Another SOCK! HORROR! education story. We are told that in recent analysis of PISA data that the children of ‘elementary workers’ in China and Singapore – like cleaners – are outperforming the sons and daughters of British professional middle-class people – like barristers – in mathematics. We are told that this is a critical national issue if we are to maintain our economic competitiveness. Personally, I think a bigger issue for us as a nation is that the children of ‘elementary workers’ in this country rarely if ever, outperform the children of the professional middle-class.
In my humble opinion, education is not about meeting shifting standards, it’s about nurturing universal values. At least, that has been my guiding principle (though I was forced to seriously reflect on that at times, including during the riots that engulfed English cities in the summer of 2011) But now I am even more convinced of it.
Personally I hate that fact. But facts sadly, have the uncomfortable characteristic of being true.
I’m referring to ‘achievement’ here in relation to the standards we set (or we acquiesce in setting) for children through our education system – the SATs, the GCSE and ‘A’ level results by which every young person these days is recognised, judged and even valued.
The way we define and share aspirations is an important factor in achievement – which is why in my view the best schools are the ones which are socially diverse – the ones with a good mix of ‘middle-class’ and ‘working-class’ kids and parents.
But such schools require a social contract.
The ‘middle-class’ parents must accept some compromise in educational ‘standards’ while the pay-off for their children will be the social cohesion and community that ultimately affords them the educational achievement, prosperity and personal security they crave.
The ‘working-class’ parents must accept their kids might aspire to be a different ‘class’ and ‘culture’ and abandon their ‘roots’, while the pay-off is access to new social capital and access to sustainable educational achievement and prosperity.
But this contract, both in schools and in the wider society, seem to be at a critical point of collapse.
Twenty years ago I would regularly visit schools in north London that were very socially mixed. One I can think of had the children of Cabinet ministers, film and television actors, playwrights and rock stars in almost equal number with peers from the nearby council high-rise estates. The school was an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of creativity, innovation and excitement. Plays, concerts, art, dance, crafts of all sorts were as much a part of the curriculum as the three Rs. Parents of mixed backgrounds collaborated with teachers on all kinds of projects for the benefit the whole school community.
I visited the same school recently. All that has gone…
There are still Cabinet ministers, film and television actors and celebrity chefs living nearby, but their children go elsewhere for their schooling. Now the school is almost completely populated by kids from the council estates. Even more worrying – the kids are almost entirely Bangladeshi or Somali – so the ethnic diversity has gone too. Now the teachers are focused on a mission with a different emphasis – much less of ‘building a school community’ and much more of teaching numeracy and literacy to the high ‘standards’ the education system demands.
I’m not saying the education system twenty or thirty years ago was a model for a perfect society, but neither was it a system were ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ were its defining characteristic. There may be aspects of our system that are out-performed by so-called ‘Asian Tiger’ economies. But our system still provides a broad and balanced curriculum that includes literature, drama, music, art and design that results in Britain’s world-leading cultural reputation.
As professional people, how much responsibility should we take for the educational system we operate?
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.