Here is my post for the TES from earlier this week:
In a piece for the Guardian the esteemed educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse writes:
“Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberalism underpinned Baker’s 1988 reform bill, which meant a prescribed national curriculum and tougher accountability, along with diversity in school provision and autonomy.”
This seems to uncover a contradiction at the heart of neoliberalism – on the one hand it is controlling and centralising and on the other it is diverse and autonomous…
Is neoliberalism this conflicted?
In a book called: A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism, the writer Kean Birch explores why the term seems to be a catch all term for anything someone doesn’t like.
The first time the term was used was in 1884 in an article for the Modern Review, in which it was used to describe policies associated with the use of state intervention in the economy. By 1898, in the Economic Journal, it was referred to as the future, a coming: “hedonistic world … in which free competition will reign absolutely”. So it seems that Brighouse has used both interpretations – the interventionist and the free market ones to define neo-liberalism. This conflation of the two meanings has precedence, German Ordoliberalism was a school of thought that thought that free markets needed a strong state to make them work. Birch suggests this is the roots of what was to become the vision for the EU.
In 1951 the free market economist and guru for Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman referred to himself as a neoliberal, though he notably stopped using the term later on.
It was in the 1980’s that ‘neoliberalism’ became most associated with it’s contemporary meaning, which, according to the OED, is: ‘a modified form of liberalism tending to favour free-market capitalism.’
The contemporary understanding of the term means that the role of choice is crucial, with the consumer at the centre, and internationally with trade barriers down and global movement of capital, products and ideas, the customer feels they have freedom to choose what to think, buy, say and do. The epitome of this is the silicon valley dream as extolled by the mega-companies Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter et al…
Birch points out that this leads to other contradictions, foremost being what to do about the monopolistic power of these types of companies who seem to be able to act more freely than the individuals they claim to benefit? The recent Facebook scandal seems to be a case in point.
Entrepreneurial thinking has a large input on how we live our lives. Our transactions and decision making are seemingly guided more and more by economic imperatives and utilitarian thinking.
Birch suggests the idea Guy Standing extols is relevant – that though our markets seem free, they are instead less so: “income is channelled to the owners of property – financial, physical and intellectual – at the expense of society.” The contradiction is between the practice of free markets on the ground and the reality of the market freedoms being hoovered up by large monopolistic concerns. Whether it is through global companies like Amazon or Facebook or bureaucracies like the EU, neoliberalism is now operating at the expense of the individual and their communities and in favour of distorted markets. Whilst the consumer seems to have more choice on the ground it is becoming more clear that this ‘choice’ is manipulated by global companies who ‘nudge’ us towards certain choices rather than others. Seemingly, these choices are based on our consumer habits as picked up by a variety of algorithms. We are tempted to buy more of what we ‘like’, rather than tempted out of our comfort zones and consequently our worldview narrows. When this moves beyond products and into ‘ideas’ people become very concerned- hence the scandal around Cambridge Analytica. This is why ‘neoliberal schooling’ is viewed with suspicion.
There are a number of critics who suggest that Multi-Academy Trusts are a sign of a monopolising agenda. The original idea of Free Schools was a romantic hope for teacher or parent run schools that put freedom into the hands of teachers to teach. This laissez-faire hope for a legion of little platoons to shake up schooling has some notable successes – Michaela and School 21 to mention two. There are, of course, problems with some small schools and, the argument goes, that economies of scale are important in order for schools to be run efficiently, and where they don’t succeed some free schools and stand-alone academies have therefore become subsumed into larger trusts. Centralising around a brand rather than launching out on a dream.
It is an inevitable feature of capitalism to monopolise, that’s why we have the monopolies commission… for a good market to operate it needs diversity and it needs different models, products and companies to join the fray. So, paradoxically, a free market needs overseers to intervene in order for the market to remain healthy. The problems we are seeing with Facebook and legislation to control it is an example of when markets monopolise and become all too powerful.
The romantic agenda of free schools and the increasing number of academy chains could be made to work, if new free schools are still encouraged – especially if they have some sort of innovative educational ethos to make their contribution to the national and international debate around education – this could bring about a healthy model that resists monopolisation and stagnation. MATS can do a good job but not if they become too monopolistic and gargantuan. If they do it might be their offer ends up being as bad or worse than the worst LAs in times past. If we ensure a number of MATs can run alongside one another then we might be able to ensure they don’t become all too powerful. This also suggests a model of competition that needs to sustain over-capacity in the system, something that in this day and age of teacher shortages might seem a far cry away.
The most pernicious effects of global neoliberalism is to be seen, rather than at school organisational level, in the classroom itself. The ‘financial, physical and intellectual’ property that most involves itself in every day teaching and learning is the pernicious influence of tech brands. As much as I love my Apple products I do not wish to see them being the fulcrum around which teaching and learning takes place. Rather a teacher and pupils sharpening their own quills than being told the future means that they have to avail themselves of tablets and other screens. Apple, Google, Microsoft, ‘Educators’ are the representatives of ‘neoliberal’ education ready to ‘disrupt’ a model that has worked for thousands of years. Not in the name of education or on behalf of society but in the interests of the global businesses they are set to serve.
Gates and now Zuckerburg are at the forefront of disruption. And what is the most neoliberal thing they could do? Individualise and monopolise at the same time. Global companies controlling and centralising an education product that seemingly has the needs of the individual at heart. Where choice of what to learn, how to learn it and at what pace is put into the hands of the consumer and delivered by a global silicon valley corporation. They even have a name for it, ‘personalised learning’. For Zuckerberg this model just: “intuitively makes sense”. And, of course, if your model for humanity is facebook then of course it makes sense. Everyone following their own prejudices and tastes without having to be challenged by any particularly weighty content from an early age and, easily, finding themselves sucked into rabbit holes of misinformation and susceptible to global players who benefit from sowing the seeds of discontent. And the data that could be accrued by following the personalised learner’s choices in the day to day would certainly be something to interest the global tech giants. It happens to us all. School should be a place to challenge this model.
Even if students do choose to learn challenging content, if they’re all learning something different they’ll lose much of the essence of the school experience: the opportunity for group discussion, the excitement of bouncing ideas off of fellow students, and the guidance that a teacher ideally provides.
If you want to know what a neoliberal education is then go no further than ‘personalised learning’ – it is the zenith of this ideology.
The opposite approach is one that instead of leaving the individual all alone, save for powerful algorithms delivering ‘choices’ whilst farming their data, brings people together to share, discuss and argue with narratives that have been thought about by people with a degree of knowledge about a range of domains. Curriculum should not be left in the hands of novices to find their own way especially when that own way is being controlled behind the scenes by a few billionaires with a penchant for thinking their world view ‘intuitively makes sense’ and should be the model for us all.
This then is the contradicted neoliberal education model – ‘controlling and centralising’ tech companies delivering a product in which ‘diverse and autonomous’ customers/students feel they have ultimate control.
If you fear ‘neoliberal’ education then resist the moves towards personalisation in the classroom and, paradoxically, support the opening of more free schools and an overseer to reduce the power of MATs to over-monopolise.
The Guardian gushes: At a time when arts are squeezed in some schools, teachers are embracing them as a tool to teach the environment without realising it is this insidious belief that the arts are merely a pedagogical tool that is leading to a paucity of engagement with great art.
The tragic figure of the starving artist in the garret eking out an existence is such a romantic image that it has informed great works of art like Henry Wallis’s ‘The Death of Chatterton’ and Puccini’s sublime La Boheme yet in the future our art will be a dreaded commercial enterprise trying to turn people into environmental warriors.
‘At primary school children are ‘learning songs about climate change and the environment… It’s a fun way to learn… we learn the ‘compost and growing’ song and produce artwork in relation to it, too. The arts and other curriculum areas are continually connected. Teaching the children to be sustainable has nice science, humanities and responsible citizenship links.’
Instead of singing the ‘Ode to Joy’ these children are singing odes to compost.
Instead of making pots inspired by Grayson Perry or Bernard Leach children are making:
‘footballs out of recycled paper, carrier bags and elastic bands, and they discuss global issues around poverty, fairness and fair trade…’
Instead of wrestling with Sophocles, Shakespeare and Sarah Kane pupils are engaged in:
“farmer drama” sessions have been encouraging students to put themselves in the position of those working within the supply chain.
Now of course Sarah Kane isn’t suitable for primary children, nor for adults if the Daily Mail review that called her first play a ‘disgusting feast of filth’ is to be believed. But primary schools are essential breeding grounds for artists and audiences, future amateurs and professionals and also the foundations for what Chesterton called the ‘soul of a society’. By embedding the arts in the service of farmer drama and compost songs, and by hiding real art in project based learning, children will not know the deep truths that making difficult art can uncover. This starts young, with specialised art teachers teaching art, to children, as subjects in their own right.
In primary schools pupils should have art, music, drama and dance lessons and not only in the service of the rest of the curriculum. If teachers want to teach ‘the whole child’ then do this through the depth of study not merely by ticking some breadth boxes in the name of arts coverage as ‘a useful tool in explaining subjects that may otherwise be considered complex or inaccessible’
Knowledge organisers are gathering momentum in a number of schools. This is a good thing. Some people have misgivings about their reductive nature but many can see how they assist pupils in getting to grips with basic subject matter and being able to memorise key bits of information.
There are many different designs of knowledge organiser and it is probably worth, as a teacher or department, designing your own so that it fits with ‘the way you do things’ but I would like to share a few principles that form the basis of a ‘trivium’ approach to designing a knowledge organiser. In classic Blue Peter style – here is one I prepared earlier, it is about the theatre practitioner and playwright Bertolt Brecht – someone I have taught about for over twenty years. By teaching something for such a long time I have really got to understand what is helpful for students to know about him, these are the concepts and ideas I keep repeating when teaching that really make an impact on the knowledge of my students. This is useful to know – experienced staff can really help in the design of these organisers.
The first principle is that it should be on one side of A4. This is to make it ‘at-a-glance’ and can fit into a folder. Any bigger than this or going onto more pages seems to defeat the object and over-complicates something that should be simple.
The next principle is that it is part of an ongoing ‘joined-up-curriculum’. A trivium curriculum is a narrative not a collection of one-off lessons or schemes of work. Therefore the first part of the knowledge organiser is the section ‘influenced by’ and ‘influence on’. This section could be labelled ‘connections’ but whatever it is labelled it should refer back to previous study and then forward to study yet to come.
The next part I have emphasised are his major theories and works, followed by techniques and quotes and some other notable features. A short Bio is included and then I move on to other areas of the Trivium.
Central to trivium teaching is the idea of argument and debate. This is also a great way to learn as by setting out his arguments for theatre and others’ arguments against his work pupils can really involve themselves in the issues being explored. Please note that when I am teaching Brecht it is always set alongside the work of another great theatre practitioner, Stanislavski. This interleaving and juxtaposition enables pupils to really understand the issues being talked about and also helps them to begin to decide which ideas they might prefer and why.
Finally I have put in a small square ‘rhetoric’. This points the pupil towards the pieces of major work that they will be expected to complete. One of these is an essay and the other two are practical realisations of Brecht’s theories. The essay question is connected to my ‘major organising principle’ for understanding this practitioner which, in this case, is based on a quote by Brecht about creating a theatre ‘fit for the scientific age’. By knowing the essay title so far in advance they can begin to prepare for it earlier should they so wish. This is followed by some further reading suggestions. Pupils are expected to use wider reading in their essays. This wider reading has to be quoted by them in their essay where relevant and can also inform their own ‘extra’ knowledge organiser on Brecht should they wish to complete one or should I decide they ought to!
You can access the PDF here:
Today’s identity politics has another interesting feature: it teaches students to think in a way antithetical to what a liberal arts education should do. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation. But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.
A good education doesn’t offer one lens through which to see ourselves and the world, rather it offers a great variety of lenses. Whatever reductive pressures are exerted onto a curriculum or onto the teaching of a subject, those of us who have an interest in what we term, broadly, ‘the liberal arts’, need to ensure we teach and design courses which offer up arguments rather than just presenting narrow answers or a ‘world view’. The pursuit of wisdom is never served by insisting one way of seeing the world has dominion over all others.
This is not to say that all things are relative. Far from it. It is only by engaging in debate, by testing out ideas and hypotheses, with the underlying belief that some things are better than other things can we free up individuals to think for themselves and enable them to add to the great conversation in a way that opens and engages minds rather than closes and disengages them. A relativist can leave all others numb by saying ‘well, it’s my opinion,’ and refuse to engage any further. In other words: ‘truth is an individual construct – so leave me alone…’ relativism is also antithetical to a liberal arts education.
An educational institution should not be a place which suggests it ‘knows’ the truth. The age old adage that the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know should underpin the academy. This gives us great hope in that it has a vested interest in the importance of the voices of those who teach, the voices of those whom they teach about and also the voices of those who are taught and those whose voices will follow. This social contract between the dead, the living and the yet to be born insists on no group having more insight than any other but that by coming together we might find ourselves closer to wisdom than by keeping resolutely apart.
The academy should be notable by its variety of subjects from across the spectrum of knowing and students at school and university should be educated through as many substantial and different lenses we can muster to enable a more thoughtful engagement between themselves and the world. The more perspectives that we can offer the more likely we are to educate successfully. These perspectives need to offer breadth and they also need to be experienced in depth in order to unveil their truths. This means some inevitable compromises are made, but young people should experience learning from as many broad lenses as we can muster.
There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our “concept” of this matter, our “objectivity” be. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. trans. Maudemarie Clarke and Alan J. Swenswen. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1998)
If we narrow or reduce perspectives we are more likely to falter in error than we are to glimpse the truth. Students need to access a full and varied curriculum from an early age and for as long as is possible in such a way so that their thinking and experiencing will not atrophy over time. Subjects should be taught with dialogue, argument and debate at their heart, to ensure that perspectives can clash along nicely throughout the heart of the school’s offer. Pupils should also get a good grounding in philosophy, thought, ethics and aesthetics.
In order to ensure an education that offers a good range of perspectives there needs to be a range of subjects on offer. This means starting specialist subject teaching sometime during primary education, expanding the offer during key stage three and ensuring pupils are able to access a good number of subjects at key stage four. The arts and humanities, languages and social sciences, technology and physical/health education options ought to be kept up as long as is possible alongside English, Maths and Sciences. This means either not worrying about the Ebacc or ensuring other options are available alongside it. It is essential to offer a good extra curricular programme as well, including the traditional, school productions, orchestras, galleries, sports teams, quiz and debating teams etc. At key stage five either the IB or A levels with EPQ, voluntary work and a recognition of involvement in extra curricular activities. A house system helps develop pupil leadership and widens participation in such team events beyond elite inter-school level competition.
For those who study or intend to study more vocational options I would hope an academic/cultural stream of opportunities both for study and extra curricular work is also accessed. All work and no play/reading/writing/thinking about ‘the big questions’ makes Jack and Jill dull…
This is what an expansive curriculum can offer, not dullness, but vibrancy, and the opportunity for young people to flourish.
“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” Is a quote often attributed to Einstein which is actually from a piece by BF Skinner called “New methods and new aims in teaching”, in New Scientist, 22(392) (21 May 1964). The quote was retweeted into my timeline today accompanied by a tweet saying: ‘Focus on 21st century skills, character-building, and the big ideas of your curriculum. Memorization of large quantities of information is temporary–skills are forever.
I have come across the quote quite a few times before and always thought that it was saying something around the habits of mind one gets from school are the most important things but then I looked again at the quote
Now far be it for me to take on the great BF Skinner or pretend Einstein for that matter…
What do we ‘learn’ at school? We learn many things, facts, skills, nuggets of knowledge, habits of mind, ways of behaving, when to laugh, when not to laugh… to cry… to think… all these things are things we learn.
Kirschner, Sweller and Clark define “Learning [as] a change in long-term memory” and if we are to accept this definition, which we might argue with should we wish (see Willingham here), then should all this learning be forgotten we could suggest the education received has been an expensive and monumental failure.
Perhaps Skinner is thinking about conscious recall of all the ‘facts’ we have learned but even many of those that we think we have forgotten sometimes find their way into our consciousness when we’re watching a quiz programme on TV or doing one of those time wasting click bait quizzes that crop up online. So do we ever ‘forget’ what we have learnt at school? Some of it. But if we are taught a lot and taught it well we will remember a lot more than someone who wasn’t. And, as the philosopher Julian Baggini puts it:
“…it can only be a good thing to know as many matters of fact as possible.”
So I would suggest changing the quote to:
Education is what survives when you have learned and not forgotten all of it…
As I was sourcing the quote I came across another one of BF Skinner’s bon mots:
“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading”
I could go on…
but I won’t.
Apparently there are now 1,700 fewer drama teachers teaching in UK schools than there were in 2010. I don’t have any information as to how accurate this figure is and what the figures are in the constituent nations of the United Kingdom nor how it compares to other subjects, suffice to say it adds to a general impression that the arts are in decline in schools.
Many of the various voices who decry the decline use utilitarian arguments to make their points. I think this is a mistake.
If the arts were to be removed from the curriculum, would it be a bad thing? If we take a strictly utilitarian point of view then the bare bones of the curriculum would suffice. Literacy, Maths and Science are the subjects that seem to rise above all others in our hierarchical view of subject worth. Arguments for drama’s inclusion in the examined curriculum that suggest it is important because the entertainment industry generates a lot of wealth for the country are ridiculous. For a start you don’t need a GCSE in drama in order to become an actor; and though I’m sure studying ballet, piano etc. has a more obvious utility I expect most who study these arts don’t end up adding directly to our GDP through their work in the entertainment world. Some drama teachers don’t even teach drama in schools with the idea of developing actors. Which is where another utilitarian argument comes in, that drama develops the skills that employers want: collaboration, creativity and communication skills. Even if we put aside the notion that skills are not easily transferable, there is a leap of faith to be made that children who have, say, delivered the lines:
All the dead voices.
They make a noise like wings.
They all speak at once.
Each one to itself.
Rather they whisper.
What do they say?
They talk about their lives.
To have lived is not enough for them.
They have to talk about it.
To be dead is not enough for them.
It is not sufficient.
They make a noise like feathers.
Like leaves. (2.98-118)
will be better at working for HSBC, McDonalds or at bricklaying than those who haven’t… The very idea is a bit far fetched.
Another argument goes like this – STEM subjects are important (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) so let’s stick an A in there too because arts are important too. This utilitarian approach falls apart very quickly. In the first place engineering hardly features as part of the curriculum in most schools. Technology is also in a parlous state. In fact STEM is all about S&M, but that makes a rather unfortunate acronym. To chuck in an A, seems to add to an already unsteady mix. Call it what you will but STEAM is not about giving the arts a privileged position in the school curriculum, it is about subsuming some shallow arts practices into an ‘integrated approach to learning’. STEAM is a cop out, entirely devoid of art, it is a corporate middle-manager’s idea of art, and is no way to ensure real arts practice remains part of the school experience.
Another utilitarian argument goes that the arts are important to mental health, they might well be, though there are clearly some people involved in the arts who have mental health problems so whether art makes them better than they would have been or adds to their problems I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.
The arts are important on their own terms. Studying drama might help you become a great director, actor, and/or informed member of the audience. Beyond that the arts are a study on what it is to be human, they tap into our subjective experience of the world and help us to make sense of our lives. This enrichment of the subjective realm is difficult to quantify and by trying we reduce the very art we wish to protect. A school that shrinks the arts provision that its pupils are able to access is making a decision about what they think their priorities should be. If they are guided by utilitarian choices then it is easy for them to cut back on arts programmes because it is far less easy to justify the arts on these terms than, say, Maths. But if they are guided by the desire to educate their pupils as to what is important to them as human beings to make sense of the world and their place within it, then they will do their very best to ensure the arts have a proper and sustainable place in their curriculum.
The Government wants to unlock talent and fulfil potential with its plan to improve social mobility through education. It intends to do this by: targeting communities that are left behind, closing the ‘word-gap’ in early years, closing the attainment gap in schools between disadvantaged and more affluent children, providing high quality post 16 skills education and access to the best universities, working with businesses to support adult retraining and ‘upskilling’, building partnerships and identifying and spreading ‘what works’ throughout the system.
Most of this seems to make sense except for one glaring problem – it is extraordinarily difficult, maybe impossible, to improve social mobility through education.
Gregory Clark, Professor of Economics at the University of California points out:
How do we know we cannot change the rate of social mobility? One piece of evidence is what happened to social mobility rates as England moved from the pre-industrial world of squire and servant, to the modern noisy meritocracy of the rude boys of finance. What happened as the political franchise was extended in the early 19th century? What happened as mass public education was introduced later in the century? What happened as education, healthcare and pensions for the poor were financed by taxation of the incomes of the wealthier? The answer is that social mobility remained at its slow pre-industrial pace.
There was a point post second world war when social mobility was on the increase however this was not due to education but due to the changing jobs market:
In 1951, 55% of the male workforce was working class and 11% were in professional and managerial occupations. By 2011, 30% are working class and 40% in the higher classes. The huge level of upward mobility, then, largely reflects that there was ‘more room at the top’ – there were simply more jobs to be upwardly mobile into.
Despite this, in the long term, there has been very little difference to overall social mobility figures. That there is some evidence of downward mobility now may have resulted in anxious parents worrying about their children’s prospects and governments seeking to respond with solutions focusing on social mobility through education. As Dr. Lindsey Roberts writes here, in a piece for the British Academy:
Education is often held up as the solution to the mobility problem. The idea is that individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds can do well at school and university and work their way into higher class positions by a process of “meritocracy”. Superficially this might sound like a good idea, but it is one that doesn’t hold up well in practice. Availability of graduate jobs (if such a concept still exists) has not kept pace with the increasing supply of university-educated young people entering the labour market, and in relative terms the value of getting a degree may be declining.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that the: proportion of graduates working in low-skill jobs has increased, from 5.3% in 2008 to 8.1% in 2016. Just ‘being’ a graduate does not automatically mean you will have a well-paid job and if there are to be more graduates this could increase, supply and demand might mean graduates being less rare command lower wages, the jobs market might not be so enamoured by graduates if nearly everyone is one.
The jobs market is changing, more people are in work but wages are stagnant or falling. Productivity per person is relatively low and a number of people report feeling underproductive. More are ‘self employed’, numbers have increased by 50% since the turn of the century, though the nature of self employment is also changing in these ‘uberfication’ days.
The ‘type’ of graduate also effects social mobility, STEM degrees might command better jobs and wages though whether this is due to supply and demand is a moot point. If there were more people with these degrees would social mobility improve?
Despite a large (38%) and increasing proportion of the UK workforce holding a higher education qualification, university graduates still enjoy a large earnings advantage over non- graduates (estimated by previous studies as 28% for men and 53% for women)…
The results show that there are large variations in outcomes for graduates depending on their university and degree subject.
Graduates from Oxford and Cambridge enjoy starting salaries approximately £7,600 (42%) higher per year, on average, than graduates from post-1992 universities. They also earn starting salaries approximately £3,300 higher than graduates from other highly selective Sutton Trust 13 universities.
Differences by subject are even more substantial, with graduates from medicine and dentistry courses (the highest earning subject) earning starting salaries approximately £12,200 higher than those studying design and creative arts (the lowest earning subjects). Engineering and technology (the second highest earning subject) graduates earn on average £8,800 higher than design and creative arts graduates.
If every graduate was studying medicine would there be the jobs for them to go to? If we want social mobility to increase then we need ‘more room at the top’ – more jobs [and courses] to be upwardly mobile into. If we want to prove we have a socially mobile society we would need to ensure that a substantial part of the increase in courses and jobs was taken up by the children of the poor. No point in having this extra capacity and filling it up with rich kids.
If nothing is done about advantaged children going to Oxford and more of the poor end up going to Oxford and there is no increase in places, parents who are ‘just about managing’, who don’t count as ‘poor’, those who don’t qualify for free school meals, the lower middle classes, might complain that their children can’t get to Oxford as easily as the children who went to private schools and the children of the poor. If social mobility is about leaving the middle where they are, this is not about creating a meritocratic system, it is one where statistics will merely be bandied about. Social mobility has to include the unpalatable idea of downward mobility especially for richer families, if we are to justify our mobility figures by getting more poor children than before to succeed rather than more rich ones. With private school pupils two and half times more likely to join one of the leading universities than state-educated ones and the upper echelons of the jobs market dominated by students from private school backgrounds something would have to give. Abolishing public schools might make a bit of a difference but the influence of affluence would then be felt in different ways.
Degrees make a difference, (though the fact that the number of graduates in low skilled jobs is increasing, might be of concern).Barnardos suggest that there are 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK, over a quarter of all children. 1.7 million of these children are living in severe poverty. What are the chances of social mobility through education? According to Barnardos: 34% of children entitled to free school meals achieve 5 GCSEs at C or above, including English and Maths, this compares to 61% of pupils who are not eligible for free school meals. How to make a big dent on Oxford admissions from this group?
About 1% of school leavers at 18 go to Oxbridge, and around 8% go to Russell Group Universities. For argument’s sake, if we think of the 3.7 million ‘poor’ children spread out evenly over 18 years that would make 205,556 poor children per ‘cohort’. In 2016 there were 11,728 Undergraduates, studying at Oxford University. If we were to double poor children attending Oxford there would be hardly a dent on mobility. The same with Russell Group entry. What is Oxford doing to target the poor? According to this publication, Increasing Access to Oxbridge; An exploration of obstacles for under-represented groups and efforts to overcome them:
The University is… targeting candidates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, measured by their ACORN (A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods) postcode, focusing on ACORN postcodes 4 (‘moderate means’) and 5 (‘hard pressed’), the least advantaged areas of the UK. The target is to increase the proportion of candidates from these areas to 9% by 2016-17. The total number of UK applicants matched with ACORN data in 2014 entry was 2,579; 241 students were accepted from ACORN postcodes putting the acceptance rate at 9.3%. The final low participation target category is POLAR 2 (Participation of Local Areas) which looks at the participation of young people in higher education for different geographical areas of the UK, and shows how the chances of young people entering higher education varies depending on where they live. Oxford is focusing on quintiles 1 and 2, which have the lowest participation rates in higher education. In 2014, the total number of accepted UK applicants who matched with POLAR 2 postcode data was 2,560, with 264 students accepted from POLAR 2 quintile 1 and 2 postcodes, putting the percentage of accepted students at 10.3%; the target is to increase this to 13% by 2016-17.
Of course a rich family is free to live in a ‘disadvantaged’ postcode neighbourhood but, casting that aside, these numbers will not make a huge impact on overall social mobility. To make some sort of impact we would have to make much more effort to get substantially more students into ‘top’ universities. By making Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities treble in size and have to take on the increase in numbers entirely from those from a poorer background might make a bit of a difference. Oxford would could have, say, 35,000 graduates – with 24,000 from poorer backgrounds. Yet still the vast majority of children from poor backgrounds wouldn’t get into Oxford. Oxford would have changed radically. It would need more buildings, more staff, change its admissions criteria, as would all the other universities, if this was to make any impact in the name of ‘mobility’.
Dr. Lindsey Roberts states:
While it is true that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have good chances of getting the higher class jobs if they get good qualifications, such a group remains small in number and is more than offset by advantaged individuals without good qualifications but who are somehow enabled by their backgrounds to do well…
The Sutton Trust reports:
…students from the most highly advantaged backgrounds [are] those who attended private secondary schools. Graduating from the same university, from the same subject, with the same degree classification, students from private school backgrounds tended to have somewhat higher earnings and a greater probability of going on to a professional level job than did their state school counterparts. In terms of starting salary, this difference was around £1,350 per year on average.
Therefore, regardless of qualifications, in order to create more room at the top we would have to legislate in order to counteract the inbuilt advantage children with highly affluent backgrounds seem to get. Maybe we could make sure that the increasing number of low skill jobs that are now being done by graduates are entirely taken up by those from advantaged backgrounds. Inheritance tax could be increased too, maybe to 100%? And, perhaps, rich people should only be allowed no more than three books in their homes in order to ‘de-literate’ their offspring.
Can the Government really make the argument that education is a route to social mobility? The current figures do not justify that belief and in order to make a radical dent in the figures of social mobility the government would have to make far more radical proposals than they are suggesting and these changes would have to go far beyond the narrow remit of education.
Education cannot create social mobility on its own. More room at the top and more pay at the bottom might help but even then will we accept a ‘fair’ meritocratic society where those at the top can be deemed to be successful and those at the bottom can be deemed to have failed? Much better to be at the bottom of society due to unfairness than to be there because you ‘deserve it’. In the meantime what should schools do? I’d suggest they should forget social mobility and, instead, concentrate on ‘cultural mobility’ a term I will explore further in a future blogpost.
In a piece for the TES Bernard Trafford wrote that:
Assessment is linked, of course, to the whole question of reporting. Many parents still love nice, simple effort and attainment grades: they feel they know how their child is getting on. The message that such judgements are both arbitrary and unscientific is only now starting to filter through to them. I hope to see a day when no teacher at the end of November feels obliged (generally an internal, self-generated command) to set every class they teach a test: “otherwise, how can they write their end-of-term reports?
Though I am not sure that attainment and effort grades are entirely arbitrary they are most probably unscientific, though what is meant by ‘unscientific’ is open to a certain amount of interpretation. I take it to mean that the judgement that the teacher makes is rather more subjective than Bernard Trafford would like.
A completely arbitrary effort grade would be drawn out of a hat for each child, most teachers do not do this. They assign a grade through an ‘impression’ they have of what the effort a child might have made. It’s a guess, not arbitrary, but not necessarily accurate. In fact it can’t be accurate as no teacher can ever know the effort a child makes nor how that compares to other children. An attainment grade is also an impression and, though a teacher might have more evidence to base their attainment grade on it is also likely to bear a certain amount of subjectivity in its creation.
Yet, Trafford concedes, parents like them. Why? Well, simplicity is helpful, a report card full of As and 9s for attainment and 1s for effort is better than one that has Fs and 1s for attainment and 9s for effort. This can help, though the 1-9 grades at GCSE offer a certain challenge. If the effort was a top grade and the attainment very low it can also help give a quick impression of how your son or daughter is doing. Low effort, high attainment is a singular problem and could lead to other suggestions around how to challenge a child. So these grades have their uses.
What would you replace them with? Completely objective grades? In some subjects this is unachievable – the arts come to mind, and in others subjectivity will be present in varying degrees, but this might be no bad thing. A subjective grade shows how the child is seen by a certain teacher at a certain time and emphasises that this relationship is important. It puts an onus onto the teacher’s expertise, there should be some expectation that they know what they are doing as a teacher. If they value your child or not could make a difference to the effort being made.
Are written reports a better alternative? Often schools do both, but the day of the ‘honest’ written report is long gone. There are acceptable words and unacceptable words, platitudinous offerings are made and bizarre disconnected targets from word banks might be conjured up, again a pretence of objectivity might be sought but through a most subjective art form. This is certainly no more ‘scientific’ and due to it being a lot more work for a teacher – the information given might be no more or less helpful than the at a glance grades.
A comparative progress grade could be produced, how your child is doing compared to the rest of the class. The effort and the attainment could be put into context by the teacher by mapping out how everyone is doing in the class and assigning the grades accordingly. That this is unscientific could be emphasised on the report card and could be simplified by putting children into four categories for attainment: concern, pass, merit, distinction (rather than focusing the language on the performance of others) and three for effort: below or above expectations and expected. It might be useful to drop the effort grade as it might be too subjective but perhaps information on completion of work might take its place, if a lot of work isn’t completed that might be useful for a parent to know.
The desire to have end of term tests is not, necessarily, helpful. Beginning of term tests seem a much better idea as then the teacher knows more about how knowledge is being retained and can then do something about it, rather than rely on a test that might have been taken over eight weeks ago as a good gauge to where a class is now. The test might also be flawed; much better to give a grade based on a number of insights over a term and/or year.
The assessment that really matters is the day to day commentary that your child gets from her teachers, the report card should be a reflection of those relationships an easy insight into that sometimes difficult to fathom world.
An at a glance subjective graded report card has its place. It is unscientific but not necessarily the worse for that. Lots of parents like them because they are an easy glimpse into something far more complex – the day to day reality of schooling that they often hear about through the day to day reactions or grunts of their child.
If there were real concerns or huge congratulations due to their child one would hope that these would be communicated in other ways by a school at times when parental knowledge and involvement might help and/or be welcome. Again, in both cases not scientific, but, in both cases, welcomely human.
A graded report card as part of the communication between a school and a parent is a help as long as it is not the only communication a parent expects to get.
“In the popular imagination,” writes Tim Blanning in his wonderful book ‘The Romantic Revolution’, “Beethoven was the romantic hero par excellence: the lonely, afflicted, uncompromising, utterly original genius, ‘a man who treated God as an equal’…” This vision of creative minds echoes down the centuries. The tortured artists in their garret, often poor, wearing black, maybe, ‘in mourning for their lives’…
The great artist, driven, mad eyed, wandering lonely as a cloud, the true artist rises, like poetry for Goethe: ‘like a hot air balloon… and gives us a bird’s eye view of the confused labyrinths of the world’…
But back on earth the ‘four Cs’ of the 21st Century ‘soft’ skills that are paraded before teachers as what is needed for children to succeed in the soon to come world are: communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.
If we look at visions for the 21st century classroom we see primary colours, bean bags, formica topped tables with groups of children engaged with some screens and smiling and laughing as they work on some group activity. The assumption is collaboration = creativity.
The contrast with the tortured artist, alone in his garret, shouting at the falling plaster from the ceiling, couldn’t be more stark. Is ’19th century’ creativity, a joyless lonely affair, that accidentally produced great art…?
It was with little surprise that I read: “…there is substantial scientific evidence that collaboration, rather than sparking creativity, results in group think and mediocrity. What does result in creativity? Simple: solitude.”
The Washington Post reports that:
The more social interactions with close friends a person has, the greater their self-reported happiness. But there was one big exception. For more intelligent people, these correlations were diminished or even reversed. More intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently.
In an Inc article Geoffrey James reflects that:
being around other people keeps keep creative people from thinking new thoughts. Indeed, there are few experiences more mind-numbing for a creative person than being forced to interact with dullards on a daily basis.
Even if your office is full of geniuses, they’ll be less creative en-masse than if they can work and think alone. In short, it’s difficult and maybe even impossible to “think out of the box” when you’re literally inside a box (i.e. an open plan office) that’s full of other people.
Isn’t this the problem with the four C’s approach to teaching and learning? It is not modelled on great creativity produced over centuries by our greatest geniuses, rather it is fashioned by a fifth c: the ‘Corporate’ vision and the schools that follow this approach rather than ‘unleashing creativity’ will find themselves producing conventional corporate types who won’t upset any apple carts but will fit into group think activities so beloved of the open plan, group work, trendies that inhabit the world as portrayed so deliciously in the comedy programme W1A.
If you want great creativity, nurture great artists and teach them how to express themselves, rather then flood their minds with group work overkill in every lesson.