In the first of a two part series, A. Shaw explains how, like their Tory predecessors, Labour’s education policy is designed not to confront a discrimination that begins in the classroom - but to justify it.
‘Nature or nurture’ is a cyclical question that goes to the heart of politics in any epoch. Entire philosophies, fascism and communism for example, are almost entirely based on coming down firmly on one side or the other. One might assume New Labour, despite the gnashing of teeth since their election, would nonetheless fall fairly comfortably inside the camp of the good guys. One would be wrong.
Government policies across a range of issues - welfare, crime, housing or education all point to the same startling conclusion: Labour has not just abandoned socialism, but at heart a belief in democracy itself. Emboldened by this subliminal message, it is the new Labour storm troopers, the triumphalist middle classes, rather than fulminating old colonels in the letters pages of the Telegraph who are thinking, discussing, and occasionally broadcasting the unthinkable. “Film crews and investigative journalists are jamming into the sink estates and failing schools of the nation, and sending us back terrible reports about how the excluded are getting on. Three weeks ago for example the BBC screened The Eyes of a Child, which took a series of terrible cases of deprivation, and then made the claim “that these children speak for five million others. The implication was that some kind of massive redistribution was required” fumed outraged Independent columnist David Araanovitch. “Poverty” was, he went on to explain at length, “about far more than money.” He had, he insists, been poor himself and ‘it never did him any harm’. “Giving more money directly to the parents of children where there were no dads except criminal ones and mothers, feckless drug addicts” he pontificated “would be to simply line the pockets of pushers, publicans and betting shops in Bradford and Leicester. I cannot, (obviously confident in the knowledge that he wasn’t) have been the only one whose treacherous alter ego whispered “eugenics” into their minds ear. Are the poor like that because they’re poor?” he wondered. “Or are they poor because they’re like that?” (17.9.98)
Or as Donald Trump put it recently “My entire life, I’ve watched politicians bragging about how poor they are, how they came from nothing, how poor their parents and grandparents were. And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to elect to higher office. How smart can they be”
Strikingly similar sentiments underpin the New Labour mantra that ‘poverty is no excuse’ for bad schools. And if poverty is not an excuse, investment or lack of it, is not the solution. No point in throwing good money after bad if at the end of the day it is merely ‘a pointless exercise in social engineering’. After all any society no matter how egalitarian will ultimately be structured with a top a middle and a bottom. In brief the collapsing comprehensives will have to manage as best they can with what they have got. In any case aspiring middle class children, you know the ‘bright children’, should not be held back by having to share lessons with “budding Burglar Bills” was how one candid Guardian letter writer put it. But as always, the real issue revolves around who determines who the ‘bright ones’ are? “Paradoxically” as the London Evening Standard put it “bright children from deprived homes may have stood a better chance of getting to the best State schools when they could take the 11-plus’. (29. 11.99) Now so far as New Labour is concerned the estate agent is best placed to decide.
For all the obvious reasons, why some schools succeed and some fail, goes right to the heart of the debate on how and where British society as a whole is being steered. On the surface the problem is ‘trendy teaching methods according to everyone on the Right, a shortage of resources according to everybody on the Left, it’s the teachers (Ofsted), it’s Ofsted (teachers), it’s culture of low expectation, it’s an overdose of intervention (the teachers unions), it’s the abolition of grammar schools, the existence of private schools, the rigging of exam results, the shortage of nursery schools... and so on. And yet despite the intense debate, the real answer according to British reporter of the year Nick Davies “is torn like a fox between hounds”. “The banal reality” according to Davies “is that the single factor which more than any other determines a school’s performance is it’s intake - the children who go there.” A school that is based in a run down working class area will struggle with its children, while one based in an affluent middle class area will prosper. “It is a simple thing” according to Davies who conducted an investigation for the Guardian “and every teacher knows it.” (14.9.99)
Worse, the problem appears endemic. Of the 13.3 million children in Britain, on any available measure, 4.6 of them live in poverty, and they are all enrolled in schools. The evidence that poverty undermines education is overwhelming - and has been for years. Yet governments, particularly this one, deny it. By obscuring this simple reality “the public discourse on our schools” claims Davies “entered the realm of the absurd and became lost there.” The reason it could so easily do so, he might have added, is that the discourse on class entered the same realm first. And stayed there. As a consequence, the conflict over schools, mirrors perfectly the wider contradictions in society. No less than the Treasury in it’s fourth report on the modernisation of Britain’s tax and benefits system confirms it. On ‘difficult to let estates’ it reports primly, ‘one in four children gain no GCSE’s (the national average is one in 20) and rate of truancy is four times the average...There is considerable evidence that growing up in a family that has experienced financial difficulties, damages children’s educational performance’. The same report concludes that poverty has trebled since 1979 (now higher than Greece and Portugal) to the point where a third of Britain’s children now live below the poverty line. In Davies’ opinion “this torrent of poor children poured into the classroom at exactly the same time as standards of behaviour and achievement slumped”. The poverty deliberately created under Thatcher, invaded the comprehensive system like water flooding a ship, reaching into every weak point. Of course the poverty artificially created under Thatcher also created the notion of a burgeoning middle class; ‘middle England’, the social base on which New Labour vaingloriously sits. So even if it means over a third of the population are regularly born into a poverty they are more less or destined to stay in, far from dismantling it, Blair is, it appears, determined to see this state of affairs politically, socially and culturally consolidated. His 1997 battle cry of ‘Education, education education’ ought to have been one with a universal appeal. It was not. Nor was it intended to be. It was instead a pledge, not only to retain middle class privilege in education, but to enhance it at every possible opportunity.
Way back in the late 1960’s a ‘national comprehensive’ network of schools was created to supposedly provide a free secondary education for all students of all backgrounds. “It was an idea with a powerful anger behind it” Davies records. In particular “a disgust at the old two-tiered system in which children were segregated at 11: those most in need of education tipped into second-class schools with sparse resources and no sixth forms, while those who were most able were given more resources, and their own A-level classes. The second tier schools - the secondary moderns were stigmatised as were their pupils”. In the old two-tier system, as was intended, the middle classes tended to prosper while the working classes, as was expected, failed. However when middle class children too began to find themselves ‘stigmatised’ in secondary moderns, the comprehensives were immediately created for them instead. (Incidentally the all time champion of comprehensives was not in fact Shirley Williams as is commonly thought, but Margaret Thatcher, who when education secretary, created more of them than anyone else).
When in the 1980’s the middle classes began to whine that now the comprehensives were failing them, (or more accurately their kids were failing in them) Kenneth Baker hurriedly gave them private schools or ‘parental choice’ (which ended up much the same thing) as an alternative. (Politics apart, nothing could be more subversive after all; nothing more demoralising to the established order, than as a consequence of a level playing field, (even one levelled down) the middle classes were to do as badly as the offspring of the poor. Should such a catastrophe occur, all sorts of questions would begin to be asked of the contradictory structure of the society they were being groomed to enter). A genuine meritocracy could, when all’s said and done, prove a rather dangerous thing.
Yet according to Blair this is precisely what is happening: “the old establishment is being replaced by a new larger and more meritocratic middle class,” he chirps. Philip Gould, author of the Unfinished Revolution, and an important figure behind the 1997 Labour victory not only agrees, but goes as far as to suggest that the classless society has already arrived. For him “anachronistic classification… a relic of our class system” is now all that divides us. As he explains, in the “US this problem does not exist because both groups are described by the same middle-class designation, which is what I think should happen here.” (Guardian 24.9.98)
Without a doubt the middle class does appear to have increased. More visible certainly. Generally less apologetic. Louder. But where, if Gould is to be believed, have they all come from? John Goldthorpe, whose life’s study has been a study of class mobility; provides the stunningly emphatic answer. Studying two cohorts of children, one born in 1958 and the other in 1970, he found, against the odds, that the later group had slightly less class mobility than the earlier. The more people that get education, the lesser part education paradoxically plays in social mobility he found, Increasingly in Blair’s Britain people are employed and promoted on qualities ‘other than brain or qualifications’. Thus social mobility has been stalled partly because middle class children are no longer in risk of sliding down the social scale. Due to this buttressing first by Thatcherism, and now Blairism, one consequence Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee observes, is that these days the middle classes are better “equipped to cling on more successfully to what they’ve got. It is the less bright middle-class children who disproportionately consume the new university places: they have to be exceptionally stupid now to fall off the social ladder.” (25.1.99) So even with a university education “No one really thinks that the dustman’s daughter has the same chance in life as the doctor’s son” according to Toynbee.
An opinion supported by a recent revelation in the Independent, which claims that “drop out rates at universities are an astounding 40%... almost half of the students at a small number of universities are falling by the wayside after the first year... and the universities with the worst records are those with the highest proportion of students from deprived backgrounds”. (27.11.99)
“Statistics are often misleading but it’s nevertheless true that a middle class child leaving school with minimal exam results is three times more likely to find a white collar job than a working class child with the same qualifications” according to another report in the Observer (13.12.98). So far from more people climbing in to the middle class as Blair claims, in reality the profile of the middle class has bloated because so few are being thrown out. The exact opposite in other words to a meritocracy. Indeed so long as it’s not ‘pointless’ there appears to be room for social engineering in Blair’s Britain after all.
Which all helps explain why even while there still is vertical mobility there isn’t much of it, and what little there was is fast diminishing. In their book, A Class Act, Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard quote Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools:’... the failure of white working class boys is one of the most disturbing problems we face within the whole education system. Research shows that white working class boys are the least likely to participate in full-time education after the age of 16, and that white boys are the most likely to be completely unqualified on leaving compulsory education.
However it is not the principle underlying comprehensives; ‘the principle of the level playing field’ which has been disproved as the Right would claim, rather that the comprehensives were never that comprehensive, and the level playing field more often than not resembled the north face of the Eiger.
“The comprehensive revolution” as the books’ authors conclude “has not removed the link between education and class - but strengthened it”