The education fetish

What can education do? The somewhat shocking truth is, probably a lot less than you think, which is unfortunate given that the independent report into the causes of 2011’s riots seems to be pinning a lot of hope on schools as social fixer-uppers. The report recommends that schools “demonstrate how they are building pupils’ characters”; where schools fail to get pupils to minimum literacy standards, the report suggests there should be a financial penalty.

These policies (along with tens of other recommendations) are supposed to reach out to the “forgotten families”. It’s an instrumental case for education. We don’t educate children because every child deserves to be educated; we educate them because it will give them a “stake in society”. In fact, if you listen carefully to the rhetoric of education reform, you might notice that the only argument offered for education is an instrumental one. Here’s Labour apparatchik Andrew Adonis explaining why free schools should be welcomed by lefties:

Free schools are Labour’s invention. They were a crucial part of our drive to promote equality of opportunity and social mobility, particularly in disadvantaged communities with low educational standards.

What’s the argument for free schools? Not that they provide an outstanding education, but that they “promote equality of opportunity and social mobility”. And I suppose that would be laudable if true. But it isn’t true. The FT’s Christopher Cook analysed the relationship between economic background and educational achievement, and this is what he found:

The killer problem for social mobility is not that there are a few schools which have all the poor children in them (though that is a factor), it is that poorer children tend to do badly even when they go to good schools.

It’s not that schools are irrelevant, exactly. Schools can probably drag a student down: a well-off kid who landed in a sinkhole school would probably have horribly compromised prospects (though of course, well-off parents have the wherewithal to make sure that their children don’t land in a sinkhole school in the first place, thank you very much). What schools can’t do is pull their pupils up very far. That shouldn’t be a great surprise: kids won’t see the inside of a school until they’re four, and when they do, it’s for six hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year.

That’s a fair whack of time, but it’s less than a tenth of a child’s life between birth and 16. Yet somehow, the expectation persists that schools can overcome the other 90% of a child’s life – its home life – to create equality of opportunity. It’s an absurd belief but a necessary one, because we live in a time where equality of outcome is about as politically popular as a shit on a stick. The dirty truth is, there is no equality of opportunity for children without some equality of outcome for their parents. The parents’ outcome, by and large, defines the child’s opportunity. A fetish for education as a solution rather than a right is just a soothing watercolour tacked over the nasty, grey, expanding damp patch of inequality.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; photo by smokeghost, used under Creative Commons

7 thoughts on “The education fetish

  1. I like the contrast between education-as-solution and education-as-a-right. Sums up the two very different forces that have shaped mass education historically: an egalitarian radical humanism “from below” versus a technocratic concern for an adequately trained workforce “from above”.

    Incidentally, recent research by educationalist Terry Wrigley has cast doubt on the claim that academies get better results than ordinary state schools. He argues that this is down to academies promoting “vocational equivalents” rather than straight GCSEs, and once you strip out the equivalents their performance plummets.

    More details here:

  2. Difficult to disagree. Families and the community have a much greater influence, but greater still, I’m afraid, are the attitudes portrayed by the media. ‘Must-have’ materialism; getting your own way by violence (or threat of); negative role models.
    Teachers are, of course, important but to think they can undo the damage done by the media and the breakup or dysfunction of families is a convenient mistake.

  3. I’d missed that, but it’s fascinating – and unsurprising, because of course academies would be under extraordinary pressure to show improvement by any means. Thanks Bat.

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