Factories for Learning is a powerful indictment of a contemporary educational system that holds up the myth of meritocracy whilst subjecting black and white children to an education that disrespects and demeans them. Dreamfields, the Academy school where Christy Kulz’s research was conducted reminded me of schools for the working classes set up at the beginning of state education for all, whose primary mission was to control and pacify rather than to educate and stimulate. Christy’s book allows us to understand a complex intricate genealogy of class exclusions that threads its way from the nineteenth century to the present. When we engage with the powerful narratives in Factories for Learning we can see this legacy of nineteenth and early twentieth century penal institutions, workhouses and poor homes not just in Dreamfields’ Learning Support Unit, which some students actually described as ‘a prison’, but within the mainstream school itself, particularly in the lowest sets. As one parent commented about the school ‘the comparison with the military and breaking your spirit come too easily to the forefront’. This is no bright new future but a throwback to the days of Adam Smith when the purpose of education was to stamp out any critical questioning among the working classes – to make them docile. Underpinning the ‘structures liberate’ philosophy of the school is a profound racism and classism. Dreamland’s fundamental assumption is that black and white working class young people’s lives are chaotic. They lack backbone which has to be drilled into them. They lack structure and the ability to organize their own lives because they are coming from backgrounds that are seen to be inferior socially and culturally. They literally cannot be trusted with agency, instead Academies like Dreamlands attempt to turn working class young people into automatons – high performing automatons but automatons nonetheless.
We also see in the book the full power of schooling on contemporary class exclusions and the invidious consequences of the development over the last 30 years of increasing systems of audit, assessment, and setting and streaming in schools. This all-consuming focus on testing and measuring has served to re-emphasise and valorise ability as measured on test scores as the ‘be-all and end-all’ of education. (Just as an aside this is now happening in higher education as academics are positioned as objects rather than subjects in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) exercises.) But a further consequence is the power of categories of ability to be used for class identity and identification. The working classes have always been excluded from high status education, and in particular any form of elite education, but the book reveals invidious processes of excluding within the same school building as working-class students are more surveilled and disciplined, more targeted by the audit culture, receive a narrower curriculum, and have higher degrees of regulation than their more middle-class counterparts. The book provides a very vivid insight into how different education is for the Black working class child to that of her white middle class peers even when they attend the same school. While white middle class parents talked of their children being able to manipulate the rules and regulations, a black working class mother confessed ‘I feel like I’ve tortured my own child and put her through hell just to get an education’.
What was particularly shocking was the daily diet of conformity, compliance, and deference to authority that students were being fed but even more shocking was that, for the most part, they accepted and submitted to the indoctrination they were subjected to. In the face of all that acquiescence I want to be provocative. We have had Thatcher’s children, Blair’s babies, are these young people Cameron’s clones? Most sound like classic aspirant, mostly unquestioning self-disciplining neoliberal subjects. And what I found especially chilling was the students’ discourse on preparation for the labour market. They were recognizing and accepting that the discipline and control exercised over them in Dreamfields was good preparation for a labour market that they acknowledge will be long hours of hard work, a culture of professional obedience, regulation, and surveillance. No wonder our political elite want more and more academies if they are so successful at anaesthetizing young people to unjust power and control. One unwelcome lesson we learn from Factories for Learning is just how entrenched the neoliberal consensus has become.