I think it was the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who, some days ago, said something like, “Selective education does not promote social mobility and therefore it has no part in the British education system.” (my emphasis).
It could not be clearer: the Labour Party sees education primarily as a form of overt social engineering. But the Conservatives are saying exactly the same thing, though they couch it in terms of individual opportunity, of course.
I’m not going to disagree with people trying to optimise their time on this planet – but as the years have passed and education policy has blown this way and that, I have had a growing sense that the whole thing is utterly, profoundly mistaken in its approach. It is at risk of becoming little more than a huge waste of effort. This blog, and my (still unpublished) book were in part an effort to reconcile this, both for my own professional sanity and partly because I genuinely believe that something fundamental needs to shift in the tectonic plates of the British political/social/education systems.
Education works – of that there is little doubt. It permits people to improve their diet and health, to form productive relationships, to reduce their family size, to follow complex procedures, to make more rational decisions and to improve their material conditions. Largely forgotten to policy-makers, it also opens the wonders of human culture and knowledge, and it may encourage people to act more responsibly towards the planet. It can tip the balance of life from suffering to joy. But it is not a panacea.
It does not do those things because of bits of paper with certain letters on them – nor because of green pens or triple-marking. Its success is not measured by league table positions, nor by the size of managers’ salaries. I don’t think it really even does those things because of teachers’ choice of methods. And it certainly does not do it because lessons danced to any particular drum-beat of “progress” in a set amount of time. All of these things are nothing more than the immature preoccupations of an introspective and surprisingly insecure profession.
I don’t think it even really does it because of the specific things that children are taught. It is true that some people develop genuine interests or skills as a direct result of their schooling, but they are probably a minority. It is also true that important information can be passed on – though it’s debatable how much of it is ever retained, let alone acted upon given children’s inherent immaturity. It is pretty certainly not true that people’s attitudes change deeply because of soul-searching during PSHE lessons or the like; in my experience, moralising in schools – even when it contains practical information – often does little more than antagonise.
The problem is, education is nothing like as predictable as so many want it to be. For a start, its societal benefits are primarily trans-generational. There are plenty who benefit from it as expected – but there are also the widely-publicised cases of people who ‘did well’ only ever having been to the School of Hard Knocks. I know several cases where access to the best education seems to have made little difference and has arguably not prevented those people from heading in the other direction down the socio-economic scale. More schooling does not automatically lead to better lives.
This is why it is so mistaken to require schools to be social engineers – the issues that really hinder life outcomes run at a deeper and less visible level, and often establish at an earlier age, than we can control. There is only so much that fire-fighting by teachers can achieve. My own educational progress was not mostly down to the quality of the schools or teachers, so much as my coming from a home that established appropriate values to begin with.
I don’t think I have experienced any great social mobility in my life – but my education has nonetheless helped me to access many fields that are a source of perpetual fascination and reward. It has also given me a perspective about to relate to wider society. I am about to be jobless – but education will provide the resilience to keep me interested in life in the interim. It was not achieved through targets – the nearest thing we had to those in the 1970s were firmly in the ‘demotivating’ camp; it was achieved purely and simply through awakening the intellect.
In some ways education’s success has been its own failure: by encouraging those who can to capitalise on their skills – while politicians were busy removing the social restraint that used to accompany overt greed – we have facilitated the opening of the inequality gap that now troubles so many. And what of those left behind? Few of the social engineers have much at all to say about those who just don’t bother: it’s another expression of the ‘everyone a winner’ syndrome.
The causes of inequality in Britain run far deeper than anything that education alone can tackle. The current view starts from the questionable assumption that the present system does not already allow those who will to flourish. It is about class envy and replacing one elite with another. It assumes that those who fail do so for reasons beyond their control – which real-life examples repeatedly show to be only partly the case.
I’m not suggesting that undeserved privilege does not exist nor that it shouldn’t be tackled – but a better way would be to remove the concept of social hierarchy – whether defined by money or anything else – rather than simply equip a different group of people to profit at others’ expense. This might sound utopian – but my impression is that the relative classlessness of many continental countries is one of the reasons this issue does not trouble them as severely as it does us.
We may achieve isolated wins, but most of the desire to push people up the hierarchy is worthy but pointless hope. The failure of even many educators to appreciate that it is far more subtle and complex than that is the greatest educational failure of all.
Teachers would be far better doing what they really can – awakening individual intellects – and then leaving them to make what hopefully-enlightened sense of the world they will. It is what I tried to do as a teacher; isn’t that enough?