The core struggle at the heart of education is over two models: the one regards the central process of education instructional and the other as reflective.
This struggle goes on every day, every minute and it takes place between teachers and government, between pupils and curriculum.
The instructional model is based on the idea that there is a core knowledge and there are core skills that children must acquire and that the best ways for them to acquire these are through various forms of instruction. This is ultimately a liberating process because most pupils do acquire this knowledge and these skills and the least advantaged pupils thus become more advantaged. Indeed, if they did not receive this instruction, they would remain disadvantaged. The critique of the reflective model that the 'instructionists' offer is that it is laissez-faire, 'anything goes', and fails the disadvantaged. They never get hold of the core knowledge and core skills. This explains the decline in education standards, decline in behaviour and probably explains unemployment.
The reflective model is based on the idea that each and every human being has the power of 'reflection' - that's to say no matter what you do or say to a human being, it will think and reflect on what is being said and done to him or her. In fact, there is no knowledge or acquisition of skill without the human being reflecting on it and 'doing the learning'. The best way to do this is for the learner to be given as many opportunities to investigate, explore, initiate, ask questions, frame the next piece of learning in terms that the learner conceives him- or herself.
At the moment, the instructional model is in ascendancy. It seems to be generally accepted that most knowledge and most skills have to be taught. Teachers should lay out certain kinds of knowledge and explain skills. At various points in the school-life of a pupil the efficacy of all this can be tested. The tests are in a sense a mirror image of the teaching, the teaching a mirror-image of the tests. One advantage of this is that if any other model of learning is put into the mix, it can often be shown that it is less effective because it doesn't achieve as high average scores as the instructional model. The problem with this is that it doesn't deal with the possibility that it's the whole model that is the problem. One possibility, for example, is that what is 'performed' in the tests are not necessarily usable skills and usable knowledge.
Behind the scenes, something else goes on. At home, families and carers work to different models too and this has an enormous impact on outcome. I used to laughingly refer to something called the 'middle class curriculum'. I think I got the gag from the director of the English and Media Centre, Michael Simons, when we were chatting about running our children around at the weekends. What is this? What were we referring to mocking ourselves at the same time as valuing it? We were (and I still am) taking our children to theatre clubs, museums, art clubs, dance clubs, libraries, art galleries, to see authors, presentations and the rest. And of course books galore. Reading, talking about reading, book ownership, book borrowing.
What does this 'bestow' on the child? What do they get from all this in relation to schooling? At one level, they get the knowledge and skills that school offers before and during the years of schooling. In a sense it creates a continuity between school-stuff and home-stuff. For such children there is very little that school offers which is unfamiliar in kind. The specifics may be new - something a child might not have heard of - but the general area is familiar. Many of the strategies that teachers use will be familiar too to the child who has been to talks or taken part in out of school workshops. Interestingly enough, though, the systems of learning in many of these out of school activities do not work to the instructional model. They are often based around asking children what they want to do. It's clear that all this serves them extremely well. They store up what has been called 'cultural capital' which pretty well guarantees them a place in a sixth form and on to some kind of tertiary education.
In some kind of complete revolutionary environment, this would have to be addressed. It's not an 'unfair advantage' as such. It's how people with a sense of education and learning seen from the point of view of a child approach the matter. So what can or could be done about it? The instructionists are fully aware of this disparity in cultural capital and say that this proves that they have to instruct and test all the harder. I would say that all this does is give the children with the most cultural capital even more advantage because though many of them find the instruction and testing tedious, they also find it obvious and easy. They score higher no matter what. As I put it earlier, it's all 'familiar'.
In my dream world, the state would take on the job of creating a million times more out of school places in activities along the lines that are offered already and which middle class people like myself attend with our children. In fact, where local authorities (mostly in the past) did take this on, they were able to point to some success. An activity like the Summer Reading Challenge run by the Reading Agency is one such.
If we don't want education to reinforce the disparity in holdings of cultural capital but to support those families who have less of it, then we'll have to think all this through in practical terms.