Flow of Ideas
After the Hillcole Group of Radical Left Educators

Glenn Rikowski, 8th August 2007, London

The Hillcole Group of Radical Left Educators

The Hillcole Group of Radical Left Educators was formed by Dave Hill and Mike Cole in Brighton in 1989 in response to the campaigning of the radical right Hillgate Group, the fallout from the Education Reform Act of 1988 and the decisive shift towards neoliberal education policies in education in the final years of Margaret Thatcher’s administration. It was ‘a group of socialist practitioners and academics in education in Britain’ [1], although most members were London-based, as meetings were held in London. And:

“Their aim is to improve the quality of schooling and teacher education; to confront the assaults by the radical right on the quality of education; and to influence policy and decision making on educational matters” (from Hillcole Group web site, as in Note 1).

For a long while in the UK, the educational Left had been accused by its critics that it had no policy alternatives to mainstream capitalist schooling. However, in 1991, Hillcole produced Changing the Future: Redprint for Education, edited by Clyde Chitty. This provided not just critiques of current education policy but also set out socialist alternatives to it. As I wrote in 1996:

“In 1991, just in time for the 1992 General Election, they [the Hillcole Group] published Changing the Future: Redprint for Education. This contained some general principles for a socialist agenda in education for the 1990s and beyond, a critique of alternative policies, some proposals for change, a critique of the National Curriculum, an analysis of post-compulsory education, a radical Left perspective on teacher education, an analysis of resources and funding for state education and, finally, an outline for a New Education Act – in short, it addressed many of the issues that the Left have been continually castigated for ignoring” (in Rikowski, 1996, p.429).

Furthermore, the Hillcole Group did not just include people with expertise in the schools sector, but also some with experience in post-compulsory education and training and others in higher education. Imelda Gardiner had close knowledge of the Scottish education system, too. Although nearly all were socialists, and everyone was on the educational Left and against the neoliberal and neoconservative education policies of the Conservatives, and then New Labour, Marxist educators and educational theorists were also to be found in the Hillcole Group. Indeed, the co-founders (Dave Hill and Mike Cole) went on to become significant figures in the rejuvenation of Marxism in the educational Left in the UK.

The Hillcole Group published a significant statement regarding the principles and practices that should underpin education for democracy and progressive social change in the twenty-first century in their Rethinking Education and Democracy (Hillcole Group, 1997). This booklet was very much inspired and driven on by Caroline Benn, who was a leading figure in the Hillcole Group. Again, the booklet was not just about schools. It rethought education across all sectors – from nursery education to higher education; rethinking socialist educational futures across and between the various sectors. Two years later, in 1999, the Hillcole Group ran an important conference, Business, Business, Business: New Labour’s Education Policy, in London. This conference and the two pamphlets that came out of it (Allen et al, 1999; and Hill, 1999) constituted a powerful critique of New Labour’s education policies and priorities. Through the Tufnell Press [2], the Hillcole Group published thirteen books and pamphlets between 1989 and 2002 when it disbanded, including a booklet I wrote on The Battle in Seattle: Its Significance for Education (Rikowski, 2001). By the late 1990s, the Hillcole Group had attained a significant presence in the educational Left, which went across all sectors of education. I joined the Group in 1994, whilst I was a further education teacher. I quickly realised that one of the strengths of Hillcole was that it campaigned on issues relating to, but also beyond, schools – on issues pertinent to colleges and universities, local education authorities and training institutions. It had a “system” focus, which was impressive.

After the Hillcole Group

The break-up of the Hillcole Group was a rather drawn out process, which began with the death of Caroline Benn in November 2000. By 2002, the Group no longer held meetings. The Promoting Comprehensive Education Network (PCEN), which included some prominent Hillcole members, attempted to carry on and develop the work of the Group by seeking to bring together leading educational Left organisations. However, this was not successful. Furthermore, the PCEN was focused more on schools than the Hillcole Group had been – moving away from the notion that the various parts of the educational landscape were connected. Today, there is still no organisation in the educational Left that has the breadth of vision and interests of the Hillcole Group. Such an organisation is clearly needed.

The Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) is an excellent campaigning group with a very informative web site. Yet it focuses almost exclusively on schools; with radical, socialist and Left school teachers and activists being its major constituency. The Anti Academies Alliance is another exciting development, yet it has an even narrower focus than the STA: i.e. campaigning against the imposition of Academies, which cause a variety of education and social divisions, in various parts of England [4]. Meanwhile, the group around the Post-16 Educator journal campaigns on post-compulsory education and training [5], and although there are some articles and material with relevance to schools, the major foci are 16-19 education in further education colleges and sixth-form colleges and adult education. Finally, there is no doubt that the National Union of Teachers (NUT) does some excellent work on school privatisation and the business takeover of schools, or that the new University and College Union (UCU) is a valuable campaigning organ for its members. Yet there is no organisation that can pulls all the various strands together. Given the lack of a single trade union for education workers (and the fact that there are several unions for school teachers), and the sectoral divides within the existing union setup, then it cannot be supposed that trade unions could be the home of such an organisation. Furthermore, critique of the positions of the education unions’ policies from time to time may be required. Therefore, a certain critical (as well as material and financial) distance from education unions might be desirable. An alternative might be to try to set up an umbrella group which brings together the various education activist groups, perhaps even including trade unions. But the experience of the PCEN was not encouraging on this score.

We need something along the lines of the Hillcole Group – but bigger and better. We need a critical mass of radical, socialist and Left educators from across all the various sectors working in a common organisation. As things stand, however, it’s difficult to see how such an organisation might be constituted.

Notes [1] Further details on the Hillcole Group can be viewed at: http://www.ieps.org.uk.cwc.net/hillcole.html

[2] The Tufnell Press – http://www.tufnellpress.co.uk

[3] The Socialist Teachers Alliance web site is at: http://www.socialist-teacher.org/

[4] The Anti Academies Alliance web site is at: http://www.antiacademies.org.uk/

[5] See details on the Post-16 Educator at: http://www.post16educator.org.uk/


Allen, M., Benn, C., Chitty, C., Cole, M., Hatcher, R., Hirtt, N. & Rikowski, G. (1999) Business, Business, Business: New Labour’s Education Policy, London: Tufnell Press.

Hill, D. (1999) New Labour and Education: Policy, Ideology and the Third Way, London: Tufnell Press.

Hillcole Group (1991) Changing the Future: Redprint for Education, London: Tufnell Press.

Hillcole Group (1997) Rethinking Education and Democracy: A Socialist Alternative for the Twenty-first Century, London: Tufnell Press.

Rikowski, G. (1996) Left Alone: End Time for Marxist Educational Theory? British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol.17 No.4, pp.415-451.

Rikowski, G. (2001) The Battle in Seattle: Its Significance for Education, London: Tufnell Press.

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