Imagining a Socialist Education System

Recent attacks on teaching unions and 'radical' classroom materials make it clear that the ruling class understands education's role in reproducing capitalism – it's time that socialists did too.

Credit: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty

Karl Marx once wrote that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.’ Education is therefore central to the reproduction of the ruling class in capitalist society, but it is also laced with contraction: labour requires a universal and collective education system in order to develop skills, without developing the solidaristic praxis capable of overthrowing it.

In our own epoch, the ideas within education are defined by a national curriculum, and measured through a system of high-stakes testing. That curriculum is heavily ‘skills based’ and focused on the needs of employers: teachers are seen as gatekeepers of knowledge, students as empty vessels, and rote learning encouraged. This education system is two-tier, resulting in prestige qualifications for the wealthy, and control and exclusion for the working classes.

How, then, are these ideas reproduced and inequality maintained by our education system? What are the deepening ideological trends over the last thirty years? And, crucially, how can socialist teachers resist and develop a transformative education system instead?


One widely-held view is that education should be universal, with every child given an equal opportunity to succeed. But such egalitarian principles threaten the position of the capitalist class, meaning strategies must be used to entrench existing inequalities and prevent a level playing field. Since 1992, this has been done through piecemeal ‘marketisation’ reforms.

The Conservative government and its Department of Education introduced Ofsted in 1992, through which external ‘inspectors’ grade teaching, leadership, and behaviour in schools. The DfE and the Ofsted Chief Inspector were granted great power to ordain what they expected to see in education, via Ofsted frameworks – a provision which laid the foundation for deeply ideological interventions: academisation, rote learning, and most recently, ideological attacks on solidaristic politics.

With school leaders fearing their jobs following a failed inspection, schooling has since been shaped to Ofsted demands. This has disproportionately impacted working-class communities: Ofsted is five times more likely to grade schools in working-class areas ‘failing’. Ofsted has also increased workloads, and driven teachers to leave the profession.

Categorisation, coupled with a sense of ‘choice’, also brought market forces into schooling, characterising parents and guardians as consumers selecting their child’s education as they might select a product. In effect, this outsourced Ofsted inspection into daily school life, creating a permanent state of inspection-readiness. Instead of schools being relaxed environments where mistakes are encouraged, teacher autonomy and trust is replaced by monitoring and accountability systems.

In response to heavy criticism for the ‘exam factory’ model, the current focus on curriculum delivery favours regressive banking model pedagogy. This is where learning is solely defined as ‘recalling facts’, a system that lends itself to rote learning rather than critical thinking; in practice, this passive education style prepares students for a docile role in workplaces.

Another Conservative reform was the introduction of school league tables, which see schools across communities ranked based on examination results despite huge variations in funding, resources, class sizes, and indeed class position. In consequence, solidaristic bonds between schools have been broken down: schools in the same local authority are now competing, rather than collaborating for the overall benefit of the community.

Both Ofsted and league tables exacerbated existing inequalities in the education system. Private and grammar schools, meanwhile, gained favourably, and were seen as ‘aspirational’ sites of education with guarantees of high exam grades that in return would offer higher paying employment. Taken together, these changes reinforced the capitalist notion that education is a tool to escape—rather than build—a community.

New Labour

Labour was elected on a platform of ‘education, education, education’ in 1997. The new government implemented a funding increase for schools, but as in health and local government, Labour—for ideological reasons, and despite a huge political mandate for social reform—not only refused to repeal Conservative reforms, but further marketised the system.

Schools are not profit-making businesses, but the introduction of ‘charter schools’ in the United States pointed towards a ‘part-privatisation’ model. Labour’s academies programme, launched in 2000, similarly allowed for schools to be built or taken over by ‘trusts’ run by businesses and charities: the rationale was that capitalist expertise enables schools to run more ‘efficiently’ than local authorities. As with all privatisations, though, academisation took institutions outside of democratically-accountable structures, fragmented union collective bargaining, and resulted in an explosion in senior executive pay.

The ‘private finance initiative’ (PFI), meanwhile, was a disastrous ‘third way’ Labour policy across the public sector. Private capital was encouraged to invest in building schools and hospitals in exchange for leasing the land in order to make a profit. The National Audit Office estimated PFI schools cost 40 percent more to build, and local authorities are still paying back costly PFI contracts, some containing clauses stipulating the outsourcing of cleaning staff.

These two factors—PFI and what amounted to part-privatisation—entrenched the marketisation of schools. Now New Labour turned its attention towards the next logical step in commodification: students.

As part of its national strategy of chasing Conservative voters, Labour sought to demonise working-class and racialised children through policies like ASBOs and the removal of the rights of asylum seekers to a school education – asylum seekers David Blunkett described as ‘swamping’ schools. This moral panic was a political intervention into the lives of young people and the education system, through which the capitalist class sought to differentiate the working class into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’; working-class children were deemed ‘out of control’, and in need of policing.

Meanwhile, Ofsted’s relentless focus on examination results was entrenching an oppositional relationship between teacher and student. In a marketised education system, success is valued through standardised testing and gradings: this commodifies students into objects and data points, regardless of needs, community, and class position.

The logical end point of policing in schools was reached through Labour’s introduction of  school-based police officers in 2002. This harmonisation of education and the criminal justice system saw a deepening of the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’, whereby students—particularly those from racialised and special education needs backgrounds—go, through policing, directly from school to prison.

These political attacks on children, coupled with the exam-factory system, resulted in schools developing zero-tolerance behaviour policies. Inspired by ‘broken window’ policing and ‘SLANT’ (Sit up, Lean forward, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head, and Talk talk talk, or Track the speaker) education theories, the rationale was that hyper-policing of student bodies and behaviours would develop compliant students through routine. The result was increased exclusions—which have always been highly racialised and ableist—and the preparation of students for life in subservient workforces.

Nationalism and Authoritarianism

2010 saw the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which quickly undertook a huge austerity programme, enriching the capitalist class while causing the excess deaths of over 100,000 people. The election of a more nakedly capitalist class also saw the deepening of the marketisation reforms introduced by the previous Labour government, accelerating the privatisation of the education system.

A ‘requires improvement’ (previously categorised as ‘satisfactory’) Ofsted inspection would now trigger a forced academisation, with a new categorisation of ‘’free school’ introduced to further fragment schooling. But this was not the limit to marketisation: the capitalist class would soon turn its attention to the workforce itself.

After its election, the Coalition immediately sought to undermine university teacher training, which it perceived as developing an ideologically critical workforce. The teacher training I did included lectures, seminars, and texts which aimed to understand the ideological nature of the education system – for example, critical pedagogy popularised by Marxists such as Paulo Friere. In fact, my final essay explored the purpose of science in the education system and the ideological role of the national curriculum.

This teacher training is capable of reproducing the knowledge young people need to understand the oppression around them, including debating, critical thinking, and analytical skills – particularly in the context of building solidaristic ties, anti-racism, and the growing climate emergency. As such, it was perceived as a threat.

In order to reduce the number of university-trained teacher trainees, the government supported tripling the number of ‘Teach First’ graduates, modelled on the ‘Teach for America’ programme from the United States. Huge financial incentives were put on the table, including the equivalent of a full-time wage (during a period of high youth unemployment) and the conscious expansion of £9,000 tuition fees to university teacher-training routes.

Teach First is marketed as offering ‘high achieving graduates’ the opportunity to teach in schools following six weeks’ training in the summer. This ‘parachuting’ of graduates into often working-class schools promotes a paternalistic attitude centred around deficit models, where educational outcomes rely solely on teaching quality and leadership – ignoring the major role played by the class position of students and their communities. With its focus ‘on-the-job teaching’, Teach First also places workers into immediate contact with high workloads, and without a grounding in child-centred pedagogy, directs teachers into oppositional relationships with students. (Incidentally, Teach First is significantly funded by large corporations such as PWC and Deloitte, and has a retention rate of less than 50 percent after three years.)

The lack of time spent on professional development and political education restricts the ideology of teachers in the education system. Instead of co-learning alongside fellow trainees, teachers are placed into the high-pressure contexts of exam results and accountability measures. The result is a teaching profession focused on vocational skills, as opposed to one capable of critically analysing its ideological position within society.

Outside the classroom during this period, the natural consequence of job losses and the biggest decline in living standards since the Napoleonic wars was social unrest. This manifested in a proliferation of student protests, direct action groups, and counter-policing demonstrations.

Instead of redistributing wealth and power to quell unrest, the capitalist class sought to constitute nationhood and whiteness. This would promote class collaboration, instead of antagonism – and schools would soon prove the testing grounds for a variety of growing nationalist and authoritarian strategies that we see used today more widely.

In 2014, Michael Gove made the teaching of British values a requirement in English schools, including ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’. Socialists in the education system may rightly question whether it’s historically accurate to assign these values to a nation whose wealth is built on extracting wealth through violence, subjugation, neo-colonial relations, and imperialism; which suppressed individual liberty by developing and exporting policing as means of suppressing anti-colonial resistance; and which engages in transphobic politics and deports LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.

Whiteness is another means of limiting working-class solidarity. In 2013, Ofsted’s annual report noted the persistence of ‘white working class underachievement’. This is an example of Ofsted, a marketisation reform, building a discourse around a ‘left behind’ white working class distinct in opportunities to other racialised groups. This only serves to break solidaristic bonds between different working-class groups and build racialised grievances, amounting to a classic divide-and-rule tactic from the capitalist class.

Anti-Communism and State Racism

During the period of 2015-2019, a socialist-led Labour party tapped into a wide feeling of discontent with the capitalist system, particularly regarding housing, public ownership, and austerity. That party came close to power, gaining a majority of votes from the under-40s in both the 2017 and 2019 elections. For the capitalist class, this was a concern: the reproduction of socialist and solidaristic politics was evidently an increasing problem for an economic system producing diminishing returns for the majority.

How would those in power ensure schools were not spaces where teachers and students were engaging in these ideas? The process would involve using anti-terror strategies such as Prevent – supposedly first intended to counter Islamist radicalisation, but more than ready to expand into government-defined extremisms.

Prevent was introduced by an increasingly authoritarian Labour government as part of its ‘counter-extremism’ programme in 2003, and its supposed aim is spotting the signs of extremism, making referrals to counter-extremism officers, and providing a method of ‘pre-crime’ surveillance.

As with school-based police officers, the Conservatives deepened Labour’s growing securitisation framework. In 2015, Prevent became a duty in the public sector, including in schools. This essentially outsourced the role of counter-extremism officials to teachers, teaching assistants, and support staff, who were now expected to spot the signs of radicalisation, apparently indicated by behaviours including ‘wanting and seeking change, becoming disrespectful and asking inappropriate questions.’

The function of Prevent is manifold for the capitalist class: creating suspicion between workers, inserting security services into workplaces, and forcing teachers and students into self-censoring behaviours. Most often reported are teachers’ mistakes, resulting from a system in which perceived surveillance towards counter-extremist threats manifests as Islamophobia: a four-year-old referring to weapons on the computer game Fortnite, for example, or a ten-year-old misspelling ‘terraced as ‘terrorist’, or an eleven-year-old wanting to give ‘alms to the oppressed’.

But what is political extremism, and who gets to define it? In 2020, emboldened by the defeat of Corbyn’s Labour Party and recognising schools and universities as sites reproducing anti-capitalist ideas, the government made attempts to categorise ‘progressive extremism’ – a deliberate effort to equate communists, socialists, and social movements with the far right, and to divide emerging climate justice and anti-racist movements into acceptable moderates and unacceptable extremists. The aim was to place socialists, anti-imperialists, and climate justice campaigners in education within the orbit of Prevent referrals, limiting young people from discussing politics around climate justice and anti-racism and narrowing what is deemed ideologically permissible in the classroom.

The extent of this forced depoliticisation of radical politics in schools was revealed in response to students displaying acts of solidarity with Palestinian resistance to ongoing settler colonialism this year, including by attending demonstrations, chanting ‘Free Palestine’, and wearing the Palestinan flag. The response from those working in the education system reflected its increasingly reactionary nature: rather than being ‘apolitical’, teachers proclaiming the Palestinian flag was a ‘call to arms’ were making deeply political statements about the nature of schooling, anti-racism, and oppression of the Palestinian people.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson’s letter in response to students displaying solidarity with Palestine reminded teachers of ‘legal duties regarding political impartiality’ and to provide ‘a balanced presentation of opposing views’, effectively forcing teachers to shut down legitimate discussion and student organising. Students from predominantly racialised backgrounds were at risk of being referred to Prevent for expressing politics opposed to imperialism, settler colonialism, and Britain’s role in shaping and profiting from Palestinian oppression. This proves that the issue, ultimately, is not a lack of training or awareness around the Prevent duty: its purpose is enabling the state to determine what is permissible in the classroom. There is no reform possible – it should be abolished.

The capitalist class has also sought to limit other examples of progressive politics in the classroom, including in response to widespread ‘Black Lives Matter’ organising among young people, and to trade unionists expanding collective bargaining to include anti-racist demands such as curriculum reform and the removal of school-based police officers. This has involved attempting to ban ‘anti-capitalist’ materials in schools, including from Black Lives Matter, and confected media outrages around the teaching of critical race theory and white privilege.

In response to growing discontent with inequality, racism, and climate breakdown, the ruling class are utilising anti-communist strategies. This potential for McCarthyism is underpinned by Prevent and a reductive set of ‘British values’, and seeks to delegitimise politics with socialist horizons. What, then, does that mean for teachers working in an increasingly politically hostile education system? How can we fight it?


Our first steps as socialists in the education system is saying who we are with our chests. We are socialists, anti-imperialists, and anti-racists. We recognise that schooling is deeply ideological, and we should demand an education system capable of the liberation of our class.

Capitalism is an ever-shifting political project, incorporating marketisation, policing, nationalism, and racism. Organising in schools therefore not only requires a negation of these processes – it depends on the reproduction of solidaristic politics. We must organise for the abolition of Prevent and the removal of school based police officers. We must reject the notion of exceptionalist ‘British values’. And there is no place for schools outside of democratically-accountable structures, so we must end school leagues tables and Ofsted.

Our vision of a socialist education system is centred around universal human rights, democracy, and collective freedom. It requires teaching that class is a power relation, not an identity, and that liberation is won through interconnected struggles, and educators should look on trade unions as radical sites where workers can develop their democratic capacities. We should utilise anti-racist politics that builds solidarity and anti-imperialism that breaks international chains of oppression.

Our liberation lies in the combination of these socialist strategies in response to capitalist class ideologies developed over the last 30 years. As the communist educator Anton Makerenko once said: ‘To educate a man means giving him the sense of perspective, the sense of joy in the way of tomorrow.’