Diane Reay (University of Cambridge)
The most significant inequalities in education are being taken as read by the major political parties. In the run up to the election none of them are proposing anything that will increase fairness and equality in schools, while the Conservative party proposals would actually result in real-term cuts in educational funding if they are re-elected. Yet, we no longer have an educational system that is fit for purpose. I could focus on many undemocratic and damaging aspects of the current system but I will start with the ideological focus on diversity (a term that, in practice, means hierarchy). ‘Diversity’ in terms of school provision has degenerated into divisiveness and gross inequality. The private schools have always been about prioritising the education of the rich few at the expense of the less affluent many. In 2015 spending per head in the private sector remains two and a half times spending per head in the state maintained sector. But now we are seeing inequitable levels of spending across the state sector as well. This has resulted in a hierarchy of schooling that replicates the football league with a Premier league, the Championship, league one and league two. In this cutthroat competitive environment, the state maintained comprehensive is increasingly relegated to the lower leagues. There are inadequate and half-hearted attempts to address such unfairness. The Pupil Premium (like previous schemes targeted at poorer pupils) is a tiny part of the system, and only accounted for 2 per cent of overall school spending in 2012/13 (Lupton and Thompson 2015).
The Education Committee on Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children concluded in 2014 that “schools face a battle for resources and talent, and those serving poor white communities need a better chance of winning”. But education should neither be a battle to be fought over nor should it be a stark choice between winning and losing. Rather, I would argue, in any democratic country worthy of the name, education should be a right and an entitlement of all citizens. Essentially, it should be about a fair chance for all; a goal that has never been realised in the UK, and one we are still miles away from achieving. So it is essential for any new government to instigate a wide-ranging debate about what education is for. This would involve questioning and challenging the underlying rationale of the current system, and taking a principled lead in laying out a blueprint for a socially just system underpinned by democratic rather than elitist principles.
Growing processes of segregration
There is much that needs to be transformed but not in the direction our politicians want to go. David Cameron is calling for a rapid expansion of the free schools programme after the next election. Yet, the growing hierarchy of school provision has resulted in increasing class and racial segregation. I have been researching in English schools for 25 years and I now see growing numbers of schools that are 100% working class, schools with over 90% minority ethnic intake, as well as schools where almost all the students are white and middle class. Current research shows that Convertor Academies and Grammar schools are particularly problematic for levels of segregation, but the emerging evidence on Free schools shows similar patterns of segregation (Gorard et al 2013) . Segregated schools limit the possibilities for empathy and wider understanding and knowledge, and they increase social distance between different groups in society. So I would argue that any new government needs to address the growing social class and racial segregation and polarisation in schooling by promoting and rewarding the existence of social mix in schools. But social mix in schools will have limited impact on reducing inequalities if children are segregated from each other in different sets and streams. My research, with Gill Crozier and David James (2013) on the white middle classes who remain in non-selective state secondary schools shows that they nearly all experience a class segregated education in the top sets. As Davina, one of the white middle class students told us “Its good because if you are in set one you know you are top of the pile”. This language of ‘top of the pile’ clearly indicates a sense of superiority that processes of setting and streaming build upon and encourage. In contrast, I would argue that we require an educational system without segregation between schools or within them; one that encourages children to learn together across differences of social class and race.
The interminable focus on parental choice has further increased educational segregation and polarisation. All the major political parties valorize choice without recognizing that choices come with resources that remain very unequally distributed. One consequence of a choice-based system is that the working classes have largely ended up with the educational ‘choices’ that the middle and upper classes do not want to make. It is vital therefore to change the current status quo which gives priority to upper and middle class parental choice and produces a grossly unfair system that has become a means of getting ahead of others, of stealing a competitive edge. Possibilities for developing a much fairer system do exist. Research shows that the vast majority of British people still see education as a right that should be made available to all rather than a commodity to be competed for in an educational marketplace. 86% reject the idea of schooling being run for profit, and the vast majority do not want to run their children’s schools. They just want them to have a good education that realizes their potential. It is this grassroots sense of what education could and should be that the next government needs to build on rather than following the current government’s neoliberal lead.
The answer does not lie in social mobility
In 2015 the main way of ensuring a fair education system is seen to be through increasing social mobility. As a coal miner’s daughter who spent her entire schooling on free school meals, and is now a Cambridge Professor, I can say with certainty that social mobility is a flawed solution. Moving a few of us working classes into the middle and upper classes is primarily a means of recycling class inequality rather than reducing it. Rather, classrooms have to be transformed from the task-driven, target-led, overly competitive environments they currently are, environments that impact negatively on the wellbeing of all children, but particularly the large numbers of working class children who then become positioned as educational failures. A revalorizing of vocational and working class knowledges and a broadening out of what constitutes educational success, beyond the narrowly academic, is long overdue. We need an educational system that accords respect to the working classes, attributes positive value to workingclassness, and realizes working class children’s educational potential. In almost 150 years of state education for all, the educational system has signally failed to achieve this.
The failures of the national curriculum and the testing regime
In 2015, we find a gap opening up between the curriculum offered to the upper and middle classes, and that on offer to working class children. This has always been the situation between the private and state sectors, but now differences in the quality and breadth of curriculum on offer are widening within the state sector. As the Royal Society’s OPSN report found ‘the curriculum taught to children in poorer parts of Britain is significantly different to that taught in wealthier areas” (Taylor 2015) resulting in restricted educational opportunities for working class children. The obsessive preoccupation with testing and assessment has turned education into a punishment for many working class children as they are drilled in the 3Rs in order to improve schools’ league table positions. Children in the predominantly working class primary schools I have visited over the 2010s have spoken about rarely doing art or music, and missing out on dance and drama. This isn’t the case for children in middle class schools, yet the latter have parents who can afford to pay for enriching out of school activities while the former do not.
No one would dispute that the 3Rs are important, but teaching children to be caring, respectful, cooperative, knowledgeable about their own and others’ histories are all equally, if not more, important. We need to develop pedagogies that encourage students to question as well develop social and political awareness. Problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity should be at the heart of any National Curriculum not at its margins.
Developing a fair educational system demands bold, flexible, radical solutions that accord equal value and respect to all regardless of differences of race and class; that see social justice, not in the sense it has been appropriated by the right wing, but in the sense of equal provision and treatment. Education in Britain has always been underpinned by the belief that only a minority could or should succeed. And, it is evident from the research quoted earlier that the current educational system discriminates on the basis of race and social class. Tinkering with an unjust system that is not fit for purposes simply moves the inequalities around from one part of the system to another. Any government that is serious about reducing inequalities in education will need to look at the whole system and its relationship to the wider economy and society. We will never achieve a socially just educational system in a society where competitive individualism is rife, and the working classes are seen as deficient, written off as those who are failing to make themselves middle class. Rather, the educational system we need is one that accepts and develops the best qualities of working class living, not one that valorises and idealises the middle and upper classes as ‘the best learners’, deserving more because they already have more. As Alan Bennett asserted in his sermon in the King’s College Chapel, Cambridge in 2014 “We all know that to educate not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is not only wrong but a waste”. It is time to put aside earlier attempts to select and reject in order to rear an elite, and, for the first time, make an effort to develop an education system which is designed to realise the potential of all students not just a select few.
Diane Reay is Professor of Education at Cambridge University.