Immune to the concerns of other passengers I approached and photographed this shameless assault on language and then asked everyone on the mothership what it meant. I don’t allow that kind of talk at Tallis so no one knew. Consulting the ether, apparently, ‘deemed selective’ is the status a child attains who has passed the 11+. Charming.
I’m trying to keep up with the reading so I’ve already told you about Robert Verkaik and Melissa Benn this year. Now I’m going to tell you about another bonza tome, Miseducation : inequality, education and the working classes by Cambridge and LSE Emeritus Professor Diane Reay. Brought up on the Derbyshire coalfield, she taught in London primary schools for 20 years, so she knows a thing or two. It’s very readable.
Her first chapter, Why can’t education compensate for society? sets out her thesis. Both class and poverty have always distanced working class children from education, but recent fads and interventions have made this worse, not better.
Focusing on test scores as a measure of school quality has a particularly dangerous effect on schools which serve largely poor communities. Those pressures – and their leaders’ choices - lead to narrowed curriculums and obsessive teaching-to-the-test largely unknown by more advantaged children whose teachers are more confident about results.
Schools serving poorer communities have a majority of young and inexperienced teachers, committed and determined but rarely from similar backgrounds to the children. They may have been skimpily trained on programmes which stress the adoption of particular practices (fancy uniform, zero tolerance) said to be modelled on the public schools, but which rarely exist there.
Schools justify these hideous proxies because they say they need to re-shape children’s character and outlook in order for them to succeed. Some go further, saying that children from ‘chaotic’ homes need order and structure in school to be able to free themselves from the lives their parents lead. Some – fee-paying as well as and normal schools – equate parental worth with cars and holidays, a ‘nice house’.
In this way, loose talk about social mobility becomes a frontal assault on the parenting of those trapped in poverty. ‘This education will give you a good life, better than your parents’. Ergo, your parents are deficient, shameful, they have let you down. Reay uses a clear phrase here, describing ‘shame as the darker side of optimism’. Optimism is expected in school, or at least its functional twin, aspiration. Optimism is natural to young people despite teenage gloom. Aspiration is more specific, always linked to hard work, good exam results and university entry. In this way, social mobility is outsourced to the child: if he isn’t sufficiently aspirational he throws away his chance of escaping poverty. It’s his fault.
In a chapter called Class Feeling: troubling the soul and preying on the psyche’ Reay quotes from extensive interviews with children in primary schools where they define themselves by their grades, where they ‘know’ that they’ll have a ‘bad life’ if they get a ‘bad score’. This focus on grades above all, she says, has ‘shifted children’s self-identification as learners’. They are their grades, not their efforts and their insights. If grades are bad, they must be bad, and unworthy of escaping poverty.
While advantaged children also suffer from soul-destroying commodification by potential exam results, they do not have to engage in ‘rational computation’ in order to meet the goals that best suit their interests. If you ‘know’ that you will go to Oxford (Cambridge, St Andrew’s, Durham, Imperial or wherever) because that’s where people like you always go, you don’t have to think much about it. Everything about your life has readied you to get in. You are fine being yourself, you don’t have to learn to become someone else. Oh, and personal private tutoring is built into the family budget.
So, not only do many poor children go to schools where the teacher shortage really bites, but some of the newly-popular ways of running schools are deliberately framed as places where children have to disown their parents. From a position of poverty (30% of all children now), they are expected to value material success as an output of education which, if they fail, is their fault for not aiming high enough. While current policy claims to try to raise working-class achievement, by its approach and funding it actually ensures that failure is firmly located in the working class. If you remain working class like your parents, you are a failure. What kind of madness is this?
Uninformed madness. 'A plethora of spectacular educational irrelevancies such as standards, testing regimes, raising attainment and achievement levels, league tables, school choice, academies and charter schools, performativities and managerialism, image and impression management, academic/vocational streaming, punitive naming and shaming strategies and the rhetoric of school improvement and school effectiveness have obscured the crucial importance of social class to educational success.’
What does work? Reay says: collaboration rather than setting and streaming. Intense personal learning relationships between teacher and child that empower students as ‘knowers’. Passionate engagement, original thought. And perhaps working towards an answer to the question ‘why English education has never embraced approaches that work and adopts those that don’t?’ Grammar schools, anyone? Why bother with the 11+ test? The evidence shows that the ‘deemed selective’ child was actually selected much earlier.
Anyway, the reason I was on the train to start with was to go on the Worth Less? school funding march. We were, as the organisers said, ‘relentlessly reasonable’ and have carried on being so this week as the sheer effrontery of the DFE claim about funding has been systematically unpicked and exposed as shameless falsehood. The UK Statistics Authority is calling it in for investigation, so all power to their spreadsheets and swivel chairs (which is how I picture them).
I was directing traffic and some year 8 boys passed me. One said to the other ‘I’m praying for something good to come out of it’. Who knows what that problem was, but Amen to that.