Compensating for society – what did Bernstein actually say?

I have been to more meetings, and read more articles, than I care to count in which there have been references to Basil Bernstein’s article Education Cannot Compensate for Society. Yet another such reference was made by one of the speakers at the recent House of Commons meeting organised by the Reclaiming Education Alliance.

I was so puzzled by one of these references a couple of years ago that I took it up with the professor of education who made it. After some initial waffle and some further questions he admitted that he had never read it. I think he is not alone.

The article by Bernstein was published in New Society 26th February 1970. It was an extended version of a chapter he wrote in Education for Democracy (edited by Rubinstein and Stoneman, Penguin 1970) entitled A  Critique of the Concept of ‘Compensatory Education’. The solution to the my puzzlement about the references is given in the difference in the two titles used for essentially the same work.

I guess that Bernstein had rather more control over the title of his book chapter than he had over that used for the article in New Society. In any event, the chapter title in the book reflects the real substance of the article whereas the magazine heading is geared towards grabbing the attention of the reader even at the expense of misrepresenting the content of the article. Those who quote the magazine title as representing Bernstein’s point should take the time to read it.

Bernstein’s target was not the general issue of whether education can have an equalising effect across social divisions. Only someone completely ignorant of education could entertain such an idea. Rather, his criticism was aimed as the specific concept of ‘compensatory education’ as used by educational theorists especially those in the US. To understand Bernstein it is essential to see that these are two entirely different things.

Bernstein wrote

Compensatory education emerged in the form of massive pre-school introductory programmes like Project Headstart …, large-scale research programmes such as those of Deutch in the early 1960s and a plethora of small-scale “intervention” or “enrichment” programmes for pre-school children or children in the first years of compulsory education.

His target was thus a well-defined one. He sought to show that the idea of compensatory education as advocated in these programmes was based on assumptions that were based more on social prejudice than evidence. The first objection that he offers is that the compensatory education theorists and programmes failed to regard as a central problem that most children from deprived backgrounds also attended schools which did not offer an “adequate educational environment”. He pointed out that the Newsom report showed that “79 per cent of all secondary modern schools in slum and problem areas were materially grossly inadequate …”.

But, essential though decent material conditions for school are, Bernstein went on to criticise the ideology of these programmes. He argued that the labelling of children as “culturally deprived” set in train a whole series of negative consequences, however laudable the intention may have been. Among these were: (1) an unthinking downgrading of the children’s own experience; (2) an unconscious assumption that middle-class use of language is the only valid one; (3) to lower teacher expectations of the children concerned; (4) to exclude parents who became regarded as part of the problem rather than essential to its solution.

Bernstein even suggested that, through misinterpretation, his own research into children’s language had inadvertently become part of the ‘compensatory education’ theorists case using his concept of a “restricted code” to be an indication of deprivation when it was in fact no such thing. Rather, he said, it should have been used to make middle-class teachers more aware of different language codes so that they could more ably communicate with children who did not automatically use language in the same way as them.

It would be idiotic to claim that ten years, or more, of schooling cannot make up for some of the shortcomings arising from poverty and deprivation. Bernstein argued no such thing. It would be equally mindless to give schools the target of “breaking the link between home background and educational achievement”. This idea is advanced by the educational spokespersons of both the Conservative and Labour parties. It makes no sense, as anyone who stops to think about it for more than a few minutes can see for themselves. The alternative is not a council of despair. Rather it is a recognition that schools can and do make a difference but that they can only do so within certain limits. The idea that it can break any link between home background and educational achievement in a country as massively unequal as the UK is just rank nonsense. Any political party genuinely wanting to break the link will need to turn its attention to the inequality that children are subjected to before they even reach the school gates.

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4 Comments on “Compensating for society – what did Bernstein actually say?”

  1. David, thank you for a very good post and for going back to the primary source. We need to acknowledge the educational impact of social inequality without coming across as being complacent or fatalist “enemies of promise”. Only by understanding the challenges and barriers faced by many young people can we develop strategies to better overcome them.
    I wonder about the use of expressions like “food poverty”, “energy poverty”. Are they ways of diverting attention from the root cause which is surely “money poverty” or poverty pure and simple. Perhaps some young people’s alleged lack of “cultural capital” – their “cultural poverty” is in the same category?
    Anyway, my instinct has always been that education can and should try to compensate…Otherwise what are we doing?

  2. Tim Davis says:

    My view is that education is as a concept and a process ill defined and not at all something which happens in schooling.Something happens not sure I would bless it with the term education.Until this is understood no compensation can take place.

    • David Pavett says:

      Education is the process both formal and informal by which the rising generation is introduced to the knowledge, know-how, social mores, morals, and skills developed by previous generations as a part of their developmental process making the transition from childhood to adulthood. I regard that as concept of the process. To say that it does not take place in our schools at all would be absurd. To say that it takes place in an often ineffective and ill-thought through manner would, on the other hand, be worth discussion. Many/most children learn things at school which are important to them and which they would not have been likely to come into contact from the family and social background. Is that a form of compensation? Seems to me that it is.