What do you teach?

This may be the most-asked question, on discovering that someone is a teacher. On the first day of my post-graduate teacher-training course back in the mid-’80’s we were told that there is only one answer: Children.

Passing swiftly over the fact that children are not ‘What’, this was my first experience of the doctrinaire world of professional education. Over the ensuing months, it was rammed home that one’s teaching subjects are merely vehicles for the delivery of the bigger social plan. Other than that, they are just the obscure eccentricities of the intellectual elite – along with high culture. It was all very Eastern-bloc.  In a way this was remarkably prescient, because that is certainly the line that successive governments have since pursued as they have increasingly meddled in a hitherto largely-autonomous sector – right up to the present, controversial Mr. Gove, who seems to have other ideas. I suspect part of the educational establishment’s paroxysm at this man is the fact that he dares to question this article of faith.

There is an interesting article in this month’s Prospect magazine, centring on the work of John Goldthorpe, Emeritus Fellow of Sociology at Nuffield College Oxford. His interest is in social mobility, which he has researched with particular reference to Twentieth Century Britain.

The dream of increased social mobility is a fundamental driver of the social-engineering view of education; as usual, the reality tends to be different. Goldthorpe distinguishes between absolute mobility (in which everyone moves up the scale) and relative mobility, when people move relative to each other. It is the latter that tends to preoccupy educational policy-makers. But there is an uncomfortable problem: relative mobility implies that for some to move up, others must move down. This rarely happens, and would seem to conflict with notions of social justice – unless one is taking a hard-left revolutionary view of the role of education… The dream turns out not to be realisable.

Goldthorpe goes on to explode the misperception that mid-century mobility did exist and has now stalled. He found that the odds on a working-class person moving into the middle class have barely changed since the start of the twentieth century. The period in the 1950s and 60s when this did seem to be happening did not result in a fall in the privilege of higher-status groups, even if some of their wealth was appropriated.

The reason people were able to move into the middle class is explained simply by the major shift in the economic structure of the country, away from manufacturing towards services: blue-collar jobs declined and the demand for white-collar jobs expanded, which was met by the more educated members of the lower classes (who – my parents amongst them – had mainly attended the grammar schools so hated by the social engineers). As this process slowed, so did the apparent social mobility.

Accept this view and at a stroke you remove one of the key determinants of the current instrumentalised view of education.

If then, education is negligible as a force for social mobility, we are forced to ask afresh what precisely the whole thing is for. I will come to that another day.

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