The Guardian 15 June, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

The education business

Arnold Bennett’s novel The Card is about a washerwoman’s son, Edward Henry ("Denry") Machin, in the industrial Midlands of Edwardian England, who rises from poverty to wealth and position through subtle manipulation of the poverty, greed and ambition around him.

In Ronald Neame’s 1952 film version, starring Alec Guinness, the opening sequence shows a young Denry sneaking into the classroom at his local government school and improving his exam results with a bit of impromptu forgery. This self-help wins him a scholarship to a "school for the sons of gentlemen".

But the "sons of gentlemen" at what is clearly a posh private school don’t take kindly to people from the "lower classes" like Denry, and we see him surrounded in the playground by a taunting ring of kids shouting "washerwoman" at him.

Things have changed very little since Edwardian times. The ruling class has doggedly and persistently defended privilege in education.

Education itself was seen as a privilege, certainly not as a right. And it still is.

It was also seen as a commodity, one that could be marketed very profitably, whether in the form of the frightful 19th century "rip-off" schools run by charlatans that Dickens exposed so successfully in Nicholas Nickleby, or the commercial secretarial schools and private universities of the 20th century.

And today quality education is being portrayed as a valuable commodity and consequently as something that should be paid for. Not paid for by society, of course, for that would make it available to all, and thereby lower its value.

No, it must be paid for by each individual child’s family.

That has the double virtue of sounding fair ("user pays") while at the same time restricting the valuable commodity to those who can afford it — "the sons of gentlemen" in Denry Machin’s time, more currently the children (of either sex) of the relatively well-off.

They may have to hold down two jobs in order to afford it, but that is of little concern to the ruling class so long as the education entrepreneurs get paid for their "commodity".

However, private entrepreneurs increasing their role in education has another function besides opening up new avenues for accumulating profit. It gives the ruling class direct input into the minds of the young, provides unparalleled opportunities for inculcating the values and standards and ideology of the ruling class into the population with the imprimatur of their being sanctioned by the education system.

Protestantism, which maintained that a rich man could get into heaven and that the pursuit of profit by commerce was both good and proper, lent itself to capitalism from the beginning.

It is not surprising that schools run by evangelical Christians are popping up everywhere. With the State system being deliberately run-down and allowed to decay, while the "faith-based" private schools are assiduously promoted in the media, it is even less surprising that they are doing well.

What is interesting, however, is that the ruling class apparently no longer sees any need to dissemble about whether these schools are primarily for education or profit-making.

On June 7, in the Newcastle Herald, under the heading "Christian schooling a booming business", the paper’s Education Reporter, Matthew Kelly, reported on the commercial success of the Lake Macquarie Christian College.

In tones one would have thought more suited to the business pages, Mr Kelly reported that the College had been "listed among the Hunter’s 100 fastest-growing companies for the second year running".

Yes, that’s what he wrote: "fastest­growing companies".

But wait, there’s more. The College (sorry, the company), according to the story, "was ranked as the 35th fastest-growing Hunter company last year".

Its new ranking was to be announced the following day (June 8) at something rejoicing in the name "2005 MAP Marketing 100 fastest-growing Hunter companies awards night". How educational can you get?

According to Mr Kelly, "the school’s success is typical of the boom times being experienced by non-governmental schools".

Lake Macquarie Christian College has an enrolment this year of just under 300. Apparently, that’s 30-odd more than last year.

College staff member Iain Wallace "said the school’s Christian environment had been its biggest draw card for parents". Curious way for an educator to speak, but Mr Wallace, it transpires, is not an educator.

His position is "head of marketing". They may only have 300 pupils but they have a head of marketing.

This is unashamedly business. Even the parents are not that concerned about the quality of the actual education being offered.

"At a recent information night the majority of parents indicated their primary expectation was that the school would provide a caring Christian community environment."

Even Iain Wallace found this a bit startling: "I thought it would be more emphasis on academic results."

But if your primary concern is to see that your child is not exposed to the strange ideas of Darwin, or crazy notions about the world evolving and that God did not create it as it says in Genesis, or heretical concepts indicating that Evangelical Christianity is no more valid — or invalid — than any other religion, even Islam, then you are not going to regard academic standards as all that important, are you?

On the other hand, you are going to be very concerned to see that there is nobody on the staff who might expose the children to the dangerous ideas of Godless Communism.

The accompanying photograph in the Herald showed some of the company’s products, dressed in their school uniforms, sitting around the grounds reading. They looked like nice kids.

You had to feel sorry for them.

Back to index page