Saturday, 19 October 2013

Elephant in the [Class] Room

Daniel Hoffman-Gill offers an interesting opinion on the alienation of the white working classes in the UK. Essentially, he does not want to see this group left behind and the comments that follow his blog posting highlight the differing (read 'divisive') points of view on the issue. Whatever we think however, it remains true, that white working class children have the lowest levels of academic achievement in schools and remain the most socially immobile of all the demographic groups within the UK (see the Joseph Rowntree Report). Invariably, schools that take these children in will have a bigger cultural issue to tackle in their communities that they serve and are challenged with breaking a culture of low aspiration at the individual, parental and societal level. It's a tall order.  

Sir Robin Bosher of the Harris Federation of Academies, describes his findings: "I see about 10 per cent in each class who are so unsociable that they hurt others, adults and other young children. But they’re unsociable because they’ve no practice at being sociable." Compare that to other 'poor' groups - European Muslim migrants, people learning in a non-native language and so on. Think also of people in the developing world who live a hand-to-mouth existence who also start off with disadvantage. The difference is, in general, these groups tend to value education and see it as a key to social mobility. 

As an educator, with a body of experience in several countries, it goes without saying that I believe that education is an important means to meet the needs of the wider social good. I cannot ignore, however, that in England education is way too (negatively) politicised and this makes education as a public service vulnerable to constant government manipulation. The challenges, however, of being at the chalk-face on a daily basis means that educators have a different perspective on the social matters that children bring into school and meeting the needs of the white working class is not as simple as another set of reforms. 

It would be fair to conclude that essentially 65 years of exhaustive educational reform in the UK has not delivered on closing the educational achievement gaps for white working class children or driving up their aspirations. The occasional examples that highlight traditionally working class people being the first in their families to access higher education are something of an illusory distraction. Progress to university remains a mainly upwardly mobile, middle-class aspiration. 

The social mobility arguments remain at the cornerstone of the 'moral purpose' behind education and there is some expectation that schools pick up the task of changing social and behavioural cultures. Scaled up on a nationwide level, is this possible or appropriate? I would understand if people thought that education plays a part in social reform, but in all honestly, despite the many dedicated professional educators who reach out to vulnerable communities, nearly 70 years after the post war education reforms began, who is actually responsible for breaking the culture of non-aspiration? Do we continue to respond to white working class low achievement with more resources or changing how teachers and schools are judged? 

Elephant in the [Class] Room 

It would be wise to stop, pause and consider why (and for whom) we aim to push through unchecked reforms. Are we missing the elephant in the room? What is it about white working class children that puts obstacles in their paths for achievement? Should our responses be 'politically challenging' rather than 'politically correct'? Is it okay to be critical of a consumerist, hedonistic culture that doesn't prioritise education? Can we honestly expect a completely universal educational approach/examinations system to work for all? Can we accept equality when we live is a society divided by class and race? Should political interventions be removed once and for all from education?

Malala Yousafzai commented a few weeks ago about British teenagers not appreciating their educational opportunities. She was right. I have seen schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and know the conditions under which children learn. They aspire for better and in the most dangerous and poorly funded conditions, the fight for education is being bravely fronted by children. In comparison children in the UK are very fortunate and to have a public educational culture that is supported by a generous financial investment per pupil that remains amongst the highest in the world. Isn't a quality, free education a very real golden opportunity that some are simply giving up?

There is an elephant in the room. Are we prepared to admit it?

Find out more about Education Reform here
History of Education in the UK: Wikipedia
Arc of Underachievement: BBC
The Underclass: Prisma

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