Capital plans

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Let's talk about Marxism - after all, it is the week of the Labour party conference. Marx, it seems, was even righter than he knew when he identified capital as a defining concept of our lives. Under new Labour, we are all capitalists. But Marx's inspired idea is expanding and transforming itself in ways he could only have guessed at. David Blunkett's conference speech this week was, at bottom, all about capital and education. Financial capital, of course, but human capital too. How can we maximise the performance of pupils and teachers alike - and what kind of inputs are needed to produce a dividend?

Not much more can be squeezed out of teachers without a fresh injection of the old kind of capital - money for training and equipment and new buildings. The promised Pounds 2 billion for school repairs, the Pounds 19 million for books, the new Standards Fund and the protection of the Section 11 budget would go some way towards meeting that need. This degree of financial commitment, in a Government which has promised not to raise taxes, represents a real recognition that teachers cannot be expected to achieve miracles without support.

Pupils, on the other hand, could still be doing better - but the whole thrust of Blunkett's speech was that, in order to succeed in realising the potential of the excluded, the uninterested and the disaffected, teachers need the whole-hearted backing of parents, employers, local authorities, government - the whole of society.

More thought-provoking still is the notion of a third type of capital: cultural capital, first identified by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He argued that the middle classes pass forms of language, habits of thought and accumulated knowledge down to their children as surely as they pass down money. As a result of their early experiences, their children are more likely to arrive at school, in the jargon, "ready to learn". Others, as we know, are not so fortunate. And it could be argued that the less cultural capital a child has received, the more financial capital should be spent on him or her to make up the educational deficit.

Historically, the reverse has generally been true. The more privileged the child, the more is spent on his or her education. But Blunkett and his team are thinking the other way round. Nursery education and small classes at key stage 1 are to be a priority.

Intervention, they say, will be in relation to need - meaning that schools in difficulty (and therefore the children in them) will get the most support in the effort to meet their targets. Of course, some may have more than their fair share of ineffective or demoralised teachers. But it's a fair bet that there won't be too much cultural capital knocking around among the pupils, either.

If there was a recurrent theme in the education debates and fringe meetings at the Labour conference, it was "for the many, not the few". And although the row over university tuition fees threatened to hijack the education debate, and was ruthlessly and effectively stagemanaged, the Government line fits comfortably within this theme. One of the hard choices that has to be made, the decision to require a fee contribution and use the money to support further education and lifelong learning, is part of a clear commitment to the underprivileged. David Blunkett is right: most university undergraduates today are middle-class and stand to earn more in their lifetime than anyone else. Part-time students, such as those studying through the Open University and Birkbeck College, and students in further education, have always had to fund themselves.

The Government's vision is beginning to cohere. The summer schools, the homework clubs, the emphasis on parental responsibility - all of this will support teachers in their work. Teachers are idealists by nature: that is why they can become cynical - disappointed idealists often do. But now the Goverment aims to change the culture - and they have a good chance of doing it. If they can divert more of society's energy into education, if they can spread the cultural capital as well as the money sort, they will have achieved far more than would have seemed possible even six months ago.

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