Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Once upon a time there was Bourdieu….

Once upon a time there was a man called Bourdieu who looked at what he called a 'habitus', the total psycho-socio-economic pictures - and variation between them - of homes according to class and education. He suggested that one of the ways in which class 'reproduces' itself is through the fact that we have devised an education system which suits one kind of class habitus more than another. This was a critique of education more than a 'blame the victim' view of how working class people live. Bourdieu looked at schools in France to see how certain uses of language, 'framing' of knowledge fitted neatly into way language and knowledge was handled in homes where parents had already had higher education. Other researchers looked at how schooling downgrades 'unofficial' knowledge as less valid e.g. cooking, gardening, car maintenance and of course art, music and drama…So even when those abilities and capabilities start to show in children they don't show up as 'high achievement' in school data…but as bodies of knowledge they are no less valid than Latin or English Literature, say. Then Hirsch et al came back and said that it was precisely this kind of talk that was holding poor children back, because lefty teachers weren't teaching poor children Latin and Shakespeare.

Further, the right took Bourdieu up as a stick to beat the left with, claiming that we used Bourdieu's ideas to justify low aspiration even though most of the 'left' teachers I knew/know beat their minds out helping children from poor backgrounds do as well as they can.

Again and again, though 'researchers' find that poverty is a clear marker of low school attainment and that rebranding a school as an academy and/or getting it to be 'outstanding' doesn't significantly close the gap between poor children and the rest. This catches the right on the hop because it defies their take on the argument that poverty is related to school attainment i.e. they say they can overcome poverty through creating academies and bringing in 'rigour'. However, this leaves out the questions of whether schools themselves are geared in such a way as to be unable to use the talents and capabilities of everyone in an equal way.

It is often left unquestioned when talking about 'attainment' that this is something 'objective' when in fact the methods of testing determine a particular way of thinking (not co-operation, right and wrong answers only) and the curriculum (based on 'core' knowledge as opposed to 'society's knowledge and needs') are determining who succeeds and who fails anyway. Moreover, the system is built to fail a percentage of pupils - no matter what happens. HIgh stakes testing throughout schooling means that there is an inbuilt failure rate that must be 'achieved' - no matter what knowledge systems are in place. This failure rate is pre-determined by examiners and the school authorities. It's as if they have a lever they use to ensure they get whatever results they want. And they seem to have a willing press and media to buy this crap as if the percentages they trot out each year are deeply significant.

It's just wonks sitting in offices fiddling with graphs.