G.D.H. Cole and the Guild Socialist Criticism of British Schools


G.D.H. Cole: Socialist intellectual and founder of Guild Socialism

The barring of 14 academy chains from running any more schools this week reminded me of G.D.H. Cole’s criticism of the schools’ system of his time. Cole was a former member of the Fabian Society and one of the founders of Guild Socialism. This was similar to Syndicalism, in that it advocated that industries should be taken over and managed by the trade unions through a system of industrial democracy, in which the workers in the factories and other places of work would elect their managers. Unlike Syndicalism, there would be some kind of residual state institution to represent the interests of the consumers, and the economy and society as a whole would be governed by an Industrial Guilds Congress, which would take over the role of the TUC, and a National Commune. Guild Socialism effectively ended in Britain with the collapse of the 1926 General Strike, when it appeared that the trade unions and direct action could not take on the full force of the state.

In his 1920 book, Guild Socialism Restated, Cole commented on the poor quality of the British educational system. He considered it servile, staffed by poorly trained teachers and classes that were far too large. He believed that the major factor in the poor quality of British education was also the low status of the teachers themselves. This could only be improved by giving them more freedom to manage their service within the structure of Guild Socialism. Cole wrote

This servility of present educational arrangements is traced by its critics to various causes. Some dwell, quite rightly, on the inordinate size of the classes which the unfortunate teacher is called upon to teach, and point out, with perfect truth, that it is impossible to communicated education to a mob. But the size of classes, while it is a serious aggravation of the servility of the system, is not the root cause of its servility. Other critics are content to say that the system is servile because it is capitalist, and it is to the interest of capitalists to train contented wage-slaves. This is certainly true; but it only drives us back to the further problem of the means by which capitalism succeeds in imparting this servile character to what should be a great agent of spiritual enfranchisement. The fundamental answer, I think, is to be found in the present status and equipment of the teacher, who is, under existing conditions, as much a wage-slave as any hireling of the industrial system, and worse exploited than most. The teacher is afforded only a quite inadequate and often inferior training, sometimes in a University, but more often in an institution that is not quite as good as a University. He or she, with this shoddy equipment, is then pitchforked into a school, and told to teach, under the supervision of a horde of inspectors, according to Board of Education instructions, under the control of an Education Authority whose members usually know nothing about education, and in an atmosphere of jealousy created directly by the dire economic distress of the teacher, and the scarcity of promotions carrying a reasonable salary or reasonable opportunities,. It is no wonder at all that, under these conditions, very many teachers can be accused of being “narrow-minded” and not too efficient. They would be miracles if they were otherwise, and, in the circumstances, the work which many of them do is little short of miraculous. But there is a limit to miracles; and the majority of teachers are human beings, and many have come to be teachers, not because they have a vocation for teaching, but because, in the present scramble, even the worst-paid professions have some economic attractions superior to those of starvation or mercenary marriage.

The only way of changing the character of the educational system is by changing the status of the teacher; for the teachers alone can purify education, and they can do so only if the conditions enable them to make a beginning. We shall set our feet on the right road in respect of education only when we make teaching a fully self-governing profession; and we shall get a good and liberating educational system only when we have helped the teachers to use their freedom to purge education of its present capitalistic and economic taint.

G.D.H. Cole, Guild Socialism Restated (New Brunswick: Transaction Inc. 1980) 99-101.

Few would want to give teachers total freedom to manage schools, after the horrors and excesses of some of the progressive educational policies implemented in the 1960s and 1970s. Other parts of Cole’s critique of the education system still remain extremely relevant, after nearly a century: large classes, poor pay and low status have forced many people to leave the profession, who were initially drawn to it. The actual standard of professional education given to teacher is often extremely high, but even here Gove and the Tories wish to turn the clock back with the plans to remove the requirement for teaching qualifications for the privatised academies. I can remember when the teachers struck in the 1980s against Margaret Thatcher’s proposed educational reforms. They were afraid that these would not only lead to them working for lower pay with worse conditions, but also that their pupils education would also be damaged as a result. And they were right.

Unfortunately, education is very much used as a political football. It is not just local councils that know and care little about it that have damaged it, but also the major political parties, like the Tories and Tory Democrats. They seem to regard it merely as an arena in which they can gain votes through ill-thought out tinkering and appealing to popular sentiment against teachers. It’s about time this stopped. If Gove really wants to improve education, he should scrap the privatisation programme and start listening to teachers themselves.


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8 Responses to “G.D.H. Cole and the Guild Socialist Criticism of British Schools”

  1. chriswaynepoetry Says:

    State education has on some level, been about indoctrination of children so they can be accoustomed to the idea of been wage slaves. When this occurs, it is the teachers (due to lack of tools, flexibility and only adequate training) and the pupils that suffer.

    • beastrabban Says:

      I think that was originally very much the ethos when the state school system was established in the 19th and 20th centuries, possibly not so much now, or rather, possibly not so overtly.

      Years ago they had Terry Christian on Room 101. One of the things he chose to go into the dread repository of all that is vile was toffs. He illustrated how awful they were with a piece about the difference between the attitude in the public and state schools. In the public schools, they’re set questions like ‘You are Julius Caesar back from Gaul about to cross the Rubicon. How do you prepare to seize the emperor’s throne’. They are taught from birth and in the schools that they have an absolute, unquestionable right to lead. Hence the vitriolic hate and terror of working class and lower middle class organisations.

      • chriswaynepoetry Says:

        Couldn’t agree more and they’ll anything within the realms of education to maintain that heirarchy such as tiution fees (eevn though it’s costing teh government more to implement and recieve back the students loans than it was to increase it to £9,000)

  2. beastrabban Says:

    That’s interesting, Chriswaynepoetry. I didn’t realise it was costing them more to implement the loans and try and claw the money back. That’s probably why they were talking of selling the loans to a private company.

  3. jess Says:

    The place to start when considering the role of education is J. Shotton’s ‘No Master High or Low’ which is effectively a compendium of ‘alternaive education’ initiatives.

    It’s one weakness is a failiure to consider the strong socialist/secularist educational tradition that culminated in Tom Anderson’s ‘Proletarian School’ movement of the 1920’s

    There is a small biography of Anderson on its way, but a quite extensive finding list of his work/writings is available.

    On close ally of of Anderson was John Maclean, who should need no introduction here. Others were Sylvia Pankhurst and Mary Bridges Adams. The latter deserves a study all her own…..

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for this, Jess. As I mentioned, I really don’t know anything about alternative education at all, beyond some of the critiques of traditional schooling made by some of the Anarchists.

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