cut spending by 12% per pupil, compared to 5% per pupil for the richest schools since 2010. Instead of funding education properly, there is instead a speeding up of forced academisation being driven by the Conservative government, ideologically supporting a privatised education system based on competition and inequality. Those being targeted are schools which have received two Ofsted inspections rated less than ‘good’.

Since 2010, the Tories have attempted to move the education system back towards the ‘two-tier’ system of the post-war period with a class divide between the ‘academic’ and the ‘vocational’ schools and subjects. This has meant the removal of coursework from many subjects and a focus on harder exams, with teachers encouraged to use ‘traditional’ methods based on learning by rote.

Ofsted is a flawed concept and should be scrapped. The idea that schools should be compared to each other in a deeply unequal system is only setting up the poorest schools to fail.

The effects of this were tragically illustrated last year with the suicide of headteacher Ruth Perry, which coroners linked to a recent Ofsted inspection. It is almost impossible for schools with poorer students or many students with SEND or English as an Additional Language (EAL) to receive ‘Outstanding’ no matter how good the teaching and learning is. More ‘empathetic’ inspections and mental health training will not solve the problem – given that schools are forced to do more with less money whilst many teachers are at breaking point.

Socialist education system

Capitalism has proven that it is not capable of providing an education system that works for the majority of students and those who work in it. Not only is funding at crisis levels, with no above inflation pay rises, job cuts and due to the RAAC crisis some schools literally falling down, but the whole basis of education under capitalism is flawed.

By removing the profit motive and privatised parts of education, we would be able to focus purely on young people learning and developing into adults who are well-rounded, knowledgeable and able to participate in society, instead of worrying about league tables and how the school ‘looks’. Young people could be celebrated for their different abilities and talents, instead of attempting to force them into rigid boxes, ruthlessly testing their ‘abilities’ in exam factories whilst destroying any creativity and making them feel terrible about themselves in the process.

A socialist education system would be well-funded and workers within it would be able to have decent standards of living and a shorter working week, but fundamentally it would be different. It would be based on a democratic and cooperative approach, with students, staff and parents all able to contribute to what young people learn, how they learn and why – to create a generation of new adults who can contribute positively to a world and in turn receive satisfaction and contentment throughout their lives. That sounds a lot more attractive than the anxiety and stress ridden system that capitalism has provided us in 2024. 

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