Wednesday 18 June 2014

Wilshaw-Gove: Punish the Poor

The Wilshaw-Gove assault on 'bad' parenting fits in with a longstanding attitude to the poor, peddled by those in power: it is poor people's fault that they are poor. It goes without saying that this is self-serving hypocrisy.

There are two things that endanger the position of those who peddle this stuff:
the poor 'getting' it that their poverty is caused by the system by which the rich and powerful stay rich and powerful;
the poor not being dutiful, cowed, passive and obedient.

The main instruments available to the rich and powerful to do their peddling are propaganda and punishment. In Victorian times, they could rely on the churches to do some of the propaganda, as it waged war on 'sin'. Literature - often for children - was useful too because it made the cause of the problem of poverty, poor people's families. This 'located' the problem of poverty there, rather than in the banks and factory-owners' offices. Fathers could be depicted as violent drunks who could only be 'redeemed' by innocent, dying children. Interestingly, some literature critiqued or opposed some or all of this view - 'A Christmas Carol' in its full text, for one, is an angry story created to oppose some of these ideas about the poor - especially the one that suggested that they needed to be culled or left to die.

Punishment was available with transportation and imprisonment - even for debt, but also through punitive conditions in the Workhouse - again as Dickens rails against in 'Little Dorritt', 'Nicholas Nickleby' and 'Oliver Twist'.

Part of this punishment reflex derives from Puritan or Calvinist ideas about industry and moderation being the best ways to show one's adherence to the Christian way. This was one of the motors of both the Reformation and the success of early capitalism. People like Gove and Wilshaw know that they can't explicitly claim that their ideas about fining 'bad' parents derive from this source. Instead, they couch it in phoney egalitarian terms: that the punishment would lead to equality. And they say this whilst creating the most rigid testing and exam system that this country - and possibly any country - has ever known, an exam system which determines failure from a very early age and goes on determining it all the way to 16. Anyone with children at school at the moment is aware of how the emphasis on high-stakes, centralised testing linked to league tables and competition between schools, has made a good deal of secondary education revolve around termly or even weekly testing, linked to streaming.

So, even as Wilshaw and Gove (and side-kick Nick Gibb) talk up breaking the link between poverty and failure, they have embedded failure at the heart of the education system. The great advantage of making failure so central to the system is that the long-term result is that people end up blaming themselves for their failure. The myth is that everyone can succeed if they try hard enough, so if or when you don't succeed, the only reason for this must be that 'I' didn't try hard enough. Anything else is an 'excuse' put about by dangerous lefty 'progressive' teachers and teacher-trainers.

However, the emphasis on testing and exams ties the hands of teachers who can see that one of the reasons why some children find it hard to 'get' subject-knowledge in schools is that they have little experience of the written-language and methods of arguing ('compare and contrast', 'inference', 'abstraction' etc) in their out-of-school lives. The way some successful children and students 'get' it is through their out-of-school reading for pleasure, visits to museums and discussions at dance, theatre, music, art clubs and the like i.e. the extra-curricular 'progressive' agenda! The emphasis on testing and exams makes it harder and harder for schools to bring aspects of these activities into school. When teachers try to they are accused of being 'progressive' and depriving the poorest of children of having the tools with which to get hold of the content-heavy curriculum - and yet, I would argue, it is the very presence of these tools in the lives of those children who get it out of school that enables them to succeed.

The Wilshaw-Gove method of talking about this though is purely punitive - both punitive within the school system through its built-in failure and of course punitive through fines and imprisonment. For all its egalitarian whitewash, this is in reality more of the same: selection, segregation, failure and punishment - all reinforced by lashings of self-blame. What better way to police the system than through people ending up with the bitter pill of self-blame.

And let's not forget that this is being peddled at the precise moment that the bankers' crisis has given our rulers the excuse to shift wealth even more than ever, away from earners towards the owners of capital.