Sunday 8 January 2012

'Fair' is the new rock'n'roll

I'm running to keep up with what's happening in public policy, especially in education. As each government comes in they recruit gangs of willing ideologues to impose new regimes. Quite frankly, it's hard to unpick the philosophies that underlie these 'reforms' because they are swathed in the same blandishments: usually to do with efficiency or equality or both. Again, it's not always easy to distinguish between what is window-dressing by new governments ('busy work', 'we do new things and new things make everything better' etc) and what has real content involving real change. There's no doubt that what New Labour did in education, involved real change to children's and teachers' lives in schools. We are now the most measured, most micro-managed and controlled human beings (in that sphere) anywhere in the world. As a piece of productive effort, costing zillions, its only claim to be worth it, is that it provides graduate employment prospects in the world of testing, examining, examining the testing, testing the examining of the testing and so on. It's meat and potatoes for the special kind of person who has lost faith in the hard grind of face-to-face talking, sharing of experience, chalkface experiment and research by practitioners themselves and who quite genuinely believes that number-crunching 'levers up standards'.

So, what's about to hit us in education as dished up by the Eton boys who know and care so much about state education?

I've been reading a paper produced by the 'Centre for Market and Public Organisation'. Here's their website:

and here's the paper:

(Just a brief digression on the politics of all this: universities combine with major 'charities' like the Leverhulme Trust to get big research grants. They use this to examine 'policy' which may or may not be used, which may or may not land them jobs advising ministers or servicing organisations like the BBC, which is how I came across it in the first place. I would love to read a lively history of these 'Centres' and 'Institutes' and find out exactly what they've done over the last 30 years. Well, it keeps the graduate unemployment figures down, anyway.)

So the paper I've linked to has the virtue of analysing cutting edge Tory thinking on education - the White Paper. The writers, Allen and Burgess, have spotted that the justification for the White Paper is not 'efficiency' (one of the dodgiest, least useful criteria ever brought into the sphere of education), but 'fairness', 'equality of opportunity', and 'equal access to quality'. Pause. Yes, the Tories, the people who are smashing up the public sector, ripping into pensions, sacking tens of thousands, depressing wages, ramping up inequality, feeding the bankers dare to talk about 'equality'. This is the new battleground. The Tories have decided that in order to convince us that they are not in the pocket of plutocrats, rushing round Europe at the bidding of bankers, they will present themselves as the new egalitarians.

Needless to say, this paper doesn't get into this. It presses on taking such claims at face value - a bit of a problem as whole areas of the country (and Europe and the world!) are taking a big hit in terms of what people can do to earn a living and run homes. I shouldn't leave this aside, but I will for the moment.

The paper notes that there are 'differences in attainment by social background'. Yes, the history of education is about this. Up until the arrival of comprehensive schools, the differences in attainment were embodied physically and actually in the school structures of private, grammar and secondary modern schools. These almost perfectly matched the social class of the parents apart from some interesting exceptions that some people make an enormous lot of noise about without knowing exactly why or how it came about. I'm talking here of the tiny numbers of working class children who went to grammar schools and who Tory ministers now bring out of the woodwork as examples of how today's system could and should be 'fairer'. The laziness and lying behind this is that the legwork and hard research needed here is to find out how or why certain working class children broke through into the grammar schools. Was it some magic formula going on in that particular primary school (double the number of spelling tests? rigorous training in how to do IQ tests? Or what?) Or was it that in almost all those cases there was a key factor in the education or experience of one or both parents? Brian Jackson's book on education and the working class produced in the sixties addressed this very matter (because it wasn't really about education and the working class, but about working class children in grammar schools!) One of his observations was that, yes, key reasons for these exceptional cases were eg one parent - often the woman - was in fact of 'middle class' origins herself and had what was at that time a different attitude to books and learning from her less educated husband. From memory (or my own observations at the time and since) another factor in children bucking the trend and working class children getting into institutions like grammar schools was that  either or both parents were active trade unionists, members of a political party or active members of a religious organisation. That's to say, forms of literacy not usually present in working class work had a powerful part to play in these families' lives. So beware of Tories telling us how much the old grammar school system did for 'intelligent working class children'. In grammar schools like mine, they also worked quite hard at nudging out quite a few of those bright working class children before they took their O-levels and certainly worked hard at keeping them out of the sixth form. ('Secretarial college would be ideal for you, wouldn't it?')

This matter of 'differences in attainment' according to social class is one of the blocks that educational researchers have been running around for decades. The old (and new) champions of IQ have a simple explanation: it's genetic. Poor people are stupid. Poor people have children. They're stupid. They go to school and do badly. Middle class people are cleverer and do quite well at school. 'Leaders' are brilliant. Their children are brilliant. They do really well at school. What's needed are schools that cater for these 'needs'. Stupid schools for stupid kids, better schools for better kids. Leader schools for leader kids. IQ-ers cling to their genetic explanation for everything even though everyday life shows us that 'intelligence' isn't just one thing, that people have the capacity to change given the circumstances, and we need a society where a variety of capacities and the ability to change (and co-operate) is our only hope for survival. We desperately need institutions of education (they may not necessarily be 'schools') which enable all this to develop.

Another explanation is that it's all teachers' fault. The education system is jam-packed with terrible teachers, most of whom work with poor children. These teachers have low expectations for the children, deliberately set them crap things to do, this makes them stupid. This is one of the nastiest lies to have emerged in public discourse: blaming the people who work in the most difficult and most challenging situations,usually doing so under straitjacketed systems that aren't of their own making. But, hey, maybe there's votes in blaming the teacher who sent you out the room once.

Another explanation is 'poverty' - which is one I'm obviously sympathetic with. After all, poverty is not just about not being able to buy stuff. It's about anything from a constant daily pressure on time, space, quality of food, availability of cultural and leisure-time facilities to a sense of yourself as a capable or incapable person.
My only worry about this as a sufficient explanation - I'm sure it's one of the 'necessary' ones - is that I can't quite get in my head the link between the daily life of poverty and the daily tasks of school...more on that in a moment.

Yet another is 'language'. The 'deficit theory' of language states that poor people use crap language, middle class people use good language. Crap language users come to school and can't 'get' the curriculum because it's written in the 'good' language. Several problems here: there isn't one unified poor people's language. Poor people's lives are highly variegated across age, gender, culture, work, lifestyle etc etc. Some poor people are bilingual, some are active politically, religiously, in sports organisations etc etc. What's more, what I as a researcher call 'crap language' ('restricted code') may just be a prejudice, mightn't it?

Even so, is there a way in which those children (usually but by no means always of middle class origin) who have long, sustained access to the written 'dialect' or code, do better at school than those children from backgrounds where there is little access, little exposure to the written language/dialect/code?

I think so.

And interestingly, the only way to address this matter would be to alter fundamentally our social and political attitude to the written word. And I say this precisely at the moment where one of the key and essential means to do this - free, public libraries - is being smashed to pieces. I'll return to this in another blog  but the efforts being made in Calderdale are signposts to what any government seriously and honestly interested in altering 'differences in attainment by social background' would observe and implement nationally.

But back to this paper - the paper is firmly within the parameters of 'high performing schools' and access to them by children from poor backgrounds. The findings of the research paper from the University of Nevada which I wrote about in a previous blog (see 'Books, books, books' on this blogspot) are just off its radar. So, in questioning the government's commitment to 'fairness', it takes as read that a solution is to be found in upping the numbers of poor kids getting into high performing schools. It's an honourable intention but a) doesn't address the matter I've raised about what is in effect a form of community education (ie my point above about needing forms of education beyond 'schools', and these forms enabling us to survive and develop) b) doesn't address the matter of making all schools high performing - not just 'high-performing schools! c) doesn't address the matter of covert and not-so covert selection in 'high-performing schools' by virtue of 'specialism', 'faith' and systems of exclusion d) the subtle interplay between percentages of middle class children and the phrase 'high performing'.

If any of the theories as to why middle class children tend to out-perform poorer children in schools are valid (even the ones I fundamentally disagree with), then clearly 'high-performing schools' are more often than not (not always) ones where there is a high quota of middle class children! Watch out, for example, claims made for high-performing schools where the demography of the whole area (eg London Borough of Hackney) has changed. 'Improving schools' might just be a re-description of what's happening to the price of houses!

What the paper does address is post-code lottery and the ability of those with money to move nearer to high performing schools. As a solution, it suggests that places at schools should be determined by a real lottery. Just dipping into a bag and taking out numbers.

This won't happen because the Tory vote rests to a very large extent on post-codes. (A whole theory could be established here on how class, and micro 'caste' differences have been worked for centuries based on place. There are people who know which end of the same street is marginally lower in reputation, standard, caste, 'class' than another, let alone 'the other side of the tracks' and the like.)

But again, the theory is based on the notion that if you get more poor people into 'better schools' you will improve the overall 'performance' of the cohort of children going through the system. There is no evidence I've seen that allowing 'high performing schools' to take more children, to allow low-performing schools to close (ie to sink lower and lower) improves the performance of the whole cohort. In other words, we keep coming round to models of what I call 'local' education which persist in producing a weighing-scales model: when one goes up, another goes down. Why else do high-performing schools exclude kids in mysterious ways at the end of year 7 and 8? Why else do they have quotas of children who specialise in abilities that need specialist coaching out of school? It's precisely to prevent the other schools from having a 'local' distribution of them!

The one area the paper addresses which we can welcome is its demolition of free schools - an expensive way to satisfy tiny minority interests with zero effect on the education system as a whole. Expensive at the moment, (600 million quid) but likely to have its budgets and grants cut from under them, according to this paper. Watch this space.

But to return to the matter of where we're at. We'll be called on over and over again in the next period to investigate and challenge the new Tory claim that it is the champion of 'fairness' because, they will say, they are the ones giving poor people 'a chance in life', they are the ones 'opening up access' to the best schools. We will have to show painstakingly how these are never about universal provision, never about plans or methods to raise the standards of the whole cohort, never about whole-community action. They are about piecemeal provision, privileged access to the selected few.

It won't be easy. And it's not greatly helped by research that refuses to challenge the ideas and reasons that underpin ideas like 'differences in attainment'  or 'high-performing schools' and how these two concepts inter-relate.