At the chalkface: Capitalism in the classroom

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

No good teacher ever preaches, especially English teachers. We deal in ambiguity, complexity, beauty, not brute certainty – in some kind of truth. But these days, as Gramsci said, “to tell the truth is revolutionary”...

The quicksilver intellect of education secretary Gavin Williamson has been much exercised with the RSHE curriculum, hatching edicts for you all.

The most salient concerns “political impartiality” in the classroom. It is “incredibly important”. There must be “no extreme political stances”. And none is more extreme than suggesting, nay intimating. that capitalism – the present unfettered, unregulated, ruinous variety, whereby one per cent have wealth beyond the dreams of Croesus – might for a moment be questioned or examined. It’s illegal. Criminal.

Time for a flashback…

In 1988, I went on a half-term jaunt to East Berlin with something called the West London Communist Teachers. Our leader was called Dot – “Red Dot” – a jolly round woman with a woolly red tea cosy on her bonce.

She was a fan of Gramski, Chomsky, Marx, Engels and QPR, so she felt keenly for the wretched of the earth. The rest of us weren’t raving commies, just soft socialists, who wanted a jolly in Berlin. We were notionally on a fact-finding mission, to see if Joe Stalin and his education system were any good. They weren’t. They were complete rubbish. Atrocious.

Hatchet-faced Stasi waved guns at us at Checkpoint Charlie. Men with bad suits and humour by-passes peddled half-baked Marxist-Leninism at us in six-hour meetings of crushing boredom, marginally worse than our middle management meetings in the free west.

Capitalism was a lie. Capitalism was corrupt. Communism was the bees’ knees. Its schools were hunky dory. We went into classrooms full of bullied teachers and sad, rictus smiling vessels of knowledge. The streets were full of misery and poverty, smack heads and alcoholics and AIDS victims.

“Red Dot” was most disillusioned.

We came back to London, sadder and wiser.

It wasn’t so much better in the free world.

In 1988, capitalism was getting mighty unfettered, unleashing havoc across the nation. Mrs Thatcher had pronounced that comprehensive teachers were the “enemy within”, that “greed was good”, there was “no such thing as society” and introduced a Section 28 clause whereby we were “to not intentionally promote homosexuality”. Or was it unintentionally? Daft. So capitalism was forbidden in Berlin and anti-capitalism was forbidden in London.

It made you dizzy. Dogma seemed to be in the ascendant. And now we seem to be rabid for even more of it.

Gavin’s new guidelines deny the fact that unregulated capitalism is intimately connected with the world’s woes – global warming, imminent extinction, starving schoolchildren, desperate asylum seekers, appalling racism, savage inequality and, yes, Covid deaths. Poverty kills. Unfettered capitalism kills.

And you can’t discuss these things? You must be silent. Impartial. “Incredibly” impartial – when impartial seems to be the default position of the Daily Telegraph or Mail?

What next? Hungary?

No good teacher ever preaches, especially English teachers. We deal in ambiguity, complexity, beauty, not brute certainty – in some kind of truth. But these days, as Red Dot’s beloved Gramsci said, “to tell the truth is revolutionary”.

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at


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