At Last: Gove Goes For the Culture of Excuses

Our most ambitious state schools are successfully challenging the suffocating idea that social class determines educational success

“However specious in theory the project might be of giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness.”

Davies Giddy MP, 1807

“The academic, subject-based curriculum is a middle-class creation . . . whose effect, if not intention, has been to make it difficult for many children not from a middle-class background to adjust to a highly academic school culture.”

Professor John White, 2007

Although two centuries and the political spectrum divide these two quotations, they are united in an important sense: both deny the ability of poor children to benefit from an academic education. The first quotation comes from a Tory MP speaking against the 1807 Parochial Schools bill. The second comes from a man at the heart of today’s education establishment, an emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London. His is a different sort of bigotry, one that comes with the gentle inflection of liberal sympathy, but is no less socially damaging. “The soft bigotry of low expectations” is a phrase many, including the Education Secretary Michael Gove, have used to describe such thinking. 

In February, Gove gave a speech to the Social Market Foundation which will be remembered as one of the definitive accounts of his mission. Introducing a new, more academic National Curriculum, Gove confronted the idea that such schooling is not suitable for all pupils. He described a pair of exceptional London state schools, and said such schools demonstrated that “children from every background are as capable of success — as able to grasp for the glittering prizes — as children from the wealthiest backgrounds, if they are given access to the sort of education which the rich have always felt they should enjoy by right.”

The idea that all pupils should receive an academic education may sound like an incontrovertible platitude. In fact, it is a declaration of war on the received wisdom of state education. To understand the significance of this war, one has to know something of the intellectual history of British schooling. “The soft bigotry of low expectations” has its origins in what can be seen as a “sociological” view of education. In 1970, the radical sociologist Basil Bernstein wrote an essay for the now defunct magazine New Society entitled “Education cannot compensate for society”. He argued that social and economic factors have such an overwhelmingly strong effect on children’s upbringing that schools are powerless to overcome their socially predetermined chance of success. The title of his essay became something of an adage in schools; one professor at the Institute of Education observed, “We are all, in some respects, Bernsteinians now.”

 I am under no illusions about the challenges posed to schools in deprived areas. Throughout the country, parental income remains the best predictor of a pupil’s success at school. It was revealed last year that only 4 per cent of pupils aged 15 eligible for free school meals end up going to university, compared with 33 per cent of their wealthier peers. However, while it is one thing to say that a low socioeconomic background tends to hold back a child’s education, it is something completely different to say that their education can only improve once their low socioeconomic status is changed. When transferred from the lecture theatre to the classroom, this sociological determinism — we might call it “the sociological view” — breeds a culture of excuses and low expectations. 

I teach at an inner-city state school, and the academic and behavioural expectations made of the pupils are distressingly low. Our catchment area is deprived, but it is hardly a ghetto. Unemployment is high, and about 40 per cent of the pupils are eligible for free school meals, meaning their parents have a combined income of less than £16,190. However, many of the pupils come from stable, hard-working families, and it is only a small minority whose home lives can be described as “chaotic”.

One can judge the extent to which an “excuses culture” pervades a school by the frequency with which references are made to “our kids”. At my school, this phrase, redolent with sympathy and concern, is used on a daily basis to keep standards low. When a pupil tells a new member of staff to “fuck off”, senior staff explain such behaviour is to be expected from “our kids”. When I asked why we did not teach a more academically challenging GCSE history course, I was told it would not be right for “our kids”. When my teaching style is criticised for being didactic, I’m told “our kids” cannot listen to a teacher in anything more than five-minute bursts. On one memorable occasion, a French teacher decided to hand out detentions to pupils who did badly in their weekly vocabulary homework, but was told to stop by a member of senior management. Apparently, compulsory homework was unfair, considering the home backgrounds of “our kids”. Choosing to teach in a deprived area, I expected to be surrounded by colleagues aiming to overcome social disadvantage, not capitulate to it. 

In America, where I worked part-time as a teaching assistant, I often heard teachers claim: “We’ll never solve education until we solve poverty.” Rhetorically, the sociological view provides a very useful argument for those who wish to deflect all conversations about education standards to wider issues of social justice. Recently, a friend who is studying for a masters degree in education told me about a university seminar he had attended. The professor delivering it has written in a recently published book, “Social variables are too significant to be ignored and there can be no hope of improving education until we have understood and found ways to deal with the pernicious problems of poverty and social disadvantage.”

At the seminar, he launched into a tirade against Michael Gove. How dare we expect schools to raise standards, he fulminated, while belonging to a government which is “making the poor poorer”.

The idea that education can only be improved through solving the root cause of social disadvantage has a rotten effect on our nation’s classrooms. Consider the following claim from Matthew Taylor, then the Guardian‘s education correspondent, writing about a study into educational outcomes: “This unprecedented project has revealed that a child’s social background is the crucial factor in academic performance, and that a school’s success is based not on its teachers, the way it is run, or what type of school it is, but, overwhelmingly, on the class background of its pupils.” As a teacher, I find it hard to think of a sentiment that does more to undervalue the profession. The sociological view of education is a gospel of defeatism. 

It is not hard to see how in many of the nation’s classrooms the sociological view becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In her speech to the Conservative party conference in 2010, Katharine Birbalsingh criticised schools which avoid punishing misbehaving black pupils for fear of being labelled racist. She concluded, “Black children underachieve because of what the well-meaning liberal does to them.” 

The same effect can be seen in academic expectations, where school curricula are relentlessly dumbed down by sympathetic educators hoping to make schoolwork more “accessible” for their pupils. “Subject to Change”, a 2007 report by Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, criticised the teaching of discrete, academic subjects. Johnson wrote that this “classical and elite model containing a narrow range of intellectual knowledge and skill is inappropriate for an age of universal education”. In one of the most absurd recommendations I have read, he proposed a new national curriculum focused on “principles, concepts and attitudes”. As an example, he recommended “physical skills such as walking, which involves a disposition as well as a technique, and digging”. 

However, there is hope to be found in the trends emerging in some of Britain’s most ambitious state schools. A new mindset of “no excuses” designed to combat the decades-long rot of “low expectations” is gaining ground. This approach originated in the American charter school movement, on which Britain’s free schools policy is partly based. KIPP schools, the largest and best-known network of charter schools in the US, have an enviable track record in educating pupils from deprived backgrounds: 94 per cent of their pupils are either African-American or Hispanic, and 76 per cent qualify for the federally-supported free meals programme. By the end of eighth grade, 94 per cent of KIPP classes outperform their local districts in reading, and 96 per cent in maths. 

Central to this success is the KIPP network’s core “operating principle” of high expectations. “KIPP schools have clearly defined and measurable high expectations for academic achievement and conduct that makes no excuses based on the students’ backgrounds.” There is no secret as to how such expectations are upheld. They are achieved through “a range of formal and informal rewards and consequences for academic performance and behaviour”.

The same thinking has been expressed by the current head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw. His achievements as headmaster of Mossbourne Academy in East London are now the stuff of legend, but bear repetition. The school had the same proportion of pupils on free school meals as the one where I teach, but 89 per cent of them obtain five A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. This is not achieved through a cynical focus on the C grade borderline, as Mossbourne also cultivates high achievers. Last year, 63 per cent of its pupils gained an A*-A grade in English literature GCSE, and 52 per cent of its A-level grades were A*-B. This places it in the top 1 per cent of schools nationwide, an astonishing achievement. Wilshaw said: “There are a growing number of schools producing fantastic results in areas of deprivation. We’ve got to stop making excuses for background, culture and ethnicity and get on with it.” 

A key part of such advances is adopting strict rules and punishments. “We teach the children the difference between right and wrong, good and evil,” said Wilshaw. “They know that if they disrupt class or are rude to teachers, there will be consequences.” Sadly, this is not a particularly fashionable way to run a school within Britain’s state sector, and many of Wilshaw’s detractors criticise the “prison camp” ethos of his old school. Apologists for contemporary British education tend to prefer a more child-centred, progressive outlook where pupils comply through choice, not coercion. 

Such a philosophy forms a convenient alliance with the sociological view. I have lost count of the number of times the terrible behaviour at our school has been blamed on the social background of the pupils, instead of the school’s unwillingness to implement a functioning behaviour policy. The sociological view is also used to discount the importance of the different methods employed in rapidly improving schools. In her book School Wars, Melissa Benn implies that the real root of Mossbourne’s success is not its traditionalist outlook, but instead a change in the catchment area’s social makeup. She points out that the predecessor school had 77 per cent of pupils on free school meals, nearly double the current number. So there are sociological excuses for success as well as failure.

In order to fulfil its professional responsibility, a school must strenuously resist taking on the sociological view. This is difficult when education departments in British universities turn out acres of paper every year reinforcing the message that socioeconomic background dictates success. What they show is undeniable: in the broad averages of large-scale longitudinal studies, social background does correlate with educational outcome. But schools deal with individuals, not averages. It is a school’s responsibility to do all it can to iron out such differences and never treat them as a foregone conclusion. Recent research suggests that there are more than 440 secondary schools where the average GCSE score for children on free school meals is above the national average. Taught well in a good school, poor pupils can succeed. 

It is a paradox that idealistic educators in favour of social justice are seduced by the sociological view into accepting their own inability to achieve it. In today’s Britain, schools which use social background as an excuse for the underachievement of their pupils are the cause of a far greater deprivation than the social background itself.

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