Category Archives: Meritocracy

For Theresa May: On Grammar Schools and Private Education

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I offer the following as a ‘what if?’ A little train of thought to add to the grammar schools debate currently raging through the veins of the educational world. I offer it to Theresa May as I think it solves many of her problems with the policy as currently envisaged, however it also opens up a whole lot of new ones…

Our most famous schools have been around for centuries, some are fictional like Hogwarts others exist in collective folklore like Rugby with William Webb Ellis and Tom Brown. Whether you like them or not the famous independent schools and not so famous ones have a culture that is recognisable throughout the world.

Our Independent schools, also famously, seem to provide a vast number of recruits to the ‘top jobs’ in the UK. Whilst educating a meagre 7% of the population these schools provide 71% of the top military officers, 74% of high court judges, 51% of ‘print’ journalists, 32% of MPs, 61% of ‘top’ doctors, the list goes on… as the chair of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl puts it:

Our research shows that your chances of reaching the top in so many areas of British life are very much greater if you went to an independent school… The key to improving social mobility at the top is to open up independent schools to all pupils based on merit not money … as well as support for highly able students in state schools.

For Theresa May looking at setting up more grammar schools this might offer an interesting quandary, if we are to take her at her word that she wants the UK to be “the great meritocracy of the world,” does she intend to ignore the great bastions of paid for privilege that the Independent sector undoubtedly is?  Over the past 25 years fees in this sector have increased by 553% meaning that those who once felt able to pay for this type of education have effectively been priced out. Therefore those who attend these schools are more likely to be ultra privileged than those in the past and an increasing number are from abroad, including the sons and daughters of Chinese and Russian oligarchs. Is this tolerable in May’s great meritocracy of the world?

At the 1953 Labour Conference Hugh Gaitskell pointed out that having 4 to 5% of Independent School places free would bring scant rewards, instead he proposed 50% of the places should be free; maybe this is something Theresa could consider, in fact she could go one step further and instead of imposing grammar schools onto the public sector, she could in one fell swoop prove that she means it when she states that the UK should be the world’s great meritocracy by turning our private Independent schools into her beloved state grammar schools.

This extremely radical move would be a highly interesting one for it would succeed in addressing a central point of her speech on grammar schools that the country wants change. And her Government is going to deliver it:

Everything we do will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few. Not by those with the loudest voices, the special interests, the greatest wealth or the access to influence. This Government’s priorities are those of ordinary, working class people…  

above all they want to believe that if they uphold their end of the deal – they do the right thing, they work hard, they pay their taxes – then tomorrow will be better than today and their children will have a fair chance in life, the chance to go as far as their talents will take them…  

I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it is your talent and hard work that matter not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.

Let us not underestimate what it will take to create that great meritocracy. It means taking on some big challenges, tackling some vested interests. Overcoming barriers that have been constructed over many years… there is no more important place to start than education… at the moment the school system works if you’re well off and can buy your way into the school you want, and it provides extra help and support if you’re from a disadvantaged family… I want to encourage more people, schools and institutions with something to offer to come forward and help… 

I want to encourage some of our biggest independent schools to bring their knowledge, expertise and resources to bear to help improve the quality and capacity of schools for those who cannot afford to pay.

This is entirely in keeping with the ethos that lies at the heart of many of these institutions. Most of the major public schools started out as the route by which poor boys could reach the professions. The nature of their intake may have changed today – indeed these schools have become more and more divorced from normal life. 

These are great schools with a lot to offer and I certainly don’t believe you solve the divide between the rich and the rest by abolishing or demolishing them. You do it by extending their reach and asking them to do more as a condition of their privileged position to help all children.  

If working class children find themselves, on merit, being educated in our ‘top’ schools instead of the wealthy then that would be a sign that Theresa May was being serious. If ‘extending the reach’ of the Independent sector meant that they stop just educating people of wealth with a small number of bursaries and assisted places for poorer children, she could go the full Gaitskell and ask that they educate the children of ‘ordinary working parents’ by merit through opening up 50% of their places or she could go the whole hog and do a double Gaitskell and in one fell swoop abolish fee paying in the independent sector and bring them fully into the state sector as Independent Grammar Schools with the full rights for self governance that academies currently have.

This would mean that Theresa can have her cake and eat it, it would show that she is  serious about creating a meritocracy in which: “advantage is based on merit not privilege,” whilst at the same time disarming many of those who are arguing against her green paper. How many on the left would need to pause to contemplate the ramifications of such a policy before they argued against her abolishing private education?

Now, I don’t pretend that there are no problems with this scenario, for a start many involved in the independent sector might object but if the Government promised to pay the same for each child that these schools currently receive it might go some way to alleviate these concerns, though I have no idea how much it would impact on the Government’s coffers. There is talk that some private schools would welcome the possibility of becoming a state grammar school but there would be an ideological problem if all schools had to operate under the auspices of the State. Other objections might be along the lines of those that currently bedevil this debate, how would the children be selected, is there such a thing as a ‘tutor-proof test’, should we have a segregated education system at all? None of my proposals here address these very real concerns and objections, though neither would keeping things as they are.

 

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On Independent School Education for Pupil Premium Children

 

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In this morning’s Daily Telegraph Shaun Fenton the headmaster of Reigate Grammar School writes that:

We should increase social mobility by using state funding to open access to independent schools. Independent schools should be challenged to educate even more disadvantaged young people… My proposition is that the partial state funding should be for those who qualify for the Pupil Premium.

Fenton points out that this could only ever be a small part of the educational jigsaw, I wonder if his idea could make a difference to educational disadvantage and/or social mobility? He thinks these schools will need to expand to take an increase in numbers and it is this that makes the argument interesting.

Are our ‘great’ independent schools scaleable? Have they got the staff and indeed the facilities to accept, say, twice as many pupils? Many have the grounds in which they could build… Do they have the funds necessary to subsidise what, comparatively little, money they would get from the state?

Would it increase social mobility? If it did, what does that say about our education system? Is it the quality of education or more about ‘the old school tie’? Clearly it would be something that could annoy some of the middle classes, priced out of private schools by ever higher fees, and not poor enough to qualify for these new places. Would they not also be annoyed to see the establishment to be still drawn from the same schools but involving just the super rich and the poor?

Is it the quality of school that makes the difference to social mobility or is it down to the social capital of the parents and their networks that makes the most difference? In other words are these schools truly great or are they the beneficiaries of truly ‘great’ dynastic intakes that know how the establishment works and ensure it replicates itself? Would the ‘poorer intake’ in great numbers become socially mobile or would they lack the contacts necessary to make this a possibility?

Would the pupil premium intake be chosen via academic selection? If so, who would ensure they had the pre-education to pass the common entrance exam etc?

And finally…

What would happen to one of these schools if it expanded exponentially to include a majority of pupil premium kids, say 75%, would the school be the same? Would well-to-do parents want their darling offspring to mix with the hoi-poloi especially those who have chosen the independent sector deliberately to ensure that their kids don’t mix with the poor and certainly not in such large numbers?

 

What Then?

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When all kids have grit, what then?

When every school is outstanding, what then?

When every target is reached or surpassed, what then?

When everyone’s mindset is switched to growth, what then?

When all is meritocratic and we all get to where we ought to be, what then?

When every twenty-first century skill has been adopted and learnt, what then?

When every child attends the college of their dreams, when every child is fluent in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, what then?

When all children are creative, empathetic, can move from job to job with ease, what then?

When every school leaver is able to commune happily with artificially intelligent machines due to the new jobs that have yet to be thought of that they can now be employed in the exciting never thought of industries of the future… What then?

When the tense is future-perfect, what then?

Gentlemen, there are questions that worry me; solve them for me. You for example want human beings to give up their old habits and adjust their will so that it accords with the requirements of science and common sense. But how do you know that human beings not only can but must be transformed in this way?*

Isn’t the way of things that mankind is drawn to destroying the very things that might, in all sense, be to our advantage? Even in the life of one person don’t we sometimes do the very things we know do us no good whatsoever? Eat that extra bit of cake, drink a couple of glasses too many, wake up in the wrong bed on the wrong side of town…?

How many people will it take to make the system perfect? Won’t we get bored in this utopia, that we stick pins in our eyes, or the eyes of others?

If a system is doomed to fail is it just a vain hope? Has our vision of the future written out the awkward, rebellious, self destructive anti-heroes or zeroes that so many find themselves to be? Oh we are such disappointments us human-beings. We are our own nemesis. Give me a target and I might deliberately miss it and even I won’t know why.

In the meritocracy will schools be there for the inhabitants of the de-meritocracy?

 

*Dostoevsky: Notes From Underground (which is the inspiration for this piece)

 

Schools and the Mindless Mindset Meritocracy

SDante In Schools Week Carol Dweck writes: “If I were the Secretary of State for Education, I would make schools places of growth. I would… give back to students and teachers that zest for learning — the desire for challenges, passion for hard work, embracing of mistakes, and joy in improvement. If some schools can do it, all schools can do it.” Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset is something I buy into but there is a niggling doubt in the back of my mind…

“If some schools can do it, all schools can do it…”

In their book G is for Genes Plomin and Asbury point out that: “We think it is likely that, for genetic as well as environmental reasons, it will be harder for some people to develop a growth mindset than others.” All in our world is not equal, is it not disheartening to think that Mindset might not be an easy fix for all your pupils?

Mindset attracts schools because in a kingdom of the blind the one eyed man would be king. We think: ‘ah our kids can get higher grades if they have a growth mindset; our kids can be ‘kings’ and our school lauded as ‘kingmaker’! But in a kingdom of growth mindset ‘where all school’s do it’ all the iniquities and inequalities remain. If I was to practise as much as Usain Bolt I doubt I would ever be as fast as him, even with the same coaching I would not be his equal. (I think Usain has a fixed mindset, he strikes me as someone who is quite content with being the fastest in the world, quite content with being praised for his speed, I’m sure that his gold medals sustain this impression.) Cyclist Lance Armstrong ‘suggested that doping had been so widespread in the sport a decade ago that only those involved could hope to contend’ in the Tour de France. If we educate all to have a growth mindset what advantage could there possibly be?

Mindset is accompanied by meritocracy, driven by a Governmental desire to compete in PISA tables, our kids have to compete. The impression given is those with a growth mindset get the best results in exams, get the best jobs, get the most money, have the happiest lives and the most ornate funerals. Michael Young, wrote that: “If meritocrats believe… that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get… They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.” Can you imagine a world where those at the top have got there because of their mindset and that is all…? At least with our current system we know it’s unfair and we have cause for anger. Meritocratic man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, and the poor would have nothing to blame but their mindsets: let them eat cake from their self imposed fixed mindset food-banks; our ‘failures’ are but a quintessence of dust.

On Dweck’s Mindset Website it says: ‘Do people with [the growth] mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable), that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.’

To Be or Not To Be the Human Becoming?

Toil! Under the tyranny of targets and outcomes and grit and resilience some of us dread every morning as we set up upon our daily trial of Sisyphus, rolling that effing rock up that effing hill. What about a day of idling, lolling and wasting time? Are these now sins in this work-ethic-growth-mindset driven age? Why this focus on the desperate struggle, why not, sometimes, be content just to be content? Education can be a passing fancy in which things awake our interest and give us pause, where learning is for its own ends and not part of an international Tour de Force. Rather than demand we have to become super brain fit for the great competition of life we can be the human forever becoming and be relaxed with that knowledge rather than need to beat everyone at all cost. Lance Armstrong said: “I just took part in the system…” let’s ensure that we don’t over systematise Mindset. images-7 Who are you trying to kid Einstein? You were smart and you stayed with problems for a long time! But there your picture is, accompanied by others all over the walls of our schools: hey kids, work hard and you too can be Einstein! Really??? Do we expect Growth Mindset to solve all our ills? Instead of covering our school walls with ‘mindset’ quotes and pictures of great men and women, let’s just look at the whole picture, literally… quotes and pictures from everyone: let’s look at life in all its shades. Pictures of street cleaners, bus drivers, house-husbands, the unemployed accompanied by their quotes; let’s celebrate their lives! Let us turn outwards and towards each other as fallible human beings sharing more in common than not and celebrate:

What a piece of work is a human! How noble in reason and how infinite in faculty! Schools are not just for the aspirant über-successful, they are for all, even those who are less smart and those without a ‘passion for hard work’.