Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Out with the Old - Defying Tradition in Defence of Poor Children

Andrew Old, staunch defendant of traditional education and scourge of Ofsted, said yesterday that I thought kids from poor backgrounds won't achieve whatever we do. Which is ironic because I'm the only education blogger I know who thinks that the fact academic performance is so closely linked to socio-economic status is entirely due to schools.

Schools march to the drumbeat of results. Through levels, though not any more, to grades to results. These marks tell children where they are in a hierarchy. A hierarchy of respect from their teachers that they know will become a hierarchy of income. For the kids at the top, results day is magical, officially confirming their top status. For the kids in the middle it's a step closer to the day they can start proving that they're not average. For the kids at the bottom it's not a pleasant experience but at least it's an old one. Throughout their childhoods they've been told they are inferior and they've reacted to this slow-motion, institutional violence with hostility and shame. If you'd be ashamed to come last in a passing competition, how would you feel if you came last in the competition for a place in society?

We know there's a strong link between educational failure and going to prison. Although the government doesn't do a good of job of tracking prisoners' attainment at school, a report from 2005 claimed that half of prisoners have a reading age below that expected of an eleven-year-old and research by Civitas claims 49% of prisoners were excluded from school. Usually this is explained in terms of what those people lack: a good education, and the solution is we do what we've always done, only better. This explanation doesn't hold water; lots of immigrants come here with no qualifications and they don't show anything like the same propensity to crime. A better explanation of why people, educated all their lives in the UK, turn on society is to look at the way society has treated them. They've been humiliated and sought revenge against the society that caused this pain.

We choose to do this. Our education system doesn't have to rank children from A* to U, or 9 to 1, from glorious Oxbridge down to failed NEET. We do it because it's what we've always done, since mass education was invented in the days of Downton season one. Choosing a different curriculum, one grounded in the principle of equality, would not only transform the experience of school for poor children, it would transform society. The only thing standing in its way is our sense of superiority.  

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