A future going backwards (part 1)

by Professor Sally Tomlinson, University of Oxford


So here we are in the 21st century seeing an education system being shaped on 19th century patterns rather than a system for the future. In those days, a combination of religious and charitable interests, emerging business interests in mass education following industrialisation, and growing working class political demands, resulted in class-based hierarchies of schools. So what’s new?

A major ‘new’, despite the denigration of ‘low achievers’ and ‘failing schools’, is that mass education has turned out to be quite a success. In one respect it is too successful, with a labouring class now educated to much higher levels than can be accommodated in a digital economy. Rather than plan economies around this success, governments are worrying how to distribute education so that people once more ‘know their place’.

Longstanding beliefs help here. Plato’s myth that people are born as gold, silver or brass remains excellent propaganda for keeping people in their allotted place. Behind the mantra that every child must be educated to fulfil his or her ‘potential’, lie deterministic assumptions that children are able, less able, average, unable or disabled.

Eugenic beliefs in the innate inferiority of lower social classes and racial groups are being resurrected. In 1869, Galton was arguing not only that genius and talent were ‘in-born’ but so too were low ability, mental defects, delinquency, crime, prostitution, unemployment and other social evils. One remedy was to control the family size of the lower classes. (Oops! are current child welfare restrictions actually aimed at restricting the family size of poorer groups?)

Belief in fixed ability influenced the men (mainly public school educated men) who designed the school system after WW2. Children were divided at age 11 into grammar and secondary modern (and in some places technical) schools, though the rich and influential used private schools. At least in those days school leavers normally got jobs.

The next step was the spread of comprehensives, allowing more young people to be prepared for examinations. A national system of good local schools, funded by taxpayers and with local democratic input, became a possibility. However, a shadow was soon cast by a recession in the 1970s and the disappearance of jobs: rather than tackle the economy, politicians started agonising over educational ‘standards’, with a major emphasis on schooling as preparation for work

Thatcher’s neoliberalism brought re-commitment to a 19th century scenario in which free consumers embrace the laws of the market for personal and familial profit. Education was to become a competitive business, and by the 1990s local authorities were being sidelined and ‘choice and diversity’ was the mantra. An expanded middle class competed for the best state-maintained schools, if they could not afford the private schooling which offered the business and social networks that promised secure well-paid employment. Despite a rhetoric of ‘opportunity for the many’ and a vaunted concern for ‘the disadvantaged’, governments of all shades have persisted in re-creating a class-based hierarchical school system. Overt and covert selective policies, still based on the notions of ‘fixed abilities’, separate aspirant and middle classes from the poorer groups. Competitive individualism and a desperate ‘my child needs to be better than yours’ now guides educational consciousness.

This is a situation in which more advantaged social groups struggle to maintain privilege for their children in preparation for a competitive global economy. It is marked by avoidance of vocational education and practical training, as well as avoidance of the poor. Think of the money being made in the tutoring industry.

The coalition government of 2010-2015 continued to wipe out the influence of local education authorities. Supposedly self-sustaining competitive schools and academy chains sign individual agreements and receive funding directly from central government, giving new opportunities for Boards and Trusts to make money. The current Conservative government promises more of the same. The Department of Education carries out policies at ministerial whim, with no consultation. Power is centralised in the person of the Secretary of State and the running of a nation’s school system has been increasingly handed over to business, religious bodies and (in the case of ‘free schools’) to the vested interests of some parental groups. While old beliefs in fixed intelligence are resurrected to justify different schools for different children, crocodile tears are wept for those children who need better teachers and ‘school leaders’. Nineteenth century punitive regimes are restored for excluding those who are difficult to teach.

The irony is that the government is struggling to do better in international comparisons of achievement promising better economic performance, despite persisting with a fragmented system increasingly shown to be dysfunctional in a global economy.

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