He was returning to the theme he had developed the year before, when he had addressed his party’s conference. On that occasion he warned that, “too many children were being held back by the “soft bigotry and low expectations” of teaching unions. I have a simple message to those union general secretaries: don't let your ideology hold back our children."
This nonsense has its origins in America, and continues a pervasive myth which has been developed in both the USA and England over the last fifty years. It is based on a self-serving sleight of hand perpetuated by those in power. It has hook-winked those on the left who are committed to helping the poor and disadvantaged. It is the soft bigotry of the advantaged elite, and it is killing education from within.
The Axis of Evil infects education
The USA has many similarities with the United Kingdom, but structure of its society is different in some significant and fundamental areas. One of these areas is the legacy of slavery. This has led to a black underclass, which has slowly fought to take a place in mainstream society. One of the oldest and most respected organisations working for black Americans is the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
During his campaign to become US president in 2000, George W Bush spoke at the NAACP’s 91st annual convention. He said, “There's a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority. Equality in our country will remain a distant dream until every child, of every background, learns so that he or she may strive and rise in this world. No child in America should be segregated by low expectations, imprisoned by illiteracy, abandoned to frustration and the darkness of self-doubt. I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
This sound bite was written by Michael Gerson, who is also credited with coining ‘Axis of Evil’. Amongst other books he has published is ‘Heroic Conservatism,’ in which he said, ‘I was convinced that with a little creativity on education and welfare reform, we could compete with the tired, perfunctory agenda of the Democrats and change the image of the Republican Party in the process.’ (p28)
Conservatism, as summarised by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is a “political doctrine that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices. Conservatism is a preference for the historically inherited rather than the abstract and ideal.”
So how did conservatives manage to use a ‘little creativity on education reform’ to maintain the status quo, whilst persuading the public at large that it was doing precisely the opposite? It did it by promoting the sham idea that meritocracy in education would be rewarded, whilst ensuring that historically inherited and institutionalised privilege would maintain, and extend, its hold on educational power.
In my last article, I showed that there is little difference in education outcomes in advanced economies. The English system of public assessment of children at 7, 11 and 16, and the accountability structure which accompanies this assessment, has not made any difference whatsoever. I argued that the English data driven system is a product of whim, introduced by politicians who have either naively or wilfully misunderstood the factors affecting academic achievement.
By claiming that the maintenance of the status quo is as a result of schools and teachers holding back the less well-off through ‘soft bigotry of low expectations,’ politicians have, consciously or otherwise, set children and schools up to fail. All of the curriculum change, assessment requirements, debates about traditional versus progressive education, performance tables and on and on matter little. If the country as a whole generally believes that children are ‘held back’ by ‘low expectations’, Michael Gerson has achieved his aim and ‘a little creativity on education reform’ has changed the debate, entrenched historically inherited advantage and allowed those in power to sit back and watch others argue amongst themselves.
For those still think that school can break down inherited advantage, here’s a graph produced by Christopher Cook when he was focusing on Education at the Financial Times.
Statistically, there is virtually no difference in the ‘value’ schools ‘add’ to academic achievement. No matter how much you will schools to make a significant difference, they are not able to do so. Setting schools up against each other, ‘driving up standards,’ attacking the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ and other self-defeating measures do not work. Schools make too little difference when viewed against the bigger picture.
If the graph hasn’t convinced you, then consider some further research. Firstly, Nick Davies’ The School Report, published in 1990. As well as being an excellent investigation into schools at the time, it contains research undertaken by Dr Phil Budgell in Sheffield. He found ‘more than 90% of the difference in exam results between schools was accounted for simply by the poverty, gender and final-year attendance of the children who were enrolled there. What was being done by schools was influencing only the remaining 5 to 10%.’
More recently, the TUC published a research report written by Martin Johnson and Warwick Mansell in March 2014. In ‘Education Not For Sale,’ the authors say, ‘Overwhelming academic evidence points to the school having a very small effect on pupil performance. Around 85% of pupil performance variation is accounted for by personal and social factors. The next largest factor is the classroom effect, that is the quality of teaching and learning. The effect of the school is close to zero.’
The myth of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ has been levered into the ongoing debate regarding education, forcing schools in England into a ridiculous data chase to the detriment of the education of our children. Instead of schools being places to open minds, they have ended up closing them as children are forced onto grade-chasing treadmills, particularly in the last year of primary school and the crucial middle years of adolescence.
The soft bigotry of the advantaged elite
The well-off will always be competitive in any exam race. Both Primary and Secondary schools suffer in comparison to the schools attended by the better off. Should the less well-off manage to match the academic achievement of the children of the rich at the end of secondary school, the elite will always put filters in place to ensure that their children access the most desirable Higher Educational institutions.
Those in power seem to instinctively understand how to play the system. Even if the parents don’t quite understand it, their schools certainly do. Michael Gerson was educated at Westminster Christian Academy in Missouri. A page on the school’s website has the heading, ‘Parents make all the difference’. The school charges $14,450 a year in fees.
George W Bush was a boarder at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Its motto is Finis Origine Pendet, which translates as ‘The End Depends Upon the Beginning’. Fees at this school are $47,200 for boarders, $36,700 for day students.
Michael Gove, our current Education Minister, attended Robert Gordon’s academy, Aberdeen. Its motto is ‘Be the best that you can be’. Currrent fees are £11,185 per year.
Parents make all the difference. The end depends on the beginning. Be the best that you can be. The soft bigotry of the advantaged elite. It is the odds which are stacked against the poor, not the low expectations of those in education.
So how can we attack this pervasive myth?
As with all myths, facts are the only real weapon with which they can be defeated. The Graph of Doom helps considerably. The fact that Year 6 is a wasted opportunity in primary schools is another powerful weapon. Any parent who has experienced it will understand that Key Stage 2 SATs do not benefit their children. The poorer your child, the worse their Year 6 experience will be. Education should be, as I have said, rich and glorious and inspirational and glittering. The soft bigotry of the advantaged elite is killing education from within, and we should no longer be complicit in its demise. Do not allow anyone to claim that low expectations have any role to play in educational debate.