Educational Attitudes

Quite a few people will have watched the BBC2 programme “Unequal Opportunities” presented on September 20th by John Humphrys, former BBC news anchorman and now the abrasive interrogator of people in the public eye for one reason or another.

“Unequal Opportunities” is about the problems of British state education as seen by Mr Humphrys over a year long series of visits to primary and secondary schools.  The programme closely followed the text of the Sunday Times article on September 19th, “Why our schools need BIG HEADS”.

The general thesis followed the standard sociology view that Britain’s state education is deeply “unfair” to “poor” children for three main reasons: their families’ low income; clusters of poor teachers in schools in “deprived areas”; the “sharp-elbowed” middle-classes grabbing more than their “fair share” of educational “resources” by various means.  These means include apparently reading to their children, moving house to be in the catchment area of a “good” school, and the ultimate of horrors – paying for their children to go to independent (private) schools, “stealing the best teachers” as one Liberal Democrat claimed at that Party’s recent conference.

Quotes are placed round certain words above not because the concepts don’t exist, but because in the context of the Sunday Times article, the BBC2 programme and educational debate, they are usually undefined by the writers and broadcasters.

Indeed the phrase “middle-class” seems often to be used as a term of abuse by people like some of the clearly middle-class women delegates at the LibDem conference for instance, who seem to have a generalised hatred of the middle class.  They seem in fact to be haters of their own kind (hotoks), with a generalised view of the (largely unknown to them) saintly qualities of the female working classes – “struggling valiantly on their own to bring up their children”.

Some obviously do struggle, but the issue always is how many are not trying very hard with their children’s education.  Money is not the only factor in poverty; laziness and sloppiness are others.  In the despised middle classes perhaps half of the parents (say 350,000) sending their children to independent schools, sacrifice major features of what would otherwise be a comfortable lifestyle – foreign holidays, new furnishings, meals out, a detached house and so on.  Again, does any one self-employed count as “middle-class” in the eyes of educational sociologues?  The founder of the Campaign for Real Education recounts his experiences of taxi-drivers in Birmingham – Asian to a man – all paying around £250 per month for their children to have private coaching to pass the 11+ exam in order to get to one of Birmingham’s eight remaining independent grammar schools.  Are the parents of these children acting as if they were parents of “rich thick kids”, depriving “poor intelligent ones” of their fair share, as our secretary of state for Education, Michael Gove (Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen and Oxford University), described it.  Or are these parents members of the striving classes, whose work ethic is what Britain needs more than ever, who feel they know where the best education is to be had and make the sacrifices needed to give their children the best chance of it?

And here we have a mystery – Mr Humphrys totally ignored the grammar schools of which 164 survive despite the desperate efforts of the Schools Educational Establishment and the politicians to close them down, opposed by the determined efforts of parents to keep them open.  Why?

Nothing much has changed over 50 years in knowledge of the factors affecting academic attainment, since Dr J W B Douglas published his classic study “The Home and the School” in 1964 (MacGibbon and Kee Ltd and Panther Modern Society 1967).  Besides genetic inheritance, the main factors identified were parental interest, housing, family size, and the academic record of the school – pretty much those rediscovered in the BBC2 programme.

Unlike that programme and most Labour and LibDem activists, Dr Douglas did not demonize the fee-paying schools, nor did he assume that the factors which lead parents to prefer these schools were a product of a uniquely British class-ridden society.  Some knowledge of other countries’ educational systems is a good antidote to this continual and absurd denigration of our country.

Thus in the USA, there are nearly 6 million pupils (aged 5 to 18) in private (i.e. fee-paying) schools (US Education Service data 1998-9).  This is nearly 9% of the US school population (actually greater than the UK’s 7%).  A glance at the prospectus of US private schools will reveal exactly the same arguments for private education as in the UK – smaller classes, better facilities, calm and ordered learning environment.  And of course US top (Ivy League) universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton et al) are all private institutions which have levied full-cost fees from their beginnings – 1636 in the case of Harvard.

Across the border in Toronto, the existence of Upper Canada College (1400 pupils, founded 1829) reputedly modelled on Eton, is not seen as a middle-class blot on Canada’s educational landscape – rather as one of its many glories.

Across the Channel, Belgium, France, Germany maintain systems of grammar schools (lycées, gymnasiums) and comprehensives (colleges d’enseignement general, gesamt schulen) without there being everlasting argument about their divisive nature.

In fact the constant harping on about class and alleged lack of social mobility in Britain is not so much a reflection of British reality, but in an essentially British marxist obsession with “equality” which has become so embedded in British educational theory that many teachers and commentators seem completely unaware of how discredited a view marxism actually is.  It has obscured, and continues to obscure, the fact that the two main determinants of educational success other than genetic inheritance– parental encouragement and schools leadership – are not dependent on high incomes, but are in the hands of individuals and the pupils if they make a determined and sustained effort to overcome difficulties – a quality which is urgently needed to replace the whinge and complaints society we now have in Britain.

In 1989, the then Head Master of St Paul’s Boys’ School in London, gathered together a large number of people involved in education (teachers, local educational authorities, college heads and so on) to discuss its problems.  “More Matter Less Art“, the paper presented by the present writer contained the following table of the contrasting outcomes of the two rival educational philosophies practised in Britain then and today – the Permissive Approach and the Exacting Approach.

Permissive Exacting
1 Uncertain about what they can actually usefully do Confident they can do some things well
2 Give up easily Determined learners
3 Self-satisfied Self-critical
4 Clamorous Self-disciplined
5 Sloppy Conscientious
6 Vague, but opinionated Knowledgeable about the basics of a subject
7 Ignorant of Britain’s history and geography (this is by design) Know the great landmarks and achievements of our national story and language
8 Poorly qualified, rootless individuals, easy prey to passing fashions and obsessions Readily employable good citizens of their country

The BBC2 programme interviewed two state secondary school headmasters, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Sir William Armstrong, who have turned their schools round from ‘failing’ to ‘outstanding’.  The outcomes the two headmasters extolled as necessary to their success are pretty much 1-6 in the “exacting” column of the table above.

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