Dead cat bounce – part 1

The issue of selection is back on the agenda, and temperatures are rising. Is this anything more than May’s dead cat bounce to deflect attentions from Brexit?

However the issue will never be resolved until a mature discussion can be had – and that seems as far away as ever. I have tried here to discuss some of the underlying issues that rarely figure in the headline debates. It is a long piece and will appear in two parts. For those who wish to cherry-pick, my key points are summarised in the boxes…

 

There are many reasons why my wife and I have never had our own children – but the innumerable dilemmas that face modern parents are certainly not something I miss. Chief amongst them is the vexed issue of education.

As expected, the can of grammar school worms has been re-opened. Quite why, at this moment, I don’t know. Perhaps May is more scheming than some suspect, and she knows it will be a good way of drawing fire away from Brexit…

I really do not know what to conclude of the grammar schools issue – but what I do know is that the venom it draws forth is such that measured debate still seems all but impossible. For all that I am prepared to make the arguments for selective education, I am far from decided about them, and I accept the underlying principle of education, that it should maximise opportunity for all, irrespective of background.

What I really want to see is a properly considered debate, but yet again the opponents of selection are wheeling out the well-rehearsed sound-bites, in some cases with such venom that a proper debate is the last thing we will get. The selection issue is in actual fact a conflation of several different arguments, none of which ever gets much of an airing, and for which the case is far more complex that its opponents will ever allow to be heard.

The grammar school issue is par excellence the one that shows the extent to which this so-called profession is still ideologically rather than intellectually driven. For all the claims of professional rigour, the valuing of objective ‘research’ and the tomes of worthy comments supposedly exalting educational excellence, when it comes to matters like this, the education world descends into simple, bald dogma.

 The failure to have a reasoned discussion about selection shows just how dogmatic the education profession remains. We will never move forward until the arguments in favour are properly debated.

Furthermore, while it is normal that professional consensus will emerge, that is no guarantee that it is the product of high-quality deliberation rather than the ability to shout the loudest. More than anything, I object to the fact that one faction assumes it is entitled to define the terms of not only this debate but of education as a whole. In the process, it is quite prepared to ride roughshod over any opposition, no matter how considered, and no matter how much disharmony it creates in the process. I had this experience in my own workplace this week. So much for tolerance and sensible professional debate.

This is why I am prepared to advance the alternative argument.

In fact, the arguments in favour of non-selective education are weakened by the failure of its proponents even to consider and address the more reasoned points of the opposition; what we get instead is a hysterical, vitriolic and intellectually weak tsunami of dogma that does little more than condemn the opposition for being subhuman. I oppose the assumption that all ‘right-thinking people (in education)’ share a single view on this, and therefore reasoned discussion is not necessary. One might read more into this…

It fell to Friday’s Guardian, to its credit, to concede that while grammar schools may seem to many to be the spawn of the devil, the reasons why some argue for them may in themselves be less so.

For example, it would be interesting to know how opponents of selection explain the fact that plenty of our neighbouring countries have selective systems, and yet do not have the degree of social division within them that this country experiences.

 That education exists primarily to tackle social division is merely one opinion. It is not necessarily important enough to over-ride all others. Beliefs that education can or should be the means of tacking this issue may be wide of the mark. There is only partial evidence that it succeeds – and enough countries operate selection without extreme social division to doubt the connection between the two.

Furthermore, social justice is an intangible and subjective concept. It can never be objectively achieved. Therefore it is a weak objective for education to focus on, even though we should never stop trying to maximise opportunity for all.

The assumption that education is about social justice is not tenable. There are many other reasons to educate people. Achieving social justice is undoubtedly one of the objectives of education – but the U.K. seems to have fallen into thinking that it is the sole purpose. It is not.

Furthermore, the objectives of education may vary from place to place, even within a country. There are clearly areas where tackling deprivation must be the primary concern – but there are equally  areas where this need be a lesser concern. There is no clear reason why the whole of the nation’s education policy should be dictated by this one issue, particularly when there are other priorities (of which more later) that are arguably being neglected as a result.

What social justice really means in practice is never explained. How it differs from the politics of envy is not clear. There is a deep assumption from those who deploy this argument that the country is rife with injustice, that given a level playing field many of those who hold important positions would be ousted by kids from council estates who, were it not for the injustice of their prior lives, would prove to be far superior. Or would we simply replace one elite with another, as is often the case in revolutions?

I will not deny that there (probably) is a socially-caused waste of talent in this country – as there probably is in all. But a little-discussed consequence of education as guarantor of social mobility is what should happen to those who simply prove not to be capable (or willing) to do very much. Are the sirens of ‘social justice’ really content to let such people remain where they fester as a result? Maybe that is what already largely happens? And while I am certainly not going to defend incompetents who use privilege to attain unwarranted power, are those who advance this argument really content to allow other people to sink downwards as a result? For the consequence of the hidden assumption about the unrecognised meritocracy is that those who are currently advantaged must fall to make way at the top.

The undeclared premise of those who champion this argument is nothing more than the old chestnut of Prizes for All, the old delusion of an attainable Utopia. Unfortunately, too many in education are still in thrall to this dream, which incidentally, is not the same as the wish to cultivate all people’s potential, since it casts far too many judgements about what constitute ‘successful’ outcomes.

The fact is, for all those individuals who do manage to rise against the odds, many more are simply not able to, or cannot be bothered. Whatever the reasons for this – and basic cognitive ability may well be one, however unpalatable to some – the truth is, not everyone has the same aptitudes or inclinations. In many ways, the Left is happy to celebrate diversity – so why not in education? Caring for those who need support, as a compassionate society should, cannot be conflated with pretending that all can be kings.

And if the real priority is to ensure that no child wants for the best opportunities, then the far harder, but more significant issue is to tackle the home cultures into which children are born. Some would argue that improving education would tackle this across the generations, but this only raises a deeper issue: just who we are (middle-class professionals) to dictate to other sovereign individuals what is important in life.

Does society as a whole have the right to make such judgements and thereby curtail the rights of certain parents to raise their children as they see fit? So long as the laws regarding children’s physical and mental safety are not abused, who has the right to insist that parents must instil a respect for education in their children? The fact is, for all the decrying of middle class values, the entire education system is grounded on precisely those – the belief that everyone must benefit from what ‘we’ feel is important. It is where a lot of alienation comes from; equally, the right-thinking, left-leaning establishment can easily be accused of wanting to eliminate the problem by simply creating ‘more people like us’.

There are plenty of parents even in the affluent area where I teach, who have no such values. In fact, they and their children may well be quite content with their lives, without the intrusion of bourgeois values; I get little impression to the contrary. If one encounters people who set no store by education, but are living perfectly contented lives, who are we to tell them they’re wrong?

Technology has provided the means for most to live in at least reasonable material comfort – so if they wish to live small-scale, short-sighted (to our eyes) lives and bequeath their children the same, then who are we to argue? It is not as though higher-powered lives come with no costs. Neither, from an employability perspective is it that society no longer needs such people, and while their vulnerability to technological change is real, to some extent that has always been the case. Arguably, we need to equip them to use their lives in other ways – if they so choose.

One might go further and argue that commerce and the media increasingly cater for lower-brow majority tastes, and it is actually the needs of the more thoughtful that are neglected; in my part of the country, it is the tasteless, conspicuous wealth of those who have cash but little else that dominates. For all their failure to appreciate liberal educated values, deprived they certainly are not; they care not a jot that they offend some, but while I don’t like their mores, I am hardly entitled to wish them into oblivion. Round here, it is the higher-minded who are the endangered species.

 It can be argued that a free society does not have the right to impose ‘educated values’ on those of its members who may not want them. It may be little more than an underhand means to wish away the less desirable factions of society. The existence of the underclass, while clearly not in doubt, is often over-stated by those with a certain agenda – and it need not inevitably take priority over the wishes of other parts of society.

There is another side to this argument. Quite possibly I would not be living the relatively modest, but thoughtful life I choose today were it not for the fact that my uneducated grandparents still valued the Intellect enough to support their children through working-class grammar schools. In due course they (and we) entered the professions. Despite the equally-available opportunity, some of my grandparents’ neighbours did not do the same. Others went to the local technical college; many went down the mines. But while this might seem to justify non-selective education, in fact there were many factors other than academic ability at work.

Such life-stories are often dismissed as irrelevant, the tales of the lucky few. Well perhaps – but in my mother’s case in particular, one unpretentious grammar school in a small Midlands mining town managed to produce a considerable number of people who went on to eminence, in some cases internationally. Like my mother, from within their professions they then championed the case for others to have the same chance. In terms of the talent pool, that is worth not dismissing. Had that not been the case, those individuals may well have gone down the mines too – and perhaps be prematurely dead from silicosis. Why are such success storied dismissed by those who oppose selective education? They may not be the majority – but as I said, lack of opportunity is not the only reason for supposed failure.

It is a widely-seen human propensity that people self-select their social groupings; as anyone who has read Richard Hoggart’s study of 1950’s northern working class communities will know, this is by no means the preserve of the self-entitling middle classes as many of the ideologues would have us believe. It is also worth noting from such accounts, that the resentment of the ‘lower orders’ to their superiors was not always as burning as is sometimes implied. Are we really proposing to intervene in people’s right to choose their own social circles?

It is not true that all groups that have high entry requirements are inevitably exclusionist; in many cases this is an illusion perceived by those who either cannot – or choose not to – enter. While one could debate the pathways to access, I think it is clear that rigorous selection criteria for surgeons or airline pilots are probably a good thing. It does not mean that there is a social conspiracy to exclude large sections of society, as some would suggest.

It is self-evident from the arguments of those who profess greatest concern that social inequality has grown since the abolition of selective education. Again there are many ways to explain this – but claiming that the relatively few remaining grammar schools are to blame is not statistically tenable. Suggesting that their absence has driven more who can afford it into the private sector may be nearer the mark. And as the Prime Minister’s comments suggest – and my own experience supports – we now have selection by house prices instead.

The simple fact is, those who have the means to achieve an advantage will always try to do so, be it by intelligence or by hard cash. We have to assume that those who advocate the furtherment of the underprivileged still accept this fact – though I do wonder… What they in effect seek to do is bestow advantage on another portion of society – but ‘advantage’ at whose expense?

How far, in a free society, should we intervene here? Unless we are advocating a full-blown communist revolution, there are few signs of how it will ever be prevented. Perhaps it would be better to harness this tendency rather than disown it? In which case, when it comes to access to academic education (indeed, all types of specialist provision), I would far rather it were allocated on the basis of the potential to benefit and use its legacy wisely, than on either the distribution of cash in society – or the random throw of a dice.

When I became a teacher, I wholeheartedly endorsed the comprehensive ideal – but in thirty years, I have never encountered a comprehensive school that came near the academic ethos of a grammar school. As one who attended a grammar but worked for three decades in a comprehensive, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge this than many.

Such is the nature of a comprehensive school that even good ones struggle to assemble a really strong academic centre of gravity. Even my own – which is comfortably within the nation’s top hundred by results – increasingly struggles to do this. By specialising, academic schools simply have the ability to cultivate and insist on a culture that does not arise elsewhere. As Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian put it, they are “intellectual hothouses bringing working-class kids to the world of ideas and debate”. This is the identity I recognise, not that caricatured by their opponents, of state-sponsored, fees-free private enclaves for the middle classes.

[to be continued.]

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6 thoughts on “Dead cat bounce – part 1

  1. I keep returning to a comment from that gentle-spoken, world-class behavarioural geneticist Robert Plomin last year: “We are truth seekers”. We seem to be a bit short of the latter, but I think you’re one of them.

    I’m a parent, not education-anything, who lives in a modest home on the wrong side of the tracks with a daughter in Y9 at the only ‘choice’ nearest comp. On paper she’s credible Oxbridge-stuff but I can’t see that happening because the school-side culture isn’t there. I can’t reach any firm conclusion about nuGrammars either, but I believe in group socialisation theory where peers are the most influential factor after genes i.e. that many children like mine will not reach their ‘potential’ unless you put enough of them together in one place.

    I certainly can’t fault any of your key points, some of which are very close to my heart. This is what we should be debating and I’d really like to see someone like Becky Allen’s considered response to your post.

    • Thanks for your comment. I tend to believe that any argument that is so firmly couched as good against evil – as so many are in education – is very likely to be a false or inadequate one. Those who need to shout loudly often do so to disguise their lack of answers. Again, it happens all the time.

      Not sure we’ll see much response – judging from my unusually woeful hit-count, most of my colleagues have stopped reading already…

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