Home > Social Revolution > Ian Pirie – School Report

Ian Pirie – School Report

I. Pirie, Social Revolution, No. 5 (1976), pp. 4-5 and 7


Tameside has become the focus of the latest stage in the long battle over comprehensive education. In the press, and in public discussion generally, the affair has led to argument about the constitutional powers of Ministers, and the merits or otherwise of selection on the basis of reports rather than an 11-plus exam. In fact the only question the Lords, as the ‘highest court in the land’, were asked to consider was the reasonableness of the proposed selection on the basis of reports.

The Lords’ verdict was delivered in record time, and they sat at a time of year when they are normally on holiday, and all this added to the drama of what everyone wanted us to see as democracy in action – a test-case for our legal and constitutional machinery.

The lessons we should be drawing from Tameside seem to me to be quite different. What kind of selection procedure children are put through is almost a detail: in fact the Lords’ verdict could be seen as underlining what some of us have been feeling about selection procedures for a long time. The system has you sorted out well before the age of eleven, and almost anyone could sort out ‘potential Grammar school material’. Or, if you can’t tell how a child is going to ‘turn out’ (i.e. he/she has been moulded), it doesn’t matter anyway and they can be sent wherever the authorities decide, as they will almost certainly have learnt not to complain, and to respect the decisions of those who know best. . .

In the public debate, these questions were avoided. Who asked about the effect of the mess-up und the retention of Grammar schools on those who do not get places? How often did we hear questions about the kind of education the kids of Tameside are getting, which ever system they end up with, and the relevance of their education to their future lives and happiness?

What really has been going on in Tameside shows through from time to time, behind some of the things said. For instance, at one point the chairman of the Education Committee said the next step was to ‘stop the Labour Government’s Education Bill’. Delusions of grandeur? Or was the whole thing a battle between different power-groups, with the dice loaded in favour of the ‘middle classes’, and the children being kicked around in between? Certainly the Labour Party has been pushed into revealing the lack of real commitment to any educational ideals in its position; the Labour MP was actually saying he was angered when not enough children had been found for the Grammar places…..

This is to me a classic picture of the way decisions are made in capitalist society. The system is fundamentally class-ridden, but everyone tries to pretend it’s fair. In Tameside, as throughout the country, worker is pitted against worker in the struggle for the few crumbs to be had.
And all are under the illusion, because the crumbs are very few: only a very small section of even the Grammar-educated children will make it to the ‘top’ – and once there, I’m sure they will wonder what they fought so hard for.

I believe libertarians must take part in the fight for Comprehensive education – it is at least some improvement aver the branding of kids ‘or life as either ‘Grammar’ or ‘Secondary Mod’, But of course we don’t see this as the end of the road. There is a great deal that we can do, in the course of fighting for real Comprehensive education, both to emphasise our basic criticisms of the education system under capitalism, and to explain how we see capitalist values and forms of organisation running through the schools and college We have to support those who are pressing for greater equality in education – but stressing that we believe this to be impossible without total equality – socialism – in all aspects of life. We can support those who want to see education cater more for the needs of the individual – but pointing out that in capitalism it is not needs but profits that call the tune. We can support those who want more money spent on education but again emphasising that the order of priorities in this society is not determined by social need, so we will only get improvement in education when the system can afford it; a just at the moment we have international bankers to think of!

Similarly, we can support these who are opposed to the constant grading and marking in education – showing the links between this and competition, and how the education system spends a lot of its effort on producing people to fit pre-determined holes in society.

As I see it, there is nothing wrong with supporting reformist pressure groups, such as the pre·comprehensive lobby, because it provides opportunities to contact people who have started to think along the same lines as ourselves, and who only need to meet our arguments to encourage them to take their own positions further. Obviously, in working with non-libertarians we have to make it quite clear where we stand. I am totally opposed to the kind of manipulative use of movements such as the ‘Right to Work’ campaign, where, as I see it, people are encouraged to make impossible demands of the system, in order to show them that the system cannot give them what they want. We can join in the fight for comprehensives, provided we make it clear that our support is not unconditional, that we see each reform as only a small-scale change, and that we are concerned with promoting a particular kind of large-scale and fundamental change; and provided that we make it clear that we believe only a socialist perspective can fully explain the need for the kind Of changes we are fighting for, and the nature of the resistance we will meet.


For two or three weeks during May and June this year, a hundred or more colleges up and down the country were occupied by students, in protest at the cuts being made in expenditure on education. This time the press used the tactic of ignoring the events – although all those involved would testify to the very impressive sense of solidarity, and the high degree of anger behind the demonstrations.

The occupations were carried out with considerable tactical skill. Although they started just before the exams, student support remained solid and exams went ahead without disruption. (Maybe it was a pity the exams were allowed to go ahead, but we’ve not yet reached the position of students in France in May ’68, when the protest ran deeper, and was aimed at the system as a whole . . . . maybe that day will come!

The main theme of the campaign was the rising unemployment of teachers, so most of the occupations took place in Colleges of Educatron, or in Education Departments in bigger Colleges; but attempts were made to broaden the aims. At NELP (North East London Poly), for instance, the issue of racism was tied in – as limits on the number of overseas students (either by quotas or higher fees) can be seen as part of the same move to cut down education in a time of ‘financial stringency’. However, this argument did not always get across; even some lecturers at NELP – which has a high proportion of foreign students – argued that it would have been better to stick to the teachers’ issue alone, as it was more sure of getting support. This was depressing, as the lecturers’ union, NATFHE, has been campaigning on the cuts issue for some time, and one would have expected lecturers to have been more aware of the possibility of their own unemployment if overseas student numbers are cut back – quite apart from any more radical arguments!

One implication of this is surely that all those involved in the fight against cuts in education must look very closely at their publicity and propaganda methods. People not actively involved in the campaign still seem not to understand the connections between the different forms of cutback, or the place of the cuts in the economic situation as a whole. Considering the length of time the campaign has been going on, this is serious, and it would seem that a good deal more talking and arguing has to go on to get these points across.

On the positive side of the Occupations. though, there was some staff, and the co-ordination that developed between different colleges. For example, London colleges in occupation had joint meetings, and it was as a result of these that the Director of NELP received a number of telegrams threatening to occupy his office if he did not withdraw the legal action he was threatening against students occupying the Barking precinct of NELP. He did not withdraw the injunctions, but the telegrams he received could have been a factor in persuading the authorities not to act immediately.

However, the way the campaign developed in relation to NELP can be used to show what were some of the key problems in this kind of struggle. For although there was a delay, in the end the authorities were prepared to call in the police: everyone not actually in occupation was advised to leave the precinct by the end of a certain day, and then an ominous atmosphere developed as the students waited. Exams due to be held on the precinct the next day were abruptly moved elsewhere – thus the only disruption of exams was as a result of the authorities taking legal action.

‘Moderate’ lecturers were considerably shocked that the Directorate were apparently prepared for a situation to develop in which their students were put in jail. It is to be hoped that more people have now learned to what lengths the authorities are prepared to go, and how much power is on their side. Several student ‘ringleaders’ (i.e. officers of the Students’ Union) are under threat of suspension as a result of their part in the occupation, and it remains to be seen whether anyone can get the suspensions withdrawn.

So, apart from these lessons, and the growth of rank and file solidarity, it is difficult to see what has been achieved. I think the most significant other gains were those which came indirectly from the occupations. Thus, those involved have gained a lot of practical knowledge about how to start and keep an occupation going, and it is to be hoped that this knowledge is shared out! In addition, some useful information was gleaned from files in occupied offices – a practical contribution to the ‘open the books campaign’?!

Another useful spin-off was the ‘flying’ occupation, which individual bureaucrats found when they sat back and relaxed after the occupation was apparently over! The element of surprise was perfect, and I hope will be used in the promised occupations next term.

I hope, too that rank and file students and lecturers have gained a healthy distrust of their own union bureaucrats. . . This is suggested by the occupation that took place of NUS offices, when the NUS tried to call off the occupations.

The problems remain, of course, of finding ways of countering the power of College authorities, of putting the arguments across to non-activists and others, and of making any impact on the Government. I think part of an answer to all this lies in finding more imaginative forms of demonstration – and this also implies recognising that this is the main role of occupations at present:apart from their value as practise-runs for the time when we start the Final Occupation of all our work-places, they are simply a way of demonstrating strength of feeling, and thus trying to pressurise the authorities. In this, unfortunately, they were not very successful, and this is where the main problem lies.

The other important answer lies in learning not to be led into thinking that we can change education on its own, or on our own. The government’s attack on education, we must repeat, is part of a broad capitalist crisis, and must be seen as such, and fought as such, by the broad mass of the victims of capitalism. This means strengthening the solidarity that is developing among those involved in different aspects of education, reaching out from education to other public sector workers and consumers, and finally enlisting the support of all workers in the fight against the system as a whole.


A welcome move in the development of a libertarian presence in education is the setting up of a Libertarian Students’ Net· work. At the time of writing, a founding conference has been held, a newsletter IS planned for late August, and another conference planned for 12th/14th November, at Bradford University. Discussion so far has produced agreement on a number of organisational and theoretical guidelines with which we would agree, in particular: 1) the need to involve the whole the whole of the libertarian left, and all those involved in the whole gamut of the educational process who are sympathetic to the aims and principles of the LSN;
2) the aim of working within existing organisations such as the NUS, not setting up a separate, elitist body, but working for democratic control of the N US by the student body;
3) the necessity of adopting a specific class line and relating the struggle in education to the general struggle against capitalism;
4) the need to mobilise on specific issues and campaign collectively, as well as co·ordinate local initiatives;
5) the importance of antonomous local groups.
All these points indicate an approach which I share, as a member of a libertarian socialist group, and which I welcome as someone involved in education. Th.is kind of development is badly needed: I am convinced that libertarian ideas are fairly widespread in education, and on the increase, but libertarians are very often isolated – usually unnecessarily, as they simply have no way of knowing that there is someone nearby with similar ideas. Whatever can be done to bring libertarians together is welcome, and I hope that anyone sympathetic to the LSN will contact the acting secretary:


Finally I would like to quote from the provisional aims of the LSN, as I think this is a good start to a definition of a libertarian socialist position on education. I think such a position has yet to be worked out in detail, and I would welcome any comments, which we could publish in future issues of Social Revolution, which would contribute to such a definition. It is hoped to make articles on all aspects of education a regular feature in SR – so please send ’em in!

“, , , revolutionary educational change can only be effected when linked to the wider struggles of the entire working class. The long-term objective must be a classless society wh ich has common control of the means of production . . . the LSN is totally opposed to the competitive, elitist and hierarchical nature of the present educational system. Instead, it declare~ for a free !’Ion-discriminatory educational system, open to everyone at all levels, and under the direct control of all participants and workers within all educational institutions.”

Ian Pirie.

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  1. February 2, 2011 at 9:23 am
  2. February 24, 2011 at 1:01 pm

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