This is a guest post from Matt Donoghue – Published on New Left Project, by Ed, March 5, 2013.

For those against Michael Gove’s plans to turn education in the UK back thirty years, there has been good news: he admitted that scrapping the GCSEs was perhaps one step too far. However, he is still the education minister, still with the same designs on the system, so it’s worth paying some critical attention to where those designs come from. In trying to justify to the move, Gove proclaimed that the two biggest influences on his philosophy of education were Jade Goody (because she left a trust fund to be spent on education for her children) and Antonio Gramsci (because he apparently lauded a conservative and classical education). Here, I will explore further this ‘connection’ with Gramsci … //

… This highlights that you cannot simply cherry pick a passage from Gramsci and use it to serve your own ends. To take from Gramsci you need to appropriate and develop, with an appreciation of multiple contexts. However, let us for a second assume that Gove and Gramsci are essentially the same paradigm shifting radicals. If Gove is correct in his reading, and if this is the way to go, it would be right to bring back traditional O Levels and A Levels, because of their perceived rigorous standards. This would open up the world of classically trained, private education to the masses. But, of course, not everyone is cut out for O Levels and A Levels (and nor should we force them to be). In that case, we would have to have some other form of education, perhapssuch as the General Certificte of Education (the qualification one sat if they were deemed not capable enough for O Levels). Gifted pupils will flourish in the ‘corridors of power’ while the less academically inclined will flounder. This should not sound particularly new to anyone. It is the old formula of the secondary modern versus the grammar school, versus the public school; the poly, versus the Redbrick, versus the ‘ancient’ university.

Gramsci himself states that’the fundamental division into classical and vocational (professional) schools was a rational formula: the vocational school for the instrumental classes, the classical school for the dominant classes and the intellectuals’ (Gramsci, 1971: 26).

In other words, the schooling system is an element of the state which is able to perpetuate class divides fairly easily. The instrumental classes will do all the hard labour, the dominant classes and intellectuals will pursue culture and high society. Its description as a ‘rational formula’ does not make it desirable, at least not for a Marxist like Gramsci. Furthermore, the issue of organic and traditional intellectuals cannot be distanced from the problem of ideology. Classical education, as it exists in a two-tier system,  trains people for a life of high culture and privilege. The vocational school trains people for a life of labour and servitude. Therefore Gove’s system works to perpetuate the attitudes of subaltern classes regarding ‘classical’ education – that it is boring, has no worth, or no applicability in the ‘real’ world.

Gramsci is very much for expanding this idea of ‘classical’ education to all, as should we. However, it must be done in a truly comprehensive system – something Gramsci argues for himself. If it is not, it simply works to uphold the privilege and current power divides we see and feel each day, particularly in the face of austerity cuts.

This should also be treated as a systematic (and perhaps ideological) project, rather than an organic evolution in society and culture. Gramsci lamented the drive to abolish ‘every type of schooling that is “disinterested” (not serving immediate interests) or “formative”’, and the replacement of this system with that of ’specialised vocational schools, in which the pupil’s destiny and future activity are determined in advance.’ (Gramsci, 1971: 27) Instead, Gramsci urges a universal, comprehensive and classical future education to facilitate the realisation of our critique – our ability to think critically, and to critique social, political and economic structures.

If anything, Gove’s proposals threatened to further entrench social divides not only through restricting opportunities for the more economically and socially vulnerable in society, but by actively socialising people, making them ‘learn’ these divides. It is the hallmark of one of the elements of Gramsci’s idea of hegemony – all-encompassing rule via coercion and consent. Such an education system breeds consent, and makes the class system ‘common sense’. For Gramsci to uphold a system that helps perpetuate this hegemony would contradict directly his critique of state and society; such a move would be wholly counter intuitive. By taking Gramsci so literally, Gove becomes the exemplar of Gramsci’s critique.

(full long text).

(Matt Donoghue is a Lecturer in Social and Political Change at Oxford Brookes University).


Michael Andrew Gove … is a British Conservative politician, who currently serves as the Secretary of State for Education …;

Antonio Gramsci … was an Italian writer, philosopher, politician, political theorist, sociologist, and linguist. He was a founding member and onetime leader of the Communist Party of Italy and was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime;

Gramsci, A. (1971): Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Translated by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, Ed. International Publishers, New York, 1971).

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