For Guardian reporter Nick Davies, the comprehensive system is a curiously english story, featuring a little snobbery, a dash of racism and a great deal of class politics. However, as A. Shaw explains, precisely the same ingredients are implicit in his own remedy
“It is perfectly understandable that parents should move heaven and earth to get their children into the best possible schools, whether it means moving house, applying to different boroughs, paying for their children to take entrance exams, appealing to independent adjudicators, taking holy communion before applying to Church schools, even giving false addresses” a London Evening Standard editorial explained recently (29.11.99).
Best schools’ are for the Evening Standard defined as those who ‘attract the good teachers’. The ‘good teachers’ in turn are attracted by the schools with the best ‘facilities’. That ‘good facilities’ plus the ‘good teachers’ in turn attract the ‘bright pupils’ is a simple case of cause and effect. Or so we are led to believe. But what isn’t explained is how the good school acquires the best facilities to begin with? And if the comprehensive system has ‘not removed the link between education and class’ but strengthened it - where in the cycle exactly does the systemic discrimination first kick in?
In a recent report, Nick Davies, Guardian Reporter of the Year, shows precisely how the class discrimination accelerates once the required social segregation is achieved. He takes two schools in Sheffield, both of which became comprehensive in the early 1960’s. He describes it as a “curiously English story... it features a little snobbery a dash of racism and a great deal of class politics”- It begins with the two schools Silverdale and Abbeydale setting out on the road to equality. In the dawn of the comprehensives Abbeydale was ‘the posh school’. But Abbeydale’s new comprehensive catchment area, now took in a slice of a deprived working class neighbourhood.
No longer protected by the ‘high fence of the II plus’ local kids began to turn up in the playground. Some were black. Instantly, some of the middle classes began to withdraw. By the late 1980’s with the gates thrown open by “parental choice” Abbeydale Grange “suddenly found itself the scene of full blooded white flight”. Middle class parents bought their way into Silverdales catchment area instead. The key to understanding the economic implications is straightforward. Essentially when the children move, they take the money, £2000 a head (government subsidy), for every new pupil - with them. Happily for them, the way the system is structured the high intake always leaves the ‘best school’ a considerable surplus each year which it can invest in improving ‘facilities’. So naturally with the new intake, Silverdale is booming. For the ‘failing school’ the system works exactly in reverse. Within them remaining pupils are doubly punished, few facilities - few staff. Back at Abbeydale as Davies reports “the roof leaks, the drama department has no lights, the cricket team has no pitch, ancient fire damage still scars the walls of the science room, last terms trip to Alton Towers was cancelled because there were no staff to take it, the boiler is broken, the driveway is crumbling and most important, their is a constant nagging shortage of cash for staff”. Nor is it standing still. It is instead, under New Labour according to head Jan Woodhead “becoming worse and worse. More and more polarised. There is a horrendous backlash going to happen and there is a wilful blindness to it”.
Predictably Abbeydale is held up as clear evidence of the failure of the ‘comprehensive ideal’, while Silverdale is used as a stick to beat those who lag behind in league tables. But one way or the other ‘blindness’, wilful of other wise, doesn’t come into it. Socialism for the wealthy, market forces for the poor is, afterall the New Labour philosophy. It is, as the Americans would say, a ‘rigged game’. Moreover, if as Philip Gould insists ‘we are all middle class now, if we all have shared interests and concerns; if there is a level playing field’ what then of the ones that fail? If his and Blairs portrait of Britain is as a meritocracy, then as Polly Toynbee points out “our children must owe their success to their genes, brains and efforts. By implication the poor must lack these attributes” (Guardian 24.9.98)???
The ‘poor genetically lacking certain attributes’ has grave social and political implications. In the immediate term it provides the school system with a green light not only to compound the endemic discrimination within society at large but - in fundamental ways to justify it. In still broader terms, it is to ‘wilfully’ or otherwise embrace the murky world of race and eugenics. And if the ‘poor’ are genetically predisposed to failure what future the welfare state, social housing or localised democracy? All, purely by coincidence at this very moment, being weighed and measured by the New Labour executioner.
Given the amount of evidence it is hugely ironic, (but also not untypical) that it is Davies, the impassioned liberal, who writes so movingly of the plight of the dispossessed who finally closes the circle on them. Davies’ argument constantly stressed, rests on the singular notion of “using the bright middle class children as an asset to be distributed like fertiliser to help the poorer children grow... bright children succeed and, if there are enough of them they spread success to the poorer children... if the bright middle class children are siphoned off into private schools and a minority of state schools like Silverdale the children in the rest of the system will fail” etc. He quotes approvingly a school head who recalls the [feckless - drunken - criminal?] parents of the children who failed to turn up for school during England’s first match in the World Cup last year. “They thought football was more important than school. The trouble is that education is a middle class value which we are trying to operate in a working class culture”. Even poor old Abbeydale is “lucky” according to the head simply because “we still have the support of a few middle class families”.
As Davies acknowledges this study on the “compositional effect” is for the middle class parent “both the thrill and threat of the comprehensive schools, the prospect of their bright child either soaring and taking others with it or sinking beneath the weight of other children’s disadvantage” (or put another way the thrill of ‘nice but dim’ - with appropriate tutoring - for once being the ‘bright fish’ in the dull working class pool, set against the threat of being exposed, even with the ‘natural’ advantages of ‘genes, brains, and efforts’ as being as dull as dishwater himself).
All in all a mindset not a millions miles from the experiment ‘of leavening out the colour’ in Australia in the 1950’s. The idea was that if enough Aboriginal children were fostered with lighter skinned immigrants everyone would in time end up white. This was regarded as the ideal solution to the ‘Aboriginal problem’. ‘Light and bright’ being synonymous, the ‘liberal’ assumption then.
So with Davies, who consistently and inaccurately draws the contrast between ‘bright’ (as if the inherent privilege was a mere by-product) and ‘poor’, naturally sees nothing wrong and quite evidently regards it both as valid and personally rewarding, to attempt to after a similar fashion ‘impregnate the working class with middle class values.’
Unfortunately for him, the weight of his own evidence exposes it as a forlorn attempt. To refer to the absence of ‘a level playing field’ while studiously ignoring the class system it reflects, is analogous to addressing the issue of race discrimination in South Africa schools while studiously ignoring the system of apartheid itself. But then ‘the working class only exist’ for Davies ‘as the most suffering class’ and like any good liberal he merely wants, to quote Marx, “to deal with the abuses of society on the same basis that give rise to those abuses”.
All of which helps explain why today, like the matter of race for previous generations, the description ‘working class’ is seen as a term of abuse, not to be mentioned in polite society for fear of causing unnecessary offence. Hypocrite, Davies maybe, but unlike New Labour, cynic he certainly is not. Having himself analysed cause and effect in regard to the bigger picture, he then, with the appropriate hand wringing asks, whether in fact the ‘blighted lives’ might possibly have come about through something other than design? “The comprehensive were attacked at birth by the subtle power of British class and then quietly smothered by the education reforms of the 1980’s” he acknowledges but “did the Tories” he wonders “set out to kill the comprehensives without admitting what they were doing”
‘Not knowing what they were doing’ could never be entered as a plea of mitigation for New Labour. Thatcher once famously remarked that there was “no such thing as society”. She also said “the more you talk about class - or even classlessness -the more you fix it in people’s mind” was a less heralded but no less accurate guide to her personal philosophy. Blair, an admitted admirer, has absorbed the lesson well. And so where Thatcher attacked the working class through the anti-union legislation and forced unemployment, Blair clearly intends to go a step further, and finish the job.
By adopting the Thatcher dictum and making it government policy he confidently expects to exterminate the entire working class politically. But for that to be accomplished the ‘problem’ of the working class must first be made to seem “small and soluble”. Hence the National Statistics Office’s new eight tier social classifications unveiled last year which saw 80% of occupations presented as middle class: That ‘everyone in the future be designated middle class’ - or failing that - ‘untermenschen’ is the government objective. Any talk of specifically addressing, or as New Labour would see it pandering to the sectional interests (welfare, housing, education) of a class no longer officially recognised, is self-evidently absurd.
An analysis providing in the short term, an instant dividend by making it possible for a dictatorship of the centre to politically ignore the wishes, of (by any criteria) more than one in two of the population. Further proof, if such were needed, of Labour’s general perfidy comes with the reform of the House of Lords. In this instance the hereditary principle ‘nature’, is to loud applause, rejected as undemocratic. The reformed second chamber we are then informed may actually be appointed instead. Thus in one arena ‘natural selection’ is sacrificed, order to allow it to be championed as ‘meritocratic’ in more important areas such as education. Hypocrisy runs deep in all middle class institutions. In New Labour, it practically gallops.