British education is from a rational point of view grotesque, from a moral one intolerable, and from a human one tragic. Few would deny its stark inadequacy. Predictably, the Labour Party has at no time offered a global challenge to the present system. It has at most stood for its expansion and the elimination of some of its most flagrantly undemocratic features. It has never seriously threatened the most structurally important of these: the continued existence of the public schools, and sexual discrimination against girls in every type of school. Above all, it has never attacked the vital centre of the system, the curriculum, the content of what is taught.

However, a reorganization of secondary education is at the moment in progress, a reorganization which is largely to the credit of the Labour Party.

Although it represents a minimal reform, and timidly executed at that, it does unfreeze the existing situation and put a question mark over the whole system, just as the various governmental reports have done. Comprehensive education as it is at present conceived is little more than a rationalization of the status quo. But the change to comprehensive education involves a major political conflict and educational debate, which offer real possibilities for moving beyond the conventional interpretations of the comprehensive idea. In this situation, socialists should be trying to clarify the terms of educational discussion, and to escalate the political struggle for comprehensive education so that it invests an ever-increasing area of the entire educational nexus: curriculum, teaching methods, textbooks, school organization, organization of the teaching profession.

A period of educational reform is certainly imminent, whichever party is in power during the years to come; the demands of the economy cannot be gainsaid much longer. It is essential, then, that the left should be prepared and able to counterpose to the mere insistence on greater investment in education,footnote1 demands which affect the whole character of the educational process: demands concerning the content of what is taught, and the purpose of education itself.

There is, at present, wide-spread opposition to the existing system, from parents, from teachers, and not least from children. This opposition has taken various forms, each of which contains its moment of truth. Thus a key task for socialists today is to analyse the nature and historical development of British education in all its aspects, and to criticize the main theoretical traditions which have accompanied this development. A socialist theory of education, whose aim must be to confront the educational system as a whole, can only be built on this basis. This article is intended to do no more than indicate some of the initial problems which would be posed by such an attempt.

The educational process cannot be reduced to any single function. It is at the same time:

These functions of education may overlap at points, but they are distinct; each is present in some degree in any educational system. It follows that education is an absolutely distinctive social phenomenon in two ways. Social-democracy has always tended to consider education as a social service similar in kind to housing or medicine; in other words, as a ‘good’ which should be shared more equally, and which can be increased in a purely quantitative way. This view, however, overlooks the very special ambiguity of education. For on the one hand, it represents a vital human need—common to all societies and all men in some form, and as basic as subsistence or shelter. On the other hand, it is a fundamental component of the power structure in any society—the means whereby assent is secured to the values and privileges of the dominant class. Education, in fact, is the point at which vital needs and power structure immediately intersect. It is thus never neutral or ‘innocent’, as the other social services can sometimes be. Houses are houses, and the more of them the better; but education is never just ‘education’ —it is the assimilation of a social order.