Gove’s right – Marxists should support free schools

Dennis Hayes

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Topics Politics

When he put together the words ‘free school’ and ‘Marxist’, UK education secretary Michael Gove linked one of the things in education the old left and many liberals most hate – free schools – with another they, to varying degrees, love – Karl Marx. Gove was subsequently abused by the prolier than thou on Twitter and assorted blogs for his perceived ignorance of the Marxist tradition.

This is what Gove actually said: ‘Classical Marxists support free schools because they embody the ideal of the soviet, a self-managing institution run by workers in the wider public interest.’

Gove is right: Marxists should support free schools. Not because they resemble soviets, but because the best of them now embody the ideal of education that many ‘classical’ Marxists would have supported.

If you want examples, just look at the curricula of the West London Free School and the East London Science School, to name only two. What these free schools embody is the idea of what is called variously a traditional, a liberal, a knowledge-based, or a subject-based education. It is the old left in particular that has entirely forgotten that this is what education means. It doesn’t mean offering children a piss-poor ‘relevant’ education based on ‘skills’ or ‘competences’, or, even worse, an education based on some sort of therapeutic fad that aims to develop ‘emotional intelligence’ or ‘happiness’.

It was not only Marxists like Antonio Gramsci who argued for a subject-based education for everyone. It was also liberals like Hannah Arendt and conservatives like Michael Oakeshott.

Today, however, it is the left, trade unionists and liberal teachers who are defending the education establishment against the prospect of a subject-based education. From a Marxist educational perspective, you have to judge what is on offer to children by its educational content rather than by the way that education is delivered. If the curriculum is offering children anything other than what Matthew Arnold called ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’, then it is training them to be little more than job fodder, however you dress it up. Therapeutic education clearly has this function as it prepares children for ‘emotional labour’ in call centres where you have to be perpetually nice.

Gove may be mistaken on many aspects of educational policy, but on the philosophy of education he is broadly right. What any so-called Marxist should demand for all our children is exactly the education Marx himself enjoyed: a bourgeois schooling that ended with a doctorate in classical Greek thought.

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.

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