This week the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) held their annual conference. In the closing speech to the conference, the head of the union, Mary Bousted, gave a speech about the effects of poverty on schooling. In her speech, she criticised the way that education in this country is ‘stratified along class lines.’ She also argued that
‘If the poor don’t make as much progress as the rich, it is the school and the teachers within it who are to blame.
“This, you and I know, is a nonsense. It is a lie which conveniently enables ministers to evade responsibility for the effects of their policies.’
Dr Bousted is correct to note that the poor in this country do not make as much educational progress as the rich. I agree with her that it in many cases it is not the school and teachers to blame for this situation, although I would probably not go so far as to say that this idea was a complete lie. I also agree with her that one of the reasons why poorer kids do not do so well is because of the effect of government policies.
One of the main reasons that poorer children do worse in school is because it has been the policy of successive governments to downplay the importance of hierarchies of knowledge, and indeed of knowledge in general. This is terrible for all pupils who are educated in the state education system, rich or poor. But it is particularly terrible for poor children because their parents are less likely to be able to supply the gaps in their knowledge. Middle-class parents can rectify a lot of the gaps in their children’s knowledge through their own knowledge, or through private tutors. Poorer parents can’t.
One response to this problem is to claim that the sorts of knowledge I am talking about are not in fact that important, and that the only reason they are deemed important is because middle-class people run institutions and can therefore mould them in their own image. I disagree. The sort of ‘cultural capital’ I am talking about is not some kind of elitist scam designed to protect access to institutions. Correct spelling, punctuation and grammar have value because they allow people to communicate clearly. Shakespeare’s plays have value because they display great insight into the human condition. Trigonometry has value because it allows us to construct buildings which don’t collapse. The germ theory of disease has value because it allows us to cure terrible illnesses. These categories of knowledge have value because they are valuable. Other categories of knowledge are less valuable. There is no scam about it.
Moreover, there is nothing about any of these aspects of cultural capital that is intrinsically ‘middle-class’, ‘upper-class’ or ‘working-class’. They are the greatest achievements of humanity, and they belong to all of us. Of course, if state schools neglect these aspects of knowledge and concentrate on supposedly more ‘relevant’ knowledge instead, then these aspects of knowledge will only be taught by private schools and will come to be associated with the wealthy. But that does not change the fact that intrinsically, there is nothing ‘elitist’ about this knowledge. It belongs to everyone.
And so, as I said at the start, I agree with Mary Bousted. The reason why poorer pupils do worse than wealthier pupils isn’t because the school and teachers are to blame. It is instead to do with ‘the system’ – a system which denies poorer kids important cultural capital. Where I depart from Dr Bousted is that I would include her organization as a part of this system. It isn’t just government ministers and government quangos who have pushed the anti-knowledge line. Unfortunately, major teaching unions, including the ATL, have been as prominent in ensuring that poor children are denied knowledge. In 2006, the ATL published a position statement on the curriculum called Subject to Change which rejected the importance of the sorts of knowledge I have outlined.
Dr Bousted’s foreword to the report argued that we need to
‘prepare young people for a world in which what is known to be true changes by the hour; a world in which access to information is at the touch of a keyboard, where rote learning of facts must give way to nurturing through education of essential transferable skills that enable the next generation to navigate the information age.’
The main report argued that high culture is ‘in reality is closely related to the lifestyle of an upper class which asserts the right to define quality’, that ‘the best learning occurs when pupils cocreate their own knowledge’ and that we ‘should move away from defining the curriculum in terms of knowledge’ in favour of a more skills-based approach.
The entire report marginalises the role of facts and knowledge, promotes false ideas about the ability of skills to be transferred across domains, overstates and misdiagnoses the impact of modern technology and suggests that hierarchies of knowledge are unfair social constructions.
In 2007, Martin Johnson, who is the main author of the report as well as the ATL’s deputy general secretary, expanded on these ideas. As well as claiming that ‘for the state to suggest that some knowledge should be privileged over other knowledge is a bit totalitarian in a 21st century environment’, he also argued that the curriculum should concentrate on life skills such as walking.
‘There’s a lot to learn about how to walk. If you were going out for a Sunday afternoon stroll you might walk one way. If you’re trying to catch a train you might walk in another way and if you are doing a cliff walk you might walk in another way.
‘If you are carrying a pack, there’s a technique in that. We need a nation of people who understand their bodies and can use their bodies effectively.’
So, to go back to the point of Dr Bousted’s speech today, which is that schools are stratified by class – how on earth would the ATL’s curriculum plans make this situation any better? If it were down to them, state school pupils would spend their time in school learning how to walk. Private school pupils, and those whose parents could afford private tuition, would learn about correct spelling and grammar, trigonometry and Shakespeare. If there is a worse way than this to try and address the class stratification of education I am yet to hear it.
I used to be a member of the ATL, and for one year I was a workplace representative. I have a lot of admiration for the fine work they do in representing teachers and defending their rights. But I eventually had to leave the union because I could not in good faith continue to pay subscriptions to an organization whose policies on the curriculum and teaching were so wrong and so particularly awful for poor pupils.