A couple of days ago, Dr Mary Bousted, The Association of Teachers and Lecturers head, voiced the view that schools were segregated along class lines. Back in January, I wrote in:
how education, like politics and economics, is mired in the 19th Century. The picture is of a three-tier system of private education (independent schools), middle tiers (mainly converter academies in the secondary sector) and the rest. From my blog of 22 January, 2012:
Three sectors – remnants of 19th Century decision-making and 19th Century thinking.
Yet, we operate in the 21st Century. Education has to achieve many things yet does something different in each of the three areas.
In the first (the alpha sector), it provides a broad education and the ability to move into society at the highest-level possible. This is through networks (with universities, companies, politics) and through the provision of relevant education – through learning that equips pupils to reach for higher standards to learning that enables pupils to attain the next step (e.g. university).
In the second (the beta sector), network management is usually missing entirely and virtually dispensed with because it is deemed wrong. But, we live with 19th Century norms and this required networking. Education is primarily Government dictated through the curriculum, which is all about exams. The three aspects of learning above are ill considered by most schools even in this sector. However, some break through and many achieve better exam results – although most result in the attainment of tertiary education into the beta sector of universities.
In the Third (Epsilon), many schools (not all, this can be changed) keep kids off the streets (to greater or lesser effect) and provide an entry path into the wider world or working. Networks and networking are non-existent except in the local area. Chances of reaching out and attaining higher levels are poor even though funding is substantial (and higher per head than in the Beta sector).
I am fortunate enough to be Chair of Governors of a converter academy with aspirations to be alpha and pretty close to that aspiration. It is now quite likely that pupils educated at the school will be able to step into the right universities (Russell Group or other top level) and move through society’s obstacles. It is a school where parents have high aspirations for their kids and where the school reflects that and leads that aspiration. Motivation is high and there is now a virtuous circle of expectation. This is the Big Society in practice – we all (staff, students, governors, families, local community) share in the benefits and successes of the school.
But, the stratification of society is cemented into position by the school structure. This is not quite what it used to be – there is now an aspirational middle tier that is forcing the pace of education and aspiration. It is a constant problem, though, that schools get placed in locations that they have to serve. Schools can’t (in the main) relocate to improve their intake. They are literally stuck and location means that a school has to accept its intake (whether at primary or secondary level) and do its best.
Aspirations, aspirations, aspirations
What Government is doing is to shake the education bottle – so-called competition for schools, a variety of types of school, new Ofsted leadership and criteria, an end to modular exams at GCSE, more focus on English and maths and the baccalaureate subjects.
Some of this is good, some neutral, and some harmful – but it is all focused on the schools. It is the education, education, education mantra allied with the change, change, change reality that schools are hit with by every government of every complexion.
What is it apart from this that will change the whole nature of education and also deal with the issues that Dr Bousted raises (as I raised three months ago)?
It is all about aspiration.
The aspirations of the kids are directly the result of the aspirations for them of their parents / guardians. In areas where low aspiration parents can send their kids to a high aspiration school, then the kids can (possibly) raise their targets to compete.
But, where the whole school is in an area of low aspiration (mainly those in inner cities and low income areas), then low aspirations of the parents will transfer to low aspirations of their kids. Staff may fight this but they are limited by the level of life expectation of their “raw material”.
Attempts to change this through investment in the earlier type of Academies have been well meant, expensive and occasionally successful. Education groups (companies and organisations taking over failing schools) can bring some sort of attainment to their students and raise the bar. These are too few to be meaningful and the high funding levels have been curtailed as we enter a prolonged period of austerity. If this is not to be a pervasive system (and it won’t be), are free schools or equivalent an answer?
The contract between state, education and families
No education system will produce 100% scientists, doctors, mathematicians or similar and nor should they. We are all different and society needs a mixture. What we don’t need is the mixture that Huxley’s Brave New World’s dystopian future predicted. We need to evolve our education to meet the needs of society and individuals now – no three tier society from birth but an aspirational society where success is based on capability and merit.
Continued development of the education of our children is crucial to this but it is not sufficient. Dr Bousted’s fears are justified unless we can provide an aspiration amongst our kids and their parents / wider families.
It is no longer sufficient to take pupils into a system and try to modify their minds when, for most of their time they are facing outside pressures from families and peer groups that ridicule the aspirational notions that a good school may try to employ.
It is no longer enough for schools to be expected on their own to persuade parents that they have to inspire as much as the schools try; that kids should, from whatever their background, raise their aspirations to maximize their opportunities – just as wave after wave of immigrant families have done in the UK for generation after generation.
There is a contract signed between parents / guardians and their schools. The contract fails in a key respect (apart of its complete lack of enforceability, of course) – it fails because the focus is only on the pupil. The contract needs to be one where the family provides the environment in which a child can use the opportunities that a good school can provide. The contract needs to be able to ensure that the wider community (which is mainly the family but may be the local community especially in areas of intense peer pressure and gang cultures) ensures that the child is provided with a culture of aspiration.
Changing family aspirations – alpha-oriented
Vast numbers of changes to our education system (to our schools especially) happen every year. At the same time, society seems to be going backwards. Movement between class structures has been stymied and income differences in the UK are growing as the economy shudders to a halt (factory production is still 9% below the all-time high from 5 years ago).
Schools have to continuously improve but it is not enough. The need for every school to be a very good one, offering the best for our children is crucial but an unreal expectation as the reality of society impedes it. Dr Bousted is right in that class infects schools through their location. However, bussing kids around will not work – what may work is a focus of the local community aided by government on the families.
Changing aspirations within family groups is the key to improving education within the toughest and most deprived areas. Kids can change on their own, but only in isolated pockets – where some incredible teacher exists, for example. Anecdotes that show that it can happen are not enough. We should not see the exceptions as the rule. The rule should be extended to where families and local communities demand and work hard for aspirations to be extended; where maybe a middle class tenacity to succeed and take advantage of the opportunities presented exist everywhere.
To do this, pilot schemes should be started alongside the school programmes in areas of greatest challenge. Here funds should be provided and contracts entered into to maximise parental involvement (and local community groups, too, where this is needed) and where research should be carried out where it works so success can be shared. Where needed, this should encourage education opportunities for parents and families so that education is seen as the norm – not something to be shunned as soon as possible. Local government and local companies should be more than one week a lifetime work studies – there should be a continuous involvement.
Where it works already, this must be copied and studied again and again.
Local communities often see the school as the community hub. But, this has been in the absence of anything else and the community uses the school as a place to hold events. Now, we should see the school as a real community hub – the focus of families and our children to address themselves to the real contract – raising the aspirational levels of all our kids so that families are educated together. Education should be seen as the huge opportunity is really is.
We talk about “joined-up thinking” but society needs to be joined up, too, in the way it works. The 21st Century has provided the opportunity for us to join on-line and it is a benefit. The real benefit would be a localism that is based on the school (nursery, primary and secondary) and links those schools with the families for joint education. Schooling should genuinely be life-long so that birth should not dictate your future and a real availability of opportunity should be our aspiration.