Sunday, 8 April 2012

Schools still failing to bridge the class divide.

Class is the last great taboo in British political discourse. The left daren’t talk about it for fear of sounding envious; the right worry that doing so will draw attention to their largely privileged origins.

As a result we’ve ended up in a situation where New Labour bent over so far backwards to prove they were relaxed about people becoming filthy rich their spine had fragmented long before Northern Rock went to the wall. As for the Tories, the ever more desperate efforts of Citizen Dave and his chums to show us they’re ordinary blokes only serves to convince sceptical voters that if they do eat pasties then they probably have them served up on a silver salver.

Even though her comments about indulgent parents turning their children into ‘spoilt little Buddhas’ provided an easier quote for the media to hang its coverage on Dr Mary Boustead of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) deserves praise for raising the issue of class, in particular the ‘toxic’ effect it has on the education system.

Speaking to the ATL annual conference in Manchester this week she said the UK currently has ‘schools for the elite, schools for the middle class and schools for the working class’, what it doesn’t have, she went on to say, is schools with a mixed intake where children from all backgrounds can learn together ‘those intangible skills of aspiration, effort and perseverance from one another.’

This, Dr Boustead said, created a situation that was ‘toxic for the poorest and most dispossessed’ students. She hit out at the impact government ‘austerity’ policies were having on the educational chances for students from poorer families and the claim that schools weren’t doing enough to tackle underachievement.

It was, she said, ‘a lie that conveniently enables ministers to evade responsibility for the effects of their policies’ and that schools were ‘straining every sinew’ to help disadvantaged students get the best out of their time at school, but were fighting a losing battle against the effects of ill health, poverty and deprivation, problems she accused Education Secretary Michael Gove and the government as a whole of wilfully disregarding.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education told the BBC that although schools ‘couldn’t be expected to solve every problem’ related to deprivation they should do more to challenge poor performance rather than ‘defending a culture of failure.’

Issues of class, even though it makes us nervous to talk about them, are at the heart of the current chin stroking debate about what schools are for currently occupying so many people who, allegedly, are the owners of first class minds. The one thing they aren’t , Michael Gove tells us with finger wagging certainty, is engines of social engineering, even though he has had his own oily overalls on since taking office.

This, after all, is the Education Secretary who has driven the process of turning schools into academies at breakneck speed; downgraded vocational education to the fury of the business sector and only last week endorsed plans to hand over writing the A Level syllabus to the Russell Group universities. He has also backed endless inane plans to bring back Latin lessons and to make teachers dress up in gowns and mortar boards that serve no real purpose other than to get his name into the papers.

If all that isn’t social engineering then I’m the Easter Bunny.

It is certainly part of a plan to turn the educational clock back to some idealised vision of a Britain where everyone knew their place and the people who worked with their brains were kept separate from the people who got their hands dirty by a Berlin wall of prejudice and thinly veiled snobbery. If reversing at full speed is your plan for the future you’ve got serious problems.

To stand still never mind compete in the twenty first century the last thing Britain needs is to maintain the current situation where intellectuals look down on rude mechanicals; that way lies disaster. What we need is a society where whether they do so with their hands or their brains, or in many cases a bit of both, people work together for a shared aim.

One of the most powerful tools for creating such a society is the education system, the experiences people have at school like those they have in the family home shape the rest of their lives. If that means taxing the rich a little more to make sure children form poor families get an education that allows them to achieve their full potential so be it, in the long term even the people who complain about being squeezed until the pips squeak will benefit.

Being obsessed with class is as much a part of the experience of being British as queuing, warm beer and inventing sports the rest of the world is better than us at, we shouldn’t though hold back from doing all we can to minimise its effect. The most efficient way of doing so term is through schools policy, however for that to happen we need a more sensible engineer at the controls of the educational machinery.

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