The recent re-emergence of ‘Grammar Schools’ to the British agenda is a stark reminder of the rigidity of the British class system. In many ways, the re-emergence of Grammar Schools to debates is testament to the continuing faltering of social mobility under this Tory-led Coalition, and the subsequent growing inequality that continues to choke and pollute British society. Tories and Ukippers look back on the glory days of Grammar Schools and selective admission with a wistful glee, when their vision of elitism and class rigidity were institutionalised in the education system; interestingly, politicians not from grammar or private schools rarely seem to propose Grammar Schools, perhaps that is testament to the lack of working class MPs in Parliament.
Grammar schools have since been restricted and not allowed to grow in number, and whilst things are nowhere near perfect in schools today, at least exclusion isn’t built into our education system. 164 state-funded grammar schools still exist, and Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of schools, has criticised them for being “stuffed full of middle-class kids”. He goes on to make some very reactionary predictions about Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, but if the chief inspector of schools, is concerned about the class make-up of Grammar Schools, that has to say something about the makeup of Grammar Schools. Despite Gove’s guff about the Department of Education being ready to accept applications for new Grammar Schools, Wilshaw has said, however, said he would not support the expansion of grammar schools, which educate around 5% of pupils in England, and called for the focus to be on improving the country’s current schools.
Education, Education, Education
I believe that you can rate a society by its approach to education. Education is an enlightening, emboldening and transitionary period in everyone’s life, where students can consider, debate, denounce and experiment with ideas about their lives, society and the world, and consider what they want to achieve with their time on earth. In the UK, this period, from primary school to university, is being increasingly commodified, undermined and belittled. That is not just me as a bitter socialist talking. The Pisa report which rates education throughout the OECD has shown that the UK is failing students by testing and setting them by ability too early, meaning that the UK is languishing behind the rest of the OECD. It is debatable what the reasons are for this, but Michael Gove’s tenure at Education minister is a lesson in everything not to do in Education reform.
Out of 65 countries, the UK was 23rd for reading, 26th for maths, and 20th for science. It made clear in its report that the most successful education systems, do not divide and set children from an early age- the later the better if at all. The facts on Grammar Schools are clear from the Pisa reports: far fewer poor students enter Grammar schools, Grammar Schools are reliant on pricey private tuition services, and the claims that grammar schools have ever benefitted poor children has been widely rubbished. Even the kernel idea of selection- that intelligence is fixed– has been comprehensively been shown to be untrue by clear scientific evidence. This stands quite clearly at odds with everything Gove has said in his role.
Why-then- the return of Grammar Schools?
The answer is clear. Tory control of education. The most influential Torys have come from privileged educational backgrounds, division and elitism is in their blood. Just look at Boris Johnson’s comments recently on IQ levels and the social Darwinism which he spouted. This is the ideology behind the Education Department under Tory control. The very small progress made in education in the last 20 years had tried to limit selective schooling and open access to university, and the Tories have seen this as a direct challenge to their powerbase. They have thus brought Grammar Schools back to the agenda, have continued to commodification of Higher Education. For the Tories, an open, inclusive education system is adversarial to what they want to achieve in Education. For the Tories, education is the way in which cronyism is solidified and ‘old boys networks’ prosper, and moreover, for the Tories, education is the system through which they entrench class divisions and inequalities.
There can be no other reason why the Tories are considering a return to Grammar Schools. The evidence is stacked against them. This return is perhaps due to UKIP’s growth as a populist Right Wing drag on the Conservative Party; a party that has garnered support through it’s blatant and flagrant incoherence. We must thus not let Grammar Schools return to the political agenda, and work hard to promote an inclusive and egalitarian education system, a system which we may be able to be proud of. It really comes down to a competing idea of how society works. In conservative ontology- society looks something like this:
Private Schools– for sons and daughters of the aristocracy and wealthy. To provide rulers and owners of industry and land. The Privileged Philosopher Kings- drawn to ruling due to the vagrant and clueless masses.
Grammar Schools- the upper middle class. Aspiring technocrats, MPs and managers. Aspire to the ranks of the truly wealthy.
Comprehensive Schools- to provide the skilled sections of the working class. Nowadays this means service workers, call centre workers and security guards.
A tripartite division of society. For many Conservatives, this is an ideal state of affairs. For Thatcherites it is the framework that encourages aspiration and the entrepreneurial spirit, the ‘envy’ that spurs people to better themselves. But history, and evidence, has proven this motif entrenches social class rather than eradicate it. The system described above is meant to encourage the ‘brightest’ of the poor to progress and achieve; but evidence has shown the Grammar School system does not foster this process, but stamp it out and kill it. So why is Michael Gove open to new applications for Grammar Schools?
Tories’ Credibility on Education ‘Goves’ Up the Ghost
Michael Gove recently gave a speech under the title ‘The Progressive Betrayal’ (my eyes hurt from rolling). He argued that ‘child-centered learning’ had failed a generation, and the solution was to restore ‘rigour’ to the education system- memorise more facts, more discipline, be silent and face the front. We also all remember Gove’s failed attempt to get the King James bible into every classroom. As always with Tory ideas, it’s about harking back to an age that never existed- the good old days when teachers could beat children for speaking to their peers during class. I am sick to the back teeth of hearing Conservatives say that schools need to bring back discipline and political incorrectness. Particularly around Christmas we hear the same old rubbish in the right-wing press and right-wing work colleagues, you can’t even say Christmas at Christmas anymore, and they’ve cancelled the nativity because it offends all the Muslim parents. Comedian Stewart Lee recalls when in his schooldays, the teacher used to refer to one the Pakistani boys in his class as the ‘black spot’. You may dislike political correctness, but I prefer a world where we are cautious when speaking to people, than a world where we offend and demonise people.
What was interesting about the recent research, was the survey students completed on how they rated their schooling. Not fusty old bureaucrats from Whitehall, the kids actually in school every day.The results are brilliant. The research shows that students are already doing far more traditional activities than so-called progressive ones- “Compared with high-performing nations such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland and Estonia, British students are more likely to learn materials by heart and have clear learning goals set for them by the teacher in each lesson” and “Half of British students reported that their teacher tells them what to do in every lesson, compared to just a quarter of students in Hong Kong and Finland”. This doesn’t sound like child-centered learning to me. It sounds like students are already doing quite a lot of what Gove calls ‘traditional’ teaching.
The inevitable Conservative anti-student response is: well, students are just over-reporting and say they are doing things when they haven’t. We would thus expect them to report high levels of non-traditional activities wouldn’t we? Well, only 6% of students say they regularly work in groups, and only 8% said that their teachers allow them to regularly have a say in the format and content of their lesson; two supposedly ‘progressive’ teaching methods’. In Michael Gove’s utopia- Singapore- students report a significantly higher percentage of these ‘progressive’ methods. So it is clear that the government’s rhetoric on education is hot-air, based on fantasies not fact.
The other accusation that Conservatives level at teachers is the “soft bigotry of low expectations”- something Gove continues to bang on about. For students this is just rubbish, about half of them strongly agreed that their teacher encouraged them to work hard, with only a quarter of students from Hong Kong agreeing, and less than one in five students in Korea. The final nail in the Conservative education coffin is the finding that in private schools (the bastion on old traditional schooling!), using 2009 Pisa data, private school students reported higher rates of ‘progressive’ teaching methods, such as group work and relating the work to students’ lives. So this festering ‘progressivism’ if it exists, isn’t coming from state schools.
The Death Grip of Privilege
So what does all this tell us? Well, it most obviously tells us that the Conservatives, and particularly Michael Gove, have no idea about education. And this cluelessness it is indicative of the Conservative idea of social mobility and class. The return of grammar schools to the table highlights the ongoing crisis of social mobility and the influence of UKIP and it’s plea to Conservative backbenchers. It also tells us that Gove, as Education Secretary, really has no idea what he is talking about; he is increasingly out-of-touch with the reality for students today, living in a perverse fantasy world of strict teachers and caning.
I think there is also something else lurking here, something subtler and sinister. I think underlining this is Michael Gove’s desire to undermine and deskill teachers. This sounds like a bold claim but it in may ways quite obvious; it is the final penetration of the market into education. For Gove, teachers hold too much power, as do their unions (NUT and NASUWT), and they stand in the way with their Lefty progressive political correctness. They stand in the way of Gove’s vision for education, despite that vision being very confused. It is for these reasons that Gove has suggested fast-tracking businessmen and women into education, just to show how easy it is to be a teacher, to undermine the teaching profession, and drive down wages.
I’ve not even mentioned Free Schools, which I probably should have, but that’s an article all to itself. Gove’s tenure has shown the what I’ve called the ‘Death Grip of Privilege’, i.e. the distillation of the Tories form of class rule and rigidity and it’s realisation in education through selective admissions and schooling. The evidence is against them, teachers and their unions are against them; but I don’t think Gove or his department care what teachers or students think. It’s all part of their wider attack on society. Ah well, just remember- there’s no such thing as society anyway.