Education: the world’s biggest industry

Submitted by AWL on 20 March, 2008 - 4:57 Author: Tom Unterrainer

“Teachers are proletarians. Indeed, it has been some time now since a significant number of teachers owned their own means of production; in order to survive they sell their labour power…”

Beverly J. Silver, Forces of Labour: Workers’ Movements and Globaliation since 1870


The significance of teachers as workers has increased in Western capitalist economies in the post-war period. Mass education and the work of teachers within the “education industry” has become the lynchpin in an economy dependent upon workers with high levels of “knowledge”: “Like textile workers in the nineteenth century and automobile workers in the twentieth century, education workers (teachers) are central to the process of capital accumulation in the twenty-first century” (Silver).

 Capital has its sights set on penetrating the education sector for two reasons: the potential profits available from direct exploitation, and the drive to regulate and control the outputs of this vital sector of the economy. The onward march towards Academy and Trust schools provides a market lever for more drastic developments to come. Such changes will ultimately result in unrest, but we should not assume that this unrest will find spontaneous organisational expression. The question of union organisation — what sort of union, representing what sectors of the education industry — is vital.

 Beverly Silver argues that “teaching” as a labour process is different from other sectors of industry in that the role of a teacher is independent from a chain of other workers.

As long as students arrive in the classroom at the appointed time, teachers can carry out their “work”. The action of one teacher (for example strike action or sickness) does not have an immediate knock-on effect on other workers — the labour process will not grind to a halt.

But the picture in British schools is increasingly at odds with this view. Whilst it’s true that in everyday situations teachers work in an atomised way, isolated in their own classrooms, more and more of us work with teaching assistants, “learning mentors”, “academic coaches” and a whole host of other support staff. These non-teaching co-workers are becoming gradually more important. This fact alone suggests that in future any mass industrial action by teachers will have an effect on other groups of workers – other points in the labour process.

 Another difference between education work and other forms of production is the relative autonomy of individual sites of production. Say for instance that haulage drivers take industrial action — the impact of their strike will cascade throughout industries directly dependent on the transport of resources. Cut off the supply chain and eventually production is disrupted.

Education work has different dependencies: If one school is closed by strike action, there is no automatic knock-on effect. The neighbouring schools can function perfectly well. If all secondary schools went on strike, primary schools could function quite happily.

Whilst education workers are not significantly divided on the technical division of labour (as outlined above), they are on the social division of labour: “Whereas the raw material inputs that go into textile or automobile production can be stored for the duration of a strike, the same cannot be done with the raw material inputs of the education industry” (Silver) — young people cannot be stored in metal containers until the strike is over! A national teachers’ strike would affect large parts of the social division of labour “disrupting family routines and making it difficult for working parents to do their own jobs.”

Any prolonged industrial action by teachers would therefore have two effects – one immediate, one more long term. Parents of very young children (a significant section of the workforce) may well be forced to stay away from work.

The second effect would only come into play with “exceptionally long and/or frequent strikes in education… fears have been raised about the longer-term impact of teacher labour unrest on the final product – that is, students’ educational accomplishments as well as their proper socialization as citizens” (Silver).

The last instructive difference between education workers and others is the relative imperviousness of teachers to “technological fixes”.

Whilst other sectors of production and some service industries experience the effects of an expanding and contracting workforce and the introduction of technology that replaces human activity, teachers do not. As the education industry expands, more teachers are employed. British schools have seen an explosion of technological aids (lap-tops, interactive whiteboards, the internet etc…) to work, but this technology cannot replace the work done by teachers. So any increase in productivity cannot come through the development of new machinery/technology to increase output – productivity is increased by the intensification of work. Despite new workforce agreements, many teachers have experienced a massive increase in workload in the past ten years. We can expect to see many more attempts to increase our workload in the years to come.

 The economy of education work indicates an increased industrial weight for those employed as teachers. But as teachers and trade union activists we are not just interested in protecting our pay and conditions. We do not oppose the privatisation of education simply because we fear being made to work harder for less pay.

This government runs Britain on a “country as commodity” basis where the primary aim is to impose economic and social policies that attract business. The education system has been consistently attacked and education work rationalised and regulated (through performance management, targets and inspections) to ensure a flow of “appropriately skilled” and compliant workers and to attract investment.

Like a bird chirping to attract a mate, New Labour has pushed through the Academy programme and other liberalisations to attract its natural partners, big-money capital. They aim to denude education of its potential to liberate, nurture and culture the minds of young people. For this reason more than any other, we should recognise and mobilise our ever-increasing collective power.

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