Curriculum matters

The June 2017 edition of Education Politics contains several articles on the school curriculum. These raise a number of issues which need discussion. My concern is that they all come from a similar viewpoint. That viewpoint certainly expresses ideas commonly held from the centre to the left of politics. An informed discussion will, however, require the expression of a rather wider range of views.

It is suggested that the idea that “Really useful knowledge is knowledge calculated to make you free”, whatever its precise meaning, is a useful counterweight to the “Govian” idea of “powerful knowledge”. But one might ask (1) if knowledge can really be defined by whether or not it was “calculated to make you free” (Newton’s laws of motion are certainly useful irrespective of whether he “calculated” them to make you free) and (2) the idea of “powerful knowledge” was developed by Michael Young (using the work of Lev Vygotsky) who is certainly no Govian – see Eddie Playfair’s blog for discussion of this point.

What seems to be missing from much left curriculum discussion is a perspective on the role of education in overal social reproduction. Were such a perspective to be taken into account then, in my view, much of what is commonly said in left-wing debate about such things as the role of subjects in the curriculum, the nature of knowledge, and so-called child-centred learning would come to be seen as highly questionable.

In modern society young people spend ever longer periods of their early life in education. Unlike the rest of the animal world humans create around themselves a vast cultural edifice which is augmented by each generation and then passed on to the next. Human maturation, unlike that of the other animals, requires the assimilation of large chunks of this pre-existing culture and it is through that process of socialisation that we develop the capacities that allow us to develop and express our individuality.

The point in all this for curriculum discussion is to recognise that the educational process acts as a vector of objectively existing culture from one generation to the next. Through education we assimilate that culture (arts, sciences, morality, sociality, know-how …). This “assimilation” is a highly complex process which cannot be reduced to mechanical repetition. Each individual has to come to terms with it in their own way. This is a creative process in which we work to internalise the creative potential of existing culture.
If this is right then there is something deeply suspect about the “radicalism” that suggests that there is something reactionary about believing that there is a body of knowledge/know how/values which it is, in large part, the role of education to transmit to the rising generation.

So when I read things like “Increasingly, my own disposition to the curriculum has been informed not by abstracted philosophical or psychological theory, but rather by the reported experiences of children and young people …”. Then I have a sense of the wood not being seen because of the trees.

And further when I read “…the organisation of knowledge into neat disciplinary categories is always more a matter of institutional convenience than a representation of some underlying truth” I feel sure that things have gone badly wrong. Can the person writing such things have ever wondered why physics textbooks use such different language to biology or geology textbooks? The idea that the “subjects” into which the curriculum is divided are entirely an arefact of institutional convenience will bear little examination.

Who said this (below)?

There used to be an almost instinctive understanding on the Left of the liberating power of traditional education. Cultural capital, like every other kind of capital, should not be the property of an elite. The rich should no more have exclusive access to the means of intellectual enlightenment than they should have an exclusive hold on the means of economic production, distribution and exchange. And the desire to give working people access to the best that has been thought and written – very far from being an idealistic enterprise doomed to failure – ran entirely with the grain of working people’s aspirations.

It was none other than Michael Gove. He became something of a hate figure for teachers and for the left and not without reason (although few of them, in my experience, actually read any of his speeches). All the same, not everything he said was wrong and some sections of the educational left in taking up a diametrically opposed position have left themselves without a stable basis for analysis and without a coherent view of what education is about and how we should approach the construction of the curriculum. Some have gone so far as to suggest that even a framework national curriculum is unacceptable and that “Curriculum, rather than arising from some central mandate, [should be] locally negotiated”.

I suggest that people who talk like this have lost contact with the reality of education and its necessary role as a vector for the achievements of previous generations and the process of assimilating those achievements and creatively carrying them forward. When, as in Education Politics for July 2017, I am told that education should “re-focus on … the aesthetics of self-formation” and that it should be “reframed as a site for self creation through an advanced ethics of practice” then I find it hard to resist the conclusion that those who talk like this have lost their way in the ethereal regions of post-modernism to such an extent that they hinder rather than help the process of curriculum design.


US school privatisation – a glimpse of our future?

The current issue of the New York Review of Books has a long review by Diane Ravitch of two recent books  on school privatisation. The review provides a stark warning about the consequences of turning locally run schools into state-funded independent institutions. The first paragraph of the article sets a chilling scene.

The New York Times recently published a series of articles about the dangers of privatizing public services, the first of which was called “When You Dial 911 and Wall Street Answers.” Over the years, the Times has published other exposés of privatized services, like hospitals, health care, prisons, ambulances, and preschools for children with disabilities. In some cities and states, even libraries and water have been privatized. No public service is immune from takeover by corporations that say they can provide comparable or better quality at a lower cost. The New York Times said that since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms “have increasingly taken over a wide array of civic and financial services that are central to American life.”

Donald Trump backs privatising the nation’s public schools. He said that he would turn $20 billion of existing federal education expenditures into grants which states can use for vouchers for religious schools, charter schools, private schools, or public schools. Unsurprisingly, he sees choice and competition as drivers of school improvement.

About half the US states have enacted voucher legislation or tax credits for non-public schools, even though in some of those states, like Indiana and Nevada, the state constitution explicitly forbids spending state funds on religious schools or anything other than public schools.

The ideological pressure for privatisation comes from conservative ideologues and institutions. But that said, the scope of their thinking goes well beyond their immediate circles (sounds familiar?). The Obama administration has been enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools. In 2009, its Race to the Top programme offered a $4.35 billion  prize that states could compete for. To be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low test scores.

In response to pressure from the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools. Thousands of neighbourhood schools have closed to be replaced by charter schools. There are about seven thousand publicly funded, privately managed charter schools, enrolling nearly three million students. Some are run for profit. Some are online schools, where students sit at home and get their lessons on a computer. Some operate in shopping malls. Some are run by fly-by-night characters hoping to make money. From 2010 to 2015, more than 1,200 charters closed due to academic or financial difficulties.

Powerful private interests are at work in promoting the privatisation program but there are signs of resistance to the trend. Bill Gates spent money to promote charter legislation in his home state of Washington. When three state referenda failed support charter schools a fourth was held which favoured them with a margin of 1.5%. However, the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools are not public schools because their boards are not elected. So in the recent election, Gates and his allies supported opponents who ran against the justices who were responsible for that decision. The voters were not convinced and so re-elected them.

One of the books reviewed by Ravitch (Education and the Commercial Mindset by Samuel E. Abrams) considers the experience of Sweden and Chile, which embraced school privatization under conservative leadership. In both countries school performance declined, and segregation by race, class, religion, and income grew. The result of school choice was not increased school quality but increased social inequity. Abrams says that Finland, which has rejected the choice/competition approach, has, on the other hand, produced excellent schools and highly respected educational outcomes for its pupils.

The other book reviewed (School Choice: The End of Public Education? by Mercedes K. Schneider) Considers the history of the idea of school choice starting with economist Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay advocating school vouchers. Schneider shows how the idea was taken up by southern conservatives as a way of evading desegregation legislation. He details the encouragement given to the charter school industry by Presidents Bush and Obama as well as the millions poured in by private foundations such as those of Gates and Wallmart. The scope for for-profit educational business has expanded enormously and with so little in the way of checks and controls that high levels of fraud and graft are the inevitable result.

Investors in charter school construction can receive a 39 percent federal tax credit over seven years. Foreign investors in charter schools can get privileged access permanent resident status for themselves and their families by investing in charter schools. Charter operators have developed a neat trick in which they buy a building, lease it to themselves at high rentals, and get rich from their real estate. Former tennis star Andre Agassi joined with an equity investor to build and open charter schools across the country, even though the Las Vegas charter school that bears his name is one of the lowest-performing schools in Nevada.

Diane Ravitch concludes her review with a positive note about what she sees as growing resistance to the privatising programme.

As the recent state election returns in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Washington State suggest, the tide may be turning against privatization as the public recognizes what is at stake. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People helped to promote resistance with its call in October for a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, until they stop expelling the students that public schools are required to educate, until they stop segregating the highest-performing students from others, and until “public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.”

How strong is the support for grammar schools?

I recently attended a discussion on grammar schools at which a speaker quite rightly said that the issue of selective education is one that “has to be won in the court of public opinion”. He added in the same spirit that “It is not enough to bully a couple of Shadow Ministers into saying something on the matter”.

Later the same speaker said “all the polling, even when when you ask the question ‘would you support 25% of people going to grammar schools and 75% going to secondary modern schools? all the polling says ‘absolutely, we support it’ by about two to one”.

Well, I have seen the polling too and I am unconvinced. Seasoned poll-watchers may well feel that there is not much about most polls, especially educational ones, that can be regarded as “incontrovertible”.

I guess that the reference was to the YouGov poll on grammar schools carried out for The Times by YouGov in November 2014. The Times headline to an article reporting the poll results was “Parents say yes to more grammar schools”.

But is this interpretation really “incontrovertible”? Certainly Janet Downes did not think so in her comment on the Local Schools Network where her piece on the subject carried the heading “Only 38% would support building new grammars, says latest YouGov poll”. The basis for such diverse interpretations merits examination.

The polling questions, put to 1890 people, were framed with the statement “Thinking about grammar schools and schools that select pupils by ability, which of the following best reflects your views?”

The options which followed, along with the percentage in favour of each, were

The government should encourage more schools to select by academic ability and build more grammar schools


The government should retain the existing grammar schools, but should not allow more selective schools or new grammar schools to be built


The government should stop schools selecting by academic ability and the existing grammar schools should be opened to children of all abilities


Not sure


The Times presented this a parents supporting grammar schools but Janet Downes was also justified in presenting it as 46% against grammar school extensions compared to 36% in favour. While I do not question the idea that the arguments over grammar schools have to be won in the court of public opinion I take some comfort from this result which was obtained in the absence of any Labour Party leadership on the issue.

Also a more thorough poll might have investigated the illogicality of being against grammar school expansion but not in favour of ending existing selection.

The break-down of the results by age is interesting. In the age groups 18-24, 25-59, 40-59, 60+ there was increasing support for grammars by age reaching the highest value in the 60+ age group i.e. the group most likely to have been to grammar school. Thus in answer to the first question support fell to 29% in the 18-24 age group and rose to 51% in the 60+ group. It is also interesting that support for new grammar schools among UKIP (the only Party without outright support for the policy) voters was only 46%.

We also need to study how views change in time. This is, of course, difficult in the absence of systematic polling on a common basis. However, it is interesting that the poll carried out for National Grammar School Association in July 2007 seems to show stronger support for grammar schools than the Times poll of 2014. The question on support for grammar schools was framed with “Most State secondary schools in Britain today are comprehensive but a few counties in Britain still have grammar schools where entrance is through the eleven plus exam. Please click on the option below which most closely describes your views about grammar schools and the eleven plus” the following results were obtained

I think that all secondary schools should be comprehensive with no grammar schools


I think that all secondary school aged children who wish to should be able to go to grammar school if they pass an exam


Don’t know


When asked “And would you support or oppose the creation of new Grammar Schools in areas that do not currently have any?” 60% said “yes”, 18% said “no” and 22% were don’t knows.

Both polls were conducted (1) against a background of a long-term continuous barrage of anti-comprehensive, pro-grammar propaganda in the media and (2) in the absence of any serious effort by the Labour Party to explain the success of comprehensive schools and the harmful effect of grammar schools on the education system as a whole.

It is also worth noting that a YouGov poll reported in Prospect Magazine in February 2013 recorded 83% of primary schools parent and 77% of secondary school parents agreeing with the proposition “Our local state schools generally provide a good quality education”.

The battle for public opinion has indeed to be fought and won but the results of the above polls and others show, I believe, that there is every reason to believe that a clear majority of the electorate is ready to listen to the case the case for good quality comprehensive schooling. The arguments are there in plenty. The research has been done. The key to success is now that the Labour Party decides on whole hearted support for a fully comprehensive education system. This argument for this needs to be raised at every opportunity and level in the Party so that the Shadow Education Secretary is clear as to what Party member members want and so that corresponding policies are adopted through the Parties decision making procedures.

Remembering Brian Simon 1915-2002

Brian Simon was born one hundred years ago. As is fitting, his life’s work and achievements will be celebrated at the London Institute of Education on Thursday 26th March. From his early battle against the ideology behind IQ testing to his later detailed work on the history and poltics of education, he contributed massively to our understanding. I would like to remember him here through a brief consideration of just one of his many contributions but one which I think retains all its relevance and vitality.

Brian Simon’s book  Does Education Matter? was published in 1985. It was a collection of articles and speeches from 1977-84. The first chapter, which I will consider below, is a speech entitled Can Education Change Society? Delivered at the University of British Columbia in 1983.

These days whenever a discussion of the impact of education on society comes up, a reference to Basil Bernstein’s Education Cannot Compensate for Society (1969) is sure to follow. The problem is that Bernstein was not dealing with the broad question of education’s role in social change but with the the specific one of the claims made for the theory and practice of Compensatory Education. The article was based a more detailed paper: A Critique of the Concept of Compensatory Education. This title better reflects his purpose. It is just a pity that so many references to the shorter article seem to be based on no more than its title.

Brian Simon’s British Columbia speech, on the other hand, did take on the big issue. So it is disappointing that it rarely gets the acknowledgement that it deserves. He brought all of his vast knowledge of the history of education, his involvement with arguments about educational psychology, and his deep understanding of Marxism to bear on the fundamental question ‘can education change society?’.

The speech has two main characteristics: (1) a refusal to reduce education to schooling; (2) a long historical view of the interaction between education and the rest of society.

Joan Simon defined education as “the mode of development of human beings in society” and this is key to the speech in which the idea is spelled out:

… education involves all those formative influences including the family, peer groups, the Church, apprenticeship and the village or civic relations with which all are involved from the earliest times: relationships growing in complexity, of course, as society itself becomes more complex. Within these sets of inter-relations, organised schooling, of course, plays a part, but one which only affected a small, even tiny, proportion of the population until recently.

If we only look at one part of the process, schooling, then we lose site of the broader picture with a consequent loss of meaning of that part.

Brian Simon illustrates the inability of the narrow view to resolve the conflict between extreme judgements (i.e. education is the key to social change vs education passively reflects the nature of the surrounding society). He refers to a widely circulated reader on the sociology of education, Education, Economy and Society, edited by Halsey and others in 1961, and comments: “The many contributors here unanimously expressed the view not only that education could be, but that also that it certainly was, a major factor in bringing about social change”.

Sixteen year later Halsey, with Jerome Karabel, edited another collection, Power and Ideology in Education, in which it is the consensus view “That education can do nothing of any significance; that it must inevitably reflect the society that creates it …”.

After an analysis of the relation of these differing stances, with changes in the political context in which they appear, Brian Simon rejects both views. Education as a key part of the social whole has its own specific characteristics and problems. It is neither some kind of external motor driving society forward by means of its separate source of energy and purpose, nor is it a passive reflection of the social whole. It has relative autonomy and is an important part of overall social change.

This point brings out the importance of Brain Simon’s Marxist understanding. Following Marx he argues that people are not merely products of their environment (a view widely shared by Enlightenment thinkers). Nor can we explain social change as brought about by utopian inspiration. Rejecting both the mechanical materialism of the former and the idealism of the latter he emphases the role of human social activity.

We do not merely react to the world around us we engage with it along with others and in so doing we change not only that world but also ourselves, in the process we become something different to what we were at the beginning. It is this dialectical view that Brian Simon applies to education. Education is not merely a passive reaction to social needs but is a way we act collectively to  satisfy those needs. This means that the role of education must be seen as a dynamic one in which education, in responding to the needs of society, creates a new situation with new needs and new problems to solve.

Can education change society? Brian Simon’s response is that education is and always has been a key component of social change. As part of society’s process of self-movement, its role should neither be exaggerated (it is internal and not external to society as a whole) nor minimised (it is not a mere social epiphenomenon). As a dynamic part of the process of social change it is limited by the tasks set and the means available to solve them. But in solving them, it makes its specific contribution to overall social movement. There is no better way to gain a solid basis for analysing the impact of education on society than by reading this speech.

Should schools promote “British values” – a debate?

One response to the accusations of extremism against some Birmingham schools has been to revive calls for schools to teach “British values”. Michael Gove has issued draft changes to the funding agreement for new schools that would require commitment to “the fundamental British values” of (1) democracy, (2) the rule of law, (3) individual liberty, (4) mutual respect and (5) tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs. Already, back in 2011, in its Prevent Strategy, the Home Office defined extremism as active opposition to these values.

On 25th June 2014 John Denham initiated a House of Commons debate on “British values and teaching”. In his opening speech he said that people tended to divide into two camps: (1) those supporting the government’s approach; (2) those who reject the idea of British values. Not fitting into either group, he said he felt a need for debate.

John Denham agrees with the government’s aim “of promoting British values” but is concerned that it has spent much of the last four years undoing the good work going on in schools (e.g. on citizenship) and that its emphasis on “constructing a legal basis for intervening in schools” is likely to be counter-productive. He criticised David Cameron’s rejection of “state multiculturalism” while putting nothing in its place. He argued that multiculturalism had been successful in “promoting respect for difference and in tolerance for new communities” but that it had “failed to emphasise or develop what we hold and value in common”. It had been clearer about what new communities could expect than what was expected of them. For this he blamed “value-free multiculturalism”.

The idea that schools should teach our “national story” was to the fore in John Denham’s speech (he used the expression ten times) and on this he is on the same page as Michael Gove, Conservative Home and the Daily Mail‘s Melanie Phillips who are also keen on the idea of schools promoting “our national story” as a basis for social cohesion, and presumably for the teaching of history.

John Denham advanced five recommendations for teaching “British values”. The Government should: (1) fill the gap left by their opposition to multiculturalism by endorsing the idea of nation building by means of a strong national story and shared values: (2) focus less on legal notions of British values and instead provide teachers and schools with the powers and resources they need to do the job well; (3) set out a simple test for all publicly funded schools—faith, community, academy or free—that they should be required to maintain an environment that is genuinely open and welcoming to all students of all backgrounds; (4) promote “strong national values” which should be restored to their proper place in the curriculum and inspected by Ofsted; (5) recognise the importance, not just of teaching national values, but of young people exploring and shaping them.

The difference between these ideas and those espoused by the government seem to me to be a matter of degree rather than kind. There is agreement on the idea that schools should work for social cohesion by promoting “British values” and telling a “strong national story”. The difference is about how this should be done. On that level I have no doubt about the validity of Denham’s criticisms of the government’s legalistic approach. Nevertheless, his general stance seems to me to prompt at least the following questions.

1. Doesn’t a “strong national story” imply a value-laden approach to history? It suggests a history taught with an eye to the moral to be drawn from it about who we are. If not, then what is the force of the “strong” in “strong national story”? And what exactly is a “national story” as opposed to a plain history of the nation?

2. After reading his speech several times I have little idea what he understands by “British values”. If he cannot be specific about this, then how can it be recommended to schools that it is something they should be teaching? It is difficult to distil anything more than Gove’s five points from what he says.

3. Isn’t describing “democracy” and “tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” as “British values” like describing paying taxes and obeying the law as “British values”. There is nothing specifically British about these things. Others worried about them before the formation of the British nation. Now we share those concerns with people around the world. Why would we want to call these things “British”?

4. Having schools that are equally welcoming to all children does not sit well with them having independent status nor with creating more faith schools, both supported by the Labour Party. John Denham proposes “a fresh look at how we ensure that students in mono-cultural or mono-faith schools” can meet and socialise with those from different backgrounds. Is this not a case of dealing with effects rather than looking to causes?

And then there is a fundamental pedagogical issue about what is meant by teaching values. Without greater clarity than that offered by John Denham this can easily slide into indoctrination. Despite his welcome recognition of the multiple and fluid nature of identity, his analysis and recommendations lack the depth and detail needed to avoid that. We need history well that is taught, not a “strong national story”. Schools should not “promote” values but should instead help young people to develop a critical awareness of them as a basis for thinking for themselves.

A response from John Bolt

I would argue that there is in fact a substantial difference between John Denham’s take on British values and how they should be addressed in schools. For example he states very clearly that values evolve and that one purpose of education is to enable young people to “shape the values they will share in the years to come.” For Denham, this is not about the story of the white, male British state. It’s about “how we came to be sharing this land”.

No one is suggesting that any particular values are unique to Britain. But it seems to me entirely valid to talk about the values that we hope will underpin our society. Whether other countries share them or who first thought of them is immaterial – the point is that they are the ones we are striving to identify and live by in this country. That is the sense in which they are British.

The left ought not to give up on these issues for fear of being tarred with the neo-con agenda personified by Gove and Phillips or because the British state has much in its history of which to be ashamed. We must aim to be better that we have been and if we are to achieve that we need to embrace the values that we need to underpin that ambition and reject those that led us into bad places in the past.

In my view, schools are most certainly in the values business. At the simplest level, they expect pupils to demonstrate through their behaviour that they understand that bullying and stealing are wrong. We oppose forced marriage and female genital mutilation in the end because of values. When I taught in the ILEA in the 1980’s, our work was underpinned by a very clear set of values about anti-racism and anti-sexism. Yes, we want children to be able to explore issues for themselves but we don’t come to it from a value free perspective. Children are not in the end free to become misogynistic bullies.

It’s clearly true to say that faith schools bring an unhealthy element of segregation into our society. But even without them, we would have a problem with mono-cultural schools. There are still plenty of pretty white bastions out there. The Cantle Report into riots in northern cities a few years ago demonstrated clearly the level of de facto segregation driven by housing patterns that exists in too many places. Short of bussing, the answers are not simple.

History too is very far from being value free. When David Starkey writes about the monarchy, he does so from a value-driven perspective. When Christopher Hill wrote about the revolutionaries of the 1640’s or E P Thompson about the formation of the working class, they too were informed by their values. Simply choosing what to write or talk about in history is a judgement based on values which is why the history curriculum is such a very political issue.

The left has tended to shy away from any debate about what happens when values collide within one society. Asking, for example, whether or not cultural relativism trumps gender equality has often led to a rather embarrassed silence. The Labour government’s Equalities Act gave us some answers as to where our priorities should lie – so B&B owners can’t discriminate against gay couples because society’s values trump their personal ones. But the debate is very clearly not over and it’s not surprising that one speech doesn’t give us all the answers.

Teacher Quality and Education Structures

The currently popular mantra (among politicians) that “an education system”, or even a “school”, “cannot be better than the teachers it employs” is vacuous. On the other hand it is not meaningless. Even rank nonsense, and this merits consideration for that title, can derive meaning from the way in which it is used.

If we don’t think about it, the mantra appeals to a common sense notion that the parts of a structure/system can impose a limit to its overall functioning. Famously, the US space shuttle The Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after lift off. The whole complex system failed because of its O-ring seals which failed. QED? Not really.

In the early days of computing, when computers were so large that one could walk around inside them, Westinghouse would hand wire cutters to visitors on a tour with an invitation to snip some wires at random. The point of the demonstration was that the computer had such large in-built redundancy that when one circuit failed another would take over thus demonstrating that system redundancy can the compensate for parts failure.

The amplifying component is the main part of an electronic amplification system. However even when that component has far from the desired characteristics a system can be built which has them by using the appropriate feedback circuitry. So long as the gain of the component amplifier is much greater than the gain required of the system it is easy to show that the system gain is independent of the gain of the component amplifier. In other words the system connections determine the ultimate performance rather than that of its component parts.

None of this new. Writing of machines in general in his An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956), Ross Ashby wrote: “That a whole machine should be built on parts of a given behaviour is not sufficient to determine its behaviour as a whole: only when the details of couplings are added does the whole’s behaviour become determinate”. (Emphasis added)

Finally, system performance can be crucially dependent on its in-built error regulation mechanisms and this again can override weaknesses in component parts of the system.

If all this is true of relatively simply mechanical and electronic systems it is far more significant when we deal with more complex systems such as those of biology and society. The view therefore that the quality of a system cannot be greater than that of its component parts is, to put it bluntly, crass.

An education system is extremely complex and is embedded in an even more complex social system. It is therefore shocking that politicians talking about education should want to ignore the richness of the system connection and reduce pretend that overall quality is down to that of one component. All the same there is a clear meaning to such claims. They are all of a piece with Mrs Thatcher’s famous “There is no such thing as society”.

These reductionist views, which exclude the decisive impact that the richness of a system’s connections can have on its overall performance, are a key part of the neo-liberal approach to society. Neo-liberals favour ‘market democracy’ in which a summation of individual choices made in the market place leads (they claim) to an optimisation of the ultimate outcomes. Contrary to this is a view of democracy as being a matter of decisions made through due deliberation leading to a collective choice. The results produced by these two approaches can be very different and even diametrically opposed. The differences are as clear as they could be in education.

Neo-liberals tell us that only if parents have free choice in an educational market with diverse provision can standards be effectively “forced up” (as they like to say). Those who favour democratic collective decision making argue that setting schools and parents against each other in this way will ensure that there will always be failing schools. They argue that the market is the wrong mechanism and that only a collective and democratic approach can ensure that all schools are good (thereby dissipating the need for individual choice). Most parents want to send their children to the local school safe in the knowledge that it is a good one. Markets might make for better biscuits. We can throw away the ones we don’t like and buy different ones next time. Not so with children.

Schools and school systems are (or should be) connection rich systems. This means that they will include: (1)  a certain amount of redundancy so that when one part fails another can take over. This requires, of course, that teachers are not pushed to the limit and have some spare capacity; (2) appropriate error regulation in the form of picking up on early warning signs of things not working as planned through teachers working together and sharing problems as they arise; (3) a connection-rich system rather than the command and control system that is becoming such a feature of our schools, building instead a collegiate approach to allow for maximal feedback from teachers to management and vice versa; (4) an external local democratic system in which the school is embedded which will enhance the operation of the preceding mechanisms through openness and dialogue with the wider public.

None of this is to argue that we need anything other than well-qualified, high-quality teachers. The point is that this does not, by itself, guarantee system success. Making teachers into the be-all and end-all of the success of the system may seem at first to be due recognition of their importance. But by rejecting discussion of system structures both the reality and impact of the system is denied and teachers are lined up for the blame when things go wrong.

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.