What you see depends on the way that you look. The way you look depends on the set of goggles that you look through. The lens in those goggles will always be full of distortions. These distortions become our truth.
I was reminded of these simplistic truisms again when listening with increasing frustration to the current debate in the UK about reintroducing grammar schools into our education system. I listened aghast to politicians describing how this is a good thing as Grammar school contribute to social mobility and allow talent to be be nurtured. They went on to describe with apparent passion how selected individuals who have now reached prominence came up through grammar schools, and how selecting the best and the brightest pupils aged 11 to give them the very best chance of success is simply good sound common sense.
It is as if the 1950s never happened…
It is as if all the learning from the failures of the tripartite education system has been forgotten…
It is as if the evidence describing the negative impact of selective education on disadvantaged groups has been ignored…
In case you are new the this debate, perhaps a little education policy history might be of use…
What is a state education system for? Essentially it is an exercise in social engineering. We educate according to the needs, priorities and prejudices of those in power.
After the 2nd world war, building on research by Sir Cyril Burt (of which there are serious questions around the validity) we established a tripartite education system in the UK. This was based on the idea that it was possible to test the intelligence level of children at a young age and so predict their likely educational potential. Having done this, pupils could be allocated to one of the three different kind of schools in order to make best use of this potential; Grammar schools (for the most able), Technical Schools (and under developed set of schools intended to provided mechanical/technical expertise for industry) and Secondary Modern (for the rest.)
I remember the well the tyranny of the approach of the 11th plus examination when I was in primary school. I was convinced I was going to fail. Imagine then my relief when it was cancelled in my area of the UK and replaced by comprehensive education. In fact, by the time I went into secondary schools, my home town (Sutton in Ashfield) had a brand new experimental ‘community school’, a kind of super-comprehensive, intended to place the school at the centre of the town.
What had happened to change things? Quite simply, inequality became a political priority. Comprehensive education was an attempt to address the fact that selective systems of education tend to enshrine disadvantage. It is a complex pattern however, which can be understood from this American paper that reviews a lot of the relevant research about the British schooling system. How middle class kids achieve better results is complex, but it seems clear that selective education enhances this advantage.
At present, inequality has no real political capital. Corbyn’s troubled Labour may be seeking to change this, but no one that matters is listening. Britain is becoming more unequal, including our education system.
Some sobering news for education systems in Scotland, via the Joseph Rowntree Foundation;
- The gap between children from low-income and high-income households starts early. By age 5, it is 10–13 months. Lower attainment in literacy and numeracy is linked to deprivation throughout primary school. By age 12–14 (S2), pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely as those from the most deprived areas to do well in numeracy. Attainment at 16 (the end of S4) has risen overall, but a significant and persistent gap remains between groups.
- Parental socio-economic background has more influence on this result than the school attended.
- Children from deprived households leave school earlier. Low attainment is strongly linked to destinations after school, with long-term effects on job prospects.
And the UK governments answer to this?
Bring back grammar schools.
Back to those goggles again…
If you look at this issue through a set of lens that are distorted by Neo Liberal ideology, grammar schools begin to make perfect sense.
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.