"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Education: the ignorance and the rage

David Aaronovitch has a piece in the Times about Blair's proposed education reforms. You'll no doubt be astonished to learn that Mr Aaronovitch supports them. His reasoning is that to support comprehensive education is so last century. No, that's not quite right - rather, he sees something distinctly primordial in the Labour back-bench rebellion:
"They are opposed to further change as much for what it represents to them as for what it actually is. It is, in other words, a fetish. They have fashioned an animal skin, named it comprehensive education and tied it to a stick."
The aim, of course, is to present the opponents of this Education Bill as conservatives - which he does quite neatly by linking attitudes to the present system with those in the Tory party who cleaved to the grammar school system: only dinosaurs oppose more marketization in education.

I just love education debates in the blogosphere. There's something about this topic that really makes people come out, say what they really think. And when this happens, it turns out there's a whole load of social Darwinists out there. There's some pretty hardcore, unalloyed contempt for the lower-orders from some in this strand, for example, at HP. In it someone made reference to Nick Cohen's observation that most people don't realise how good pupils from grammar and private schools actually are. Having read some of the comments, I have to concede that I too was one of the unenlightened but now realise the excellent work being done in these august citadels of learning: I find there's not a few grammar school and public school boys who, despite having not by definition participated in the comprehensive system, and clearly having done no research, are nevertheless experts on the subject of how it should be run. It's very impressive I must confess; selective education obviously does wonders for the confidence, if nothing else.

The New Model army of education experts eschew boring stuff like empirical evidence and international comparison, on account of its annoying tendency to spoil a perfectly good rant. For instance, the Darwinian model obviously has problems with the fact that Finland topped an international comparison of educational standards, despite having the evil comprehensive system. And on the other side, those who make comprehensive education an article of leftwing faith might have a few problems with the fact that only Finland and Korea do better than Northern Ireland, which retains the grammar school system. We don't know how England compares because despite giving the impression to the outsider of having a system that makes a fetish out of formal assessment (I'd welcome an anthropological analysis of this strange phenomenon, Mr Aaronovitch), they were unable to supply the necessary data. But we do know that Scotland's comprehensive system produced results that were above the OECD average in reading, maths and science - but compared to Northern Ireland, better only in maths.

Tempting then to conclude that structure doesn't matter a damn. Tempting but wrong, because if one believed this, you could conclude that Blair's proposed reforms - even if you didn't think they were a terribly good idea - won't make that much difference. I sincerely doubt that there's anybody on the face of this planet that is less misty-eyed about the present system than me. I think I could make the case for urgent reform to our schools with more venom, and rather more evidence, than most people could muster. Yet these reforms should be resisted, because change isn't to be welcomed - not if it makes matters worse, which these ill-considered reforms surely will.

The cult of the private, of private management techniques, the general embrace of the market principle into the public sector has already disfigured education in this country to a devastating degree. And by 'this country' I mean Scotland. Here we have no grammar schools at all, no city academies, a fraction of the number of schools run by various experts in the supernatural compared to England, a smaller private sector - yet we've still managed to mess everything up by embracing the market to the limited extent we have. League tables and parental choice have created a supermarket of schools where people vote with their feet and the people from the Executive who brought you the centralisation of medical services pounce on the opportunity to gain economies of scale by annihilating local education provision with a series of closures where 'failing schools' are shut down and amalgamated with supposedly 'successful schools' - duly extended courtesy of PFI, of course.

According to the market theory, everyone should be 'levelled-up' as the 'good practice' of the 'successful school' rubs-off on the plebian pupils and teachers from the closed school. Meanwhile, back in the real world, what quickly emerges is that whatever success previously enjoyed by the 'beacon of success' school had sweet f.a. to do with the management of the school, or the quality of the teaching, or - most absurdly - the 'expectations' or 'ethos' of the school and everything to do with the fact that hitherto they just had it easy with lots of nice, fluffy middle-class kids. Indeed, the lesson of these amalgamations is that both the management and some of the teaching staff in the 'successful' school is that they are relatively incompetent in their dealings with difficult kids compared to the troops in the trenches who understood their charges and the problems they faced.

In Glasgow, even the limited extent to which the logic of the market has been embraced has proved itself to be an unmitigated disaster of, in my view, quite scandalous proportions. Non-denominational secondary education in Maryhill, Glasgow has been completely obliterated and the intake has been mostly absorbed by schools in the west end of Glasgow, despite the fact that it is a much smaller area geographically. I have taught in every one of these schools. I tell you no lie when I say there ain't a whole lot of 'levelling-up' going on.

That the situation in England is already much worse is demonstrated in the neurotic response you get from the average middle-class parent in London when education is discussed - an anxiety the depth of which continually takes this foreigner by surprise; they're almost as worried about education as Americans are about health care. And that, as anyone who has been there can testify, is a lot. This White Paper aims to extend the principle immeasurably. I'd have to confess, behind this there is a remarkable degree of idealism - as David Aaronvitch's fantasy of how the City of Choice in Education might function in reality demonstrates:
"So how might good schools expand? Possibly by becoming the lead institutions in a constellation of local schools and colleges who agree to co-operate. This could happen across LEA boundaries, or between secondary and primary schools and FE colleges. New schools might be started up by collectives of parents, or groups of businesses, charities or even religious bodies."
How funky and tolerant this new strain of social democracy is - that it embraces the prospect of MacDonald's and the Jehovah's Witnesses playing a more active role in the education of our children as 'progress'. And as for the idea of a 'collective' of neurotic middle-class parents being actively involved in the establishment of a new school - what can I say? One man's utopia is another's dystopia, I guess.

It's times like this, when I realise I'm just not modern enough, I like to pop over to see if Polly Toynbee - a sometimes disagreeable but reliable - keeper of the social democratic sensibility has any words of support. And when I feel like this, she rarely disappoints. She asks, for example, amidst the bullshit about ethos and standards and all the rest:
"At least this dangerous row is about something important. This is no airy ideological dance. Conservatives - and Blair - know that a lot of schools could be improved rapidly, and maybe many middle-class families wooed back to inner-city state schools, by allowing schools to arrange their admissions according to "ethos" - or anything else that's a proxy for class. (Was there ever a school whose ethos expressed a yearning for difficult children?)"
No there wasn't - and that's the heart of the problem: there is no reward in the market for dealing with the problems that most people are either unwilling or unable to deal with. Yet these people exist - and it has been this blogger's privilege to work with such, to witness their skill, and their commitment to teaching as a vocation. It's a beautiful thing - yet such are dismissed and treated by contempt by the Blairites and the Cameronians (is there a difference?) as non-entities working in 'bog-standard comprehensives', whose real contribution to learning and teaching is extinguished by the heartless advance of the cult of choice.

And our Polly, with a line sure to raise a yawn amongst the free-marketeers, but which strikes a chord with me, raised the awkward problem of inequality. Even if we had a perfectly-functioning education system where there was equality of opportunity for all, do we want a situation where 'meritocracy' means via education there is an equal chance of stepping over beggars as you walk into the opera? Not my idea of utopia - but even if it were, I think most people have not the least idea how far we are from even this.

The rage of title, as you'll have discerned by now, is all mine. I've written before about the way in which poverty is used as an excuse for educational failure but the social Darwinists have got my back up and I feel like bearing witness. I've taught in the east end of Glasgow. Many of the kids there are physically smaller, have faces like clenched fists, and many of them live in schemes where the rule of law is but a faint rumour. There isn't any 'equality of opportunity' for these kids - and Blair's Sainsbury's approach isn't going to do them any favours. It's these that I think Polly Toynbee is right about, if I understand her correctly: the problem with our education system is that no-one - not Blair, Cameron, nor all the rest of the privately-schooled experts in education, gives a fuck about them. They say they do - some of them are paid to say that they do - but they don't. Not really. Meritocracy? As Chris Rock would say: let's keep it fucking real, ok?

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