The rise of the GERM: how is education messing with our minds?

With the neoliberal assault on education seemingly unending, Andrew Stone, a teacher and NUT rep in south London, considers the role of education today and how we can fight back

the rise of the germ

“Anorexia is increasing among primary-age children. Self-harm was reported as a direct response to the pressure of SATs [national tests taken at ages 6-7 and 10-11] and these pressures increased through the secondary school years.”

“The increase in diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) has been shown to be linked to the increase in high-stakes testing. Thus it appears that some children are being diagnosed and medicated because the school environment has become less suitable for them, allowing less movement and practical work, and requiring them to sit still for long periods.”

These are just three of the shocking, but not surprising findings of Exam Factories?, a study by Professor Merryn Hutchings from London Metropolitan University. Lucie Russell from mental health charity Young Minds confirmed that teachers as well as pupils were “under a lot of pressure to achieve results in a pressure cooker, exam factory environment”. And this is before the government’s planned Baseline Assessments for 4 year olds are introduced to tighten the screw further.

How and why has our education system become so damaging to our children? These are not just questions that should concern teachers, or politicians, or even just parents, but everyone who cares about creating a fairer society in the future.

Education and alienation

Like most teachers, I went into the profession because I love learning, and I enjoy sharing that sense of discovery with others. When Marx described the centrality of labour to human emancipation, he wasn’t just talking about paid work, but about how we perceive and act upon the world around us. So for Marxists learning (as well as teaching) is a form of labour – albeit not one with a direct relationship to commodity production. But conscious contemplation of our world and how we impact it is a central component of what distinguishes us from other species – it is part of the essence of humanity (our ‘species being’).

But there is a problem – education under capitalism serves two primary purposes, neither of which are students’ fulfilment and self-actualisation. Rather its goals – as distinct from the ambitions of most education workers – are material exploitation and the ideological support that buttresses it.

To put it very crudely, modern capitalism requires a literate and competent workforce. The series of reforms in Britain in the late 19th century, beginning with the 1870 Forster Education Act, were an attempt to bring some regulation and a basic universality to schooling for working class children (prior to that provision was patchy and subject to large local variation). Partly this reflected the growing complexity of industrial production and the expansion of communications – workers might need to read and even produce machine designs and instructions, for example. 21st century capitalism, in the same vein, requires many of us to be computer literate so we can send and receive endless work-related emails.

But the ideological motives for education are also key. To oversimplify again, this is about generating obedience in the next generation of workers (or imposing ideological hegemony  if you prefer). Prior to the 1870 Act, there was a debate within the ruling class about whether educating the masses would encourage them to ask difficult questions, and possibly revolt. But this was overcome by the reformers on 3 grounds – political, economic and military. Political, because they believed that the newly enfranchised citizens from the 1867 Reform Act needed to learn how to identify with and accept the status quo; economic, because capitalists feared for Britain’s trade competitiveness; and military, as illustrated by Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone’s comment that the success of the Prussian army in the Austro-Prussian war was a ‘marked triumph to the cause of systematic popular education’. (Similar fears for about the ill-health of British soldiers, when compared to those of imperial rivals, inspired public health measures in the same period).

So how does education train obedience in the next generation? In multiple ways, some of which we take for granted as they have become normalised by our experience. At a basic level, it imposes the structure of the working day, with bells telling students when to clock in and clock off (or ‘register’). It introduces hierarchy, with the teacher over the student, but also gradations within the student body (by age, imputed ‘ability’ or achievement, by ‘overseer’ jobs such as prefect) and the staff (support staff, teachers, heads of department and faculty, assistant heads, headteachers etc). In my experience students are intensely aware of such hierarchies, and reproduce their own social hierarchies in unconscious imitation. The rigid subdivision of learning into subjects also encourages a compartmentalised view of the world.

(This is known by its critics as Cartesian reductionism, after the philosopher Descartes, who had a mechanical materialist view that the world could be analysed in discrete blocks.) So in Geography you might learn about earthquakes without ever understanding the history of why there are such vast disparities in their human impacts based on economic development.

The selection (or exclusion) of curricula is also influential. The A-level Economics studied by students at my college, for example, makes no mention at all of Marxism, which whether you agree with it or not, is surely the most significant critique of mainstream economics. Michael Gove’s largely-thwarted attempt to create a little-Englander, Great Leaders history curriculum was a particularly naked attempt to politicise what was taught. Because it was so clearly his ideological brainchild it helped to inspire a broad campaign of opposition, which could include liberal as well as socialist educationalists. Sadly other subjects were engineered for equally negative purposes with less publicity despite widespread criticisms within the world of education. And the Prevent agenda is transparently shot through with the aims of a government eager to demonise Muslims as ‘the enemy within’.

These material and ideological motives are interlinked, but not always complementary. So while current vocational qualifications may serve the purpose of inculcating a sense of inferiority among those studying them (due to the lack of social esteem they carry compared to ‘academic’ qualifications), many employers don’t consider them good preparation for the workplace. And if you google for the ‘Exam Factories?’ report you will probably discover a range of stories describing the CBI’s John Cridland bemoaning the narrow, test-driven system for the same reason. Most employment (teaching included) requires an element of servility, but many also require elements of team working and initiative, which our education system is not good at fostering.

In his seminal book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, Paulo Freire describes the method of teaching that results in this. He calls it the banking conception of education, where the teacher ‘deposits’ knowledge into students, who are empty vessels to be filled up. (This is generally known as ‘spoon-feeding’ in the UK, which gets across the dependent and patronising nature of the relationship.)

It’s true that there have been attempts to change this relationship (‘educational projects’, as Freire describes them). In my main subject History, for example, there was a movement towards enquiry-based learning from the late 1960s, with students encouraged for the first time to access primary sources and to evaluate interpretations for themselves. Many older London teachers have stories of curriculum and teaching experimentation, often under the auspices of the Inner London Education Authority, that sound like another world to those of us trained in the last couple of decades. The nature of education isn’t static, and just as in other fields of politics reforms can be won, so too with education. So in the generation after the Second World War the school leaving age was raised, funding increased, and comprehensive schools spread widely. There isn’t a simple correlation between these reforms and the economy, but it is relevant that the post-war boom enabled a greater level of public spending on education (and in some ways necessitated it for national capitalist competition).

So what is the GERM? How did we catch it? And what’s the cure?

GERM stands for ‘Global Education Reform Movement’. It was coined by the progressive Finnish Professor of Education, Dr Pasi Sahlberg, and describes the global neoliberal assault on education epitomised by politicians such as Michael Gove (and his dull echo Nicky Morgan) as well as multinationals such as Pearson. Typical features include a stress on competition within and between schools; weakened local accountability; externally monitored high-stakes testing; performance-related-pay; weakened contractual rights for staff; and greater corporate control of the running of schools. Essentially it is the desire is to privatise education and run it for profit.

In the UK New Labourites such as Andrew Adonis were in the vanguard, piloting the academies scheme that would apparently solve the problem of so-called ‘failing bog-standard comprehensives’. The solution was apparently to rip up teachers’ pay and conditions, change the headteacher and, perhaps most importantly, change the intake of students through covert selection and increased exclusion. In 2012-13 academies, accounting for around 10% of schools, were responsible for over a third of exclusions. Gove has since ‘super-charged’ the creation of academies – which now account for around half of secondary schools – and enabled ‘free schools’ to be set up, which are scarcely-accountable and opened regardless of local need by businesses, third sector bodies or, in rare cases, mainly middle class parents.

anti academy

Sweden was the first country to introduce free schools, in the 1990s. Since then their results in maths, reading and natural sciences have fallen below the OECD average, they have dropped down the (admittedly unreliable) PISA league tables, educational inequality has increased and one of the main providers of their for-profit schools, JB Education (owned by a Danish private equity firm) went bust, costing almost 1,000 staff their jobs and leaving 11,000 students without school places.

In the US the growth of Charter Schools has exacerbated an education system already segregated by race and class. In 1991 34% of black students attended a school which was more than 90% BME. By 2011 this was 39%. And in 1988, black students typically attended schools in which 435 of their fellow students were from low income families – by 2006 it had risen to 59% (Megan Trudell, Education For Liberation magazine, Spring 2015). In state after state teacher contracts were ripped up, pay linked to results, union rights undermined – in Chicago a 75% turnout threshold was imposed on strike ballots.

In Britain the constant mantra is that more academies are needed to ‘raise standards’. Yet an Education Select Committee report in January admitted that there was no evidence ‘yet’ (a decade on) that they do. British firm Pearson, which also owns the Financial Times and the exam board Edexcel , is now ‘the world’s leading learning company’ (Paul McGarr, Education For Liberation magazine, Spring 2015), making £500 million profits from a combination of standardised tests , linked to corporate lesson plans and text books, and often delivered via IT by corporate partners Apple and Microsoft. This all promotes teaching to the test, deskills teachers, then punishes them if the results aren’t considered up to scratch. Michael Gove’s idea of an underperforming school was any one below the average, which means by definition that near half of the country will always be ‘failing’. And Nicky Morgan has recently decided that schools are ‘coasting’ – and therefore liable to academisation – if they don’t achieve a new, much higher set of arbitrary test and exam figures.

Which brings us full circle to how students experience education in the UK. Stress at school is the biggest contributor to depression, self-harm and attempted suicide among young people, according to a 2013 YouGov survey.  Almost a third of children (32 per cent) have considered or attempted to end their own life by the age of 16, and 29 per cent said that they had harmed themselves on purpose. Stress at school was found to be the main cause of depression among young people, cited by 54 per cent of those surveyed, followed by ‘worrying about the future’ and ‘low self-esteem’ (which are no doubt connected in many cases). The Exam Factories? Report backs this picture up, with one teacher describing a distraught four year old already streamed into a lower group in order to follow the nationally-enforced synthetic phonics method of reading.

Perhaps the best thing about being the parent of a young child is seeing their unfettered curiosity about the world around them. Their joy at picking up a new skill, learning a new word, making a connection with someone. Education under capitalism crushes that innate love of learning, turns it at best into something grudging, competitive or reward-driven. A system based on constant testing and disempowerment is to blame. When people say students are alienated, they generally refer to their state of mind, but it equally applies to Marx’s broader conception of how capitalism separates us from the control of our labour. This is true of students, who have so little input into what is studied and how. But it is also true of teachers, increasingly disciplined by prescriptive national curricula, performance related pay and punitive inspection regimes. We deal in inputs and outputs just like an industry producing goods. Because of cuts to our budgets we have to ‘do more with less’ – which means accepting more students with lower entry grades, and achieving higher outcomes than previously, and all with less money for books and resources and bigger class sizes.

Class struggles

So what can we do about all this? Well, clearly the austerity agenda is a key component of the problem that we need to challenge, with protests like the People’s Assembly March of 20 June very important in lifting spirits for the battles ahead. Prior to this, it was really encouraging to see the protest initiated by 6th form students in Bristol. The fact that they were recognising that the Tories’ attack on students is part of a wider neoliberal project suggests that some young activists are beginning to enter the movement with a higher level of political generalisation than was the case at the beginning of the (very impressive) 2010 student protests over fees and EMA.

Teachers have an important role to play within our unions. The NUT has fitfully organised action over the last five years, but on a national level has never got beyond one-day protest strikes that could really threaten the government.[1] Partly this has been due to the sell-outs of other union leaders, but it also reflects a nervousness about the commitment of the membership, despite the very good response that every strike action has received. However, while much of this action has implicitly rejected the GERM, as far as most of the public has been concerned it has been about bread and butter issues like pay and pensions.

Striking teachers rally

A more clearly educational battleground is about to open up around planned ‘baseline tests’ for new primary school students. These tests measure a narrow range of knowledge and are potentially very damaging for young children entering formal education for the first time. They go against everything that early years professionals know about providing a safe and supportive environment and the value of play-based learning. The NUT is committed to a boycott, and already organising some very well-supported teacher/parent picnics.

Building these links with parents and the wider community was one of the main reasons for the successes of the Chicago Teachers union in 2012, which struck for 9 days with massive local support. In the run-up to that strike each school representative was tasked with gathering contacts not just of union members but also of parents. They discovered that support staff were often the best at making these links, undercutting some of the damaging internal hierarchies that can exist among staff.

As for what goes on in the classroom, Freire makes the point that there can never be an entirely liberated education until we have a liberated society, but that we must still strive to create ‘educational projects’ that cut against the grain. Encouraging student subjectivity – ie giving them a say in the focus and methods of learning as part of a ‘problem-solving curriculum’, challenging the notion that the test is the arbiter of good learning, taking up the role of mentor rather than sergeant major – these are all aims that can seem more possible when combined with mass collective action against Ofsted, the government or bullying management. They provide a glimpse of what a humanising education could look like, and thus they are worth fighting for.


[1] Members have also taken local rearguard actions – with some level of success – over redundancies, academisation and victimisation, which the left leadership of the union has been much more consistent in supporting.

There are 3 comments

  1. Michael Rosen

    Great stuff, Andrew. Beneath the surface of education a lot goes on that is seemingly nothing to do with ‘education’. The marxist critic of education, Kevin Harris, tried to systematise this by making a distinction between what he called Knowledge 1, (i.e. the stuff that is taught) and Knowledge 2 (i.e. the stuff that enables education to be taught i.e. the whole apparatus of schools, discipline structures, structuring of schools etc). His argument is that K2 is where the real ideology of education is passed on and at the core of that is the fact that children and students (and parents) have virtually no say in any of this, and indeed that for most of the time it is invisible or at the very least unquestioned. This is a straightforward handing over of authority over the self and the collective mass of those being educated. It is remarkable that it is a) so total and b) so unremarked upon. In fact, the left has been pretty silent about it too. It’s often been seen as slightly hippy or ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ to be talking about it.

    The point is that at the core of education under capitalism what has to be produced is an acceptance (call it ‘passivity’ if you like) on the part of those who will fail. One key aspect of this is the examination system and the ideological cock that sustains it. This is the ‘anybody-everybody’ lie. That is, ‘anybody’ can pass the exam (any exam coming up over the horizon) which slides into meaning (according the ideology) ‘everybody’ can pass, which obviously and clearly is untrue. The system is sustained by locking pupils and teachers into this lie. So the very best of teachers bust their arses to help every student over the line – of course – and yet even as they do their best, even as they strain every muscle to do their best by the students most at danger of not passing, they draw themselves and the students into the ideological illusion. To be clear, this isn’t to blame a single one of those teachers (nor me!) who do this. Of course we do. And we hope that in so doing, we offer chinks and possibilities and critical viewpoints that challenge the very system that is being upheld by the exam system. Of course we do, in the ways that Andrew suggests.

    In terms of why or how people fail the exam system, the first point is that the exam system is rigged to ensure that a certain percentage fail anyway. It’s pre-judged, pre-fixed. Why and how those who fail, have a particular sociological profile is an important matter to do with the inter-relation between education-experience in certain families, class, and (I would say) key questions surrounding language – or in particular – the dissemination and use of written language. In brief ,where families (or whatever nurture-group in question) is low on regular use of written language, those pupils from those family groups will struggle the most with the written curriculum.

    Some of this can be affected by massive attention being paid to upping the breadth and depth of reading material and enjoyable writing that children and students are encouraged to do. All governments all over the world know this, but all they can come up with in terms of programmes of study are highly reductive, instrumental processes which they claim will ‘liberate’ the unachieving masses. And yet mysteriously, the more they do this, the less likely it is that such children ‘get’ the knack of what this written language is about and for. This was analysed by Bourdieu with his theory of ‘reproduction’ and ‘habitus’.


  2. mmiweb

    Andrew, thanks for this blog. You are right that the ideological politicisation of education (from all parties) incise the umbrella of capitalism as the only possible system lies at the heart of the testing agenda and then need to allow some to pass and some to fail – this has also been at the heart of the complaints around “grade inflation” and the fiasco of PISA and TIMMS as a tool of suppression in the last 5 years.

    I have some hopes that the on-line world – which to some degree circumnavigates then controls from the ideological media and the fiscally powerful – how could you have published this blog to a wide audience even 10 years ago – will open people’s minds. Contrary to this a small group of educational bloggers most of who support the GERM agenda – and the lie that the test data is a reliable indicator of country, school and teacher quality – are dominating the education.

    I still hope for grass roots action and, for example, a mass boycott of baseline testing would be a start – best.


  3. debmcm

    I enjoyed this, particularly the idea of Nicky Morgan as Gove’s dull echo. It seems that our children only used to have to deal with their own success or failure, and now its their whole school that can fail (and I think adults underestimate how perceptive even young kids are about where their school is in the pecking order, and the power of Ofsted).

    It would be great if there were stronger links between teachers, staff and families. When school staff are under so much pressure, families can feel blamed for not being sufficiently ‘engaged’ or for not sending their kids in ‘ready to learn’, and naturally some parts of our community come under more flak for this than others. And parents can be wary of school, because (speaking from experience), it can be a great source of disapproval.

    And while all kids are put under pressure by the system, and it’s horrible to see all the fun sucked out of school, it’s kids who are already disadvantaged who are squeezed the most. You only have to look at the figures for exclusions to see that. Kids with a statement are 7 times more likely to be permanently excluded, and kids on free school meals are 3 times more likely.

    Liked by 1 person

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