The recovery of young voter turnout for the general election in June, after decades of decline, is an obvious cause for celebration. But, despite the significant uptick, young people still remain the least likely section of the population to vote and the least engaged with politics overall.
The decline of political engagement among young people coincided with a period during which successive governments pursued a policy agenda for education informed by a wholly instrumental and commercial set of imperatives. Under this regime, the ideal of education, as determined by government, was not the production of an informed and competent citizenry; it was the production of competitive entrepreneurs or docile employees tailored to the precise requirements of industry.
How did governments of almost all political stripes become committed to the neoliberal education agenda? In the UK, the decisive turning point was Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan’s notorious 1976 speech at Ruskin College. This speech was widely understood as a clear statement that things had gone too far in the progressive direction and away from a vocational, industry-led, centrally-controlled and quantified system of teaching and education management.
The speech was made at a crucial moment in British political history. The Labour government, faced with the most intense social conflicts since the 1920s, had a choice. It could have listened to the radical and democratic demands being made by militant workers, women, young people, black people, gay people and many others for greater levels of both personal autonomy and opportunities for collective deliberation and decision-making, in workplaces, community institutions, local government and public services.
But to have done so would have pitted Labour against powerful interests, including the Confederation of British Industry, the City of London and Wall Street.
Instead, it chose to try to stabilise the situation, defending capitalist interests while trying to unify them with those of “traditional” male industrial workers.
At that time, maintaining a radical direction for education would have required continued financial support for those experiments in progressive, democratic education that were already taking place in increasing numbers of state schools from around the end of the 1960s.
At schools like Countesthorpe Community College in Leicestershire, school councils involving staff and students would make key decisions about policy and curriculum, while efforts were made to tailor individual learning programmes to the needs of each particular child. But such progressive education is necessarily resource-heavy, and the Callaghan government was soon about to embark on the first major austerity drive since the war.
Under those circumstances, there was no way that funding for progressive education could continue. The most radical schools of the 1970s, such as White Lion Street Free School in Islington, North London, found themselves forced to conform to the strictures of the state system or, eventually, close completely. By the mid-1980s it had become possible for critics to point to a record of persistent failure in progressive institutions, despite the fact that this narrative simply ignored the question of resources as well as the very impoverished social context that these schools were operating in. This story of progressive “failure” is still easily repeated by opponents of progressive schooling today.
The Thatcher government, of course, endorsed this reactionary narrative. More disappointingly, by the 90s it was an account that New Labour policymakers were also willing to believe, determined as they were to distance themselves from any of the radical legacy of the 60s and 70s.
Unwilling to countenance any return to that radical agenda, by the early 2000s Labour policymakers had embraced the neoliberal agenda in education almost without reservation. While they increased funding to schools, they also intensified and enlarged the role of league tables, standardised testing and semi-privatised provision.
It is surely no accident that this period coincided with a precipitous and well-documented decline in political participation, especially on the part of the young. The neoliberal education agenda is not just designed to produce schooling on the cheap, but also to produce the kind of people that neoliberalism thinks we all should be.
Of course, the teaching profession has always resisted these imperatives heroically, which is a major reason why so many of our young people are still able to escape them. But there is inevitably a limit on how far teachers and heads can defend their students from an agenda that has been supported for decades by both governments and corporations. Its ultimate logical end is the production of citizens who do not think of themselves as citizens at all, but only as consumers.
One logical correlate of this vision is a sort of retail politics, practised according to the classic Bill Clinton strategy of appealing to discrete interest groups (such as “soccer moms”) while eschewing any wider vision of a good society. The trouble is, when faced with major systemic problems – climate change, massive inequality, the social consequences of mass migration – this model of politics simply cannot generate solutions.
In 2016, we saw what tends to fill the vacuum that is left when this consumer model of politics implodes. The need for a vision of education that could help to revitalise our democracy has never been so urgent.
Jeremy Gilbert is professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London. This essay will appear in an edited collection about education from the IPPR thinktank, available from early 2018