Education cannot compensate for society..

Can we ever move forwards without looking backwards?

I am sick to death of politicians and policy makers talking about education as if it is the ultimate social leveller; as if it offers a level playing field through which achievement is available to all.

From our recent history we have Tony Blair, with his ‘Education, education, education’ mantra. New labour sunk huge amounts of money into our education system at all levels- from increased nursery programmes right through to a huge expansion of university places. Even though austerity has wound back a lot of this largesse, we have to ask who benefitted most from these educational programmes? Did Blair manage to achieve his stated goal of ‘breaking the link between home background and educational achievement’?

Consider this most recent quote by (of all people) Michael Gove, during his disasterous term of office as education secretary;

“rich, thick kids do better educationally than poor, clever children before they even get to school… unfortunately, despite the best efforts of our society, the situation is getting worse”

Quote from here.

If even Gove can see that education is not ‘levelling up’ then why do we continue to pretend otherwise? (Gove appeared to have given up trying, given his other policy ideas!)

For educationalists this is first and foremost a technical problem; how to create the right school environment; how to engage kids in learning; how to motivate teachers and increase expectations all round. Regulation and testing regimes became ever more complex and ‘failing’ schools were pounced upon by hit squads of super-teachers, as if the answer lay in super-leaders who weild both carrot and axe. Of course- these efforts are far from futile. A good school is always better than a bad school. A good teacher is alway better than a bad one. We all remember our experience of both for the rest of our lives. The problem is that no matter how good the school is, Gove’s words remain true. Middle class white kids benefit most. Black poor kids the least.

It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that I am talking about state education. Private education systems make this inequality of attainment so much greater. Private schools operate as hothouses for A and A star qualification. They absorb 27% of all money spent on education within the UK for 7% of the pupils. Our judicuary, our top university places, our houses of parliament, our doctors, our lawyers, even our pop stars – all of the elite positions in society in fact – are loaded from these elites. Who can blame middle class parents for wanting to give their own kids a chance to join the elite? Many have argued that until state-funded (through grants, tax breaks and direct funding) private schooling is removed (or at least dethroned) all other efforts to create equality of attainment are pointless, but that is not my point here. Private schooling works becuase it preserves inequality for the elite. It makes success and advantage hereditory, rolling down the generations, but these schools never pretended to be anything else. They never aspired towards any kind of social engineering other than the preservation of privilege.

Let’s look back again to those great educational efforts to bridge the class divide. Here is a (very) brief summary;

  1. 18th and 19th C education in the UK was mostly charity based, organised sporadically at parish level. There were efforts to ‘education the workforce’, by mill owners for example, and a thriving Sunday school movement, but no systematic education system for poor kids, despite some public money being used to aid voluntary schools
  2. Elementary Education Act, 1870. Made elementary education compulsory from ages of 5-13, in state funded schools (England and Wales- Scotland more or less followed on in 1872)
  3. Balfor Act, 1902. Brought church schools under same standards and requirements as state schools.
  4. Fisher Act 1918. Beginning of secondary schools. Established grammar schools for those who were thought more able. Still only compulsory up to age of 14.
  5. Spens and Norwood report, 1938. Recommended use of intelligence testing to guide levels and kinds of education made available to kids.
  6. SECOND WORLD WAR disruption
  7. Butler education Act 1944. The establishment of tripartite educaion system, based on an intelligence test. Children to be streamed into Grammar (high achievers) Technical (vocational learners) and Secondary modern (the rest).
  8. Rising disquiet and conflict around schooling model- concerns about testing kids at 11, and how poor kids were vastly unrepresented at grammar schools
  9. Circular 10/65, 1965. The Labour government required all councils to move away from testing at aged 11 and to replace the tripartite system (in practice it was largly a bipartite system as the technical schools were rarely developed) towards a comprehensive model.
  10. The change towards comprehensive education was controversial and politicized. Many councils dragged their heels and in some parts of the country the tripartite system was still in place in the 1980’s.
  11. Conservative government- 1979-1997. A swing back towards ‘traditional’ education. Vocational emphasis. National corriculum emphasising the classics. ‘Formula funding’ to pay schools by how many children it could attract, in an attempt to introduce free market ideas into education. Schools allowed to opt out of local government control. Section 28 forbade any ‘support for homosexuality’
  12. Labour gov, 1997- 2010 Education, education, education… which meant ‘tayloring education to each childs ability’ and continuning with some of the direction set by the Conservatives by alowin schools to select their pupils.Class sizes were capped at 30 and there was a huge expansion in regularion, testing and even performance related pay for teachers.
  13. Conservative gov 2010 onwards. Foundation schools were introduced, further extending school autonomy away from local government.

I attended a school established as an educational experiment. When data showed that the comprehensive schools of the late sixties and seventies were not significantly closing the gap between middle class kids and those from poorer backgrounds, educationalists asked a lot of questions. The same questions that are being asked by many today, even if they are being ignored by our politicians.

Why does poverty almost always produce low educational achievement?

Why does race/gender have such profound effects also?

Is it about home environment? How can we motivate parents to value their childrens education more?

How can we place schooling at the heart of communities, so that everyone buys in to learning and values it at all ages?

How can teaching styles/classroom layouts facillitate learning?

In repsonse to these questions, the powers that be produced something called a ‘community school’. After all, in the 1970’s we had no fear of big urban planning solutions. Sadly, most of them ended badly. Our school was built in 1974, as part of redevelopment of the town centre. It included a wide range of community resources; an ice skating rink, indoor bowls, youth club, day centre for older people, sports halls, a cinema/theatre and a restraunt. The schooling ethos was deliberately informal – no school uniforms, teachers called by first names and all class rooms were open plan. Lessons were open to parent and members of the community as well as children.

By the time I attended (1976) the school was already under harsh media scrutiny. The Sun newspaper ran headlines about how we were being taught swearwords in our classes and the open plan classrooms were predictably impractical. Meanwhile, at lunchtime we had nowhere to go but out into the shopping precinct which the school was connected to, and there was the inevitable trouble, which further affected the reputation of the school. All of this was a shame, because much of what was being attempted was brilliant. The teaching staff, in the early days at least, before the powers that be tried to bring everyone back in line, were motivated and committed. even our caretaker was an Oxbridge graduate.

Despite all of this, the important question is this one; did the school level our opportunity for kids from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, like me?

On a personal level, I went to university. I was the first in my family to do so, even if only by the skin of my teeth. But I was the exception, not the rule. I have tried to find evaluation of success rates on line, but the whole community school experiment seems to be a forgotten footnote. My instinct is that my school was no more successful than any other comprehensive of its time, but I do not know for sure.

In 1970, Basil Bernstein (above) wrote a highly influential paper called ‘Education cannot compensate for society’. He was a British sociologist, whose early work had been around understanding the social impact of education, particularly how language development is affected by social class. In one reading, the 1970 paper might be understood as a repudation of all his earlier work, almost as if he was saying ‘forget all your efforts to bring about social change through education because the forces in wider society will always dictate outcomes’. Certainly this is the way that his paper has often been used in later years. The very concept of social engineering is in itself dated, right? These days we focus on individual achievments and measurable individual outcomes.

In fact, Bernstein’s paper was not fatalistic in this way. Rather it was written in response to another educational experiment- this one on a rather grander scale, known as ‘compensatory education’. In the USA, huge effort had been put in to educating kids from the inner cities, for example with Project Head Start, part of President Johnsons ‘Great Society’ campaign. The idea was to identify kids in need and blitz them with after school clubs, extra classes and raise their expectations. Bernstein thought that it would not work, and indeed he was right. He thought that compensatory education would be plagued by these problems;

He sought to show that the idea of compensatory education as advocated in these programmes was based on assumptions that were based more on social prejudice than evidence. The first objection that he offers is that the compensatory education theorists and programmes failed to regard as a central problem that most children from deprived backgrounds also attended schools which did not offer an “adequate educational environment”. He pointed out that the Newsom report showed that “79 per cent of all secondary modern schools in slum and problem areas were materially grossly inadequate …”.

But, essential though decent material conditions for school are, Bernstein went on to criticise the ideology of these programmes. He argued that the labelling of children as “culturally deprived” set in train a whole series of negative consequences, however laudable the intention may have been. Among these were: (1) an unthinking downgrading of the children’s own experience; (2) an unconscious assumption that middle-class use of language is the only valid one; (3) to lower teacher expectations of the children concerned; (4) to exclude parents who became regarded as part of the problem rather than essential to its solution.

From here.

Sixty years ago, Bernstein was speaking to a world that was still actively looking for ways to become more equal. We gave that up in 1979, but paradoxically, the efforts to ‘rescue’ poor kids through education continue.

Dunoon Grammar School

In case you missed it, here is my conclusion. Education is a noble human enterprise. It can set many of us free, but it does not do so evenly or fairly. In fact, mostly education operates according to the prejudices and priorites of the society it is embedded in. In part this is sustained deliberately by the power of elites, but it is more than that.

Consider how teachers bring unconscious bias into the classroom. Check out this article that reveals how teachers react in different ways to black kids even as early as nursery education. They are not doing this because they are bad people, but because they are just like us.

To change education, we have to change society. It does not work the other way round- we have proved this. It is all about inequality, stupid.

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