don’t understand what life on the lower slopes is like. “If only,” they think, “people down there in the foothills had a bit of what we have, they could get up here. You know, a bit of ‘drive’, a bit of ‘purpose’, a bit of ‘desire’. Why are they sticking to the valley floor when there’s so much to see and do up here?”
Down in the valley, the people struggling with day to day life
are vaguely aware of the people near the peaks. “I met some of them once. They had come down to order some supplies and to buy some equipment they needed to help them live comfortably up there. They didn’t stay down here long – too many people they said, and they didn’t seem to like us much either. Not sure they understood what life is like if you’ve never seen a silver spoon, much less how different life is if you'd had one in your mouth since birth.”
I was reminded of this earlier this week when I saw various Twitter streams mentioning a report by the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Social Mobility which was built on typically muddle-headed Peak-dweller thinking. I replied to a few (I’m at https://twitter.com/IcingOnCakeBlog) pointing out a few flaws in their argument – mainly that schools only ever promote middle class values, and saying that I’d be amazed if you can find a school which isn’t mad keen on “Together Everyone Achieves More”-type platitudes - but it illustrates one of my core theses perfectly, so I’ll expand on it here.
My main thesis is that ‘school’ is a thin layer of icing on a big cake made up of family, community and social class. Effective schools are built on good teaching, a solid curriculum and leadership, but they don't add much in the way of icing. Much thinking about education is built on core ideas which, on close inspection, prove to be entirely nonsensical: In this case, the idea which is nonsensical is that children's ‘values’ can be significantly altered by school. This is simply not true.
The report itself, or ‘manifesto’ as the APPG have titled it, is here. Have a read, and see if you can spot the flaws in their argument. They are fairly obvious, especially if you read it through the eyes and thoughts of someone living a fairly average life in the UK today. Those living average lives, remember, are not middle class lives; this is not Radio 4-listening, broadsheet-reading, professional and managerial Britain. ‘Middle class’ refers to those in the higher end of the upper quarter of the population; those who have the time and money to invest in their children’s education both
within and outside of school hours and whom the Sutton Trust has identified as being those who ‘gain advantage over other families in the school system’.
Imagine that you are typical of many people in England – distrustful of the establishment, aware of the number of people above you in society’s pecking order keen for you to stay down where you are and not inclined to buy in to a bourgeois, middle class definition of success. You’ve learned plenty of character and resilience from your parents, but your world is based on somewhat different definitions of these ideals. In this report, ’character and resilience’ mean ‘middle class values’. And whilst ‘middle class values’ certainly help you to succeed in the fundamentally middle class institution that is state education in the UK, those who have them in school have learned them from their parents, not their school.
You think schools aren’t middle class? Think about the underlying assumptions made about working class culture in school, from watching ITV to working in a job which relies more on practical skill than it does on reading and writing, from standing up for yourself to enjoying cheap fast food…
So here goes. Oh, the fun to be had knocking down the foundations of a flawed argument…
Is it fair to start with the foreword? Well, it’s a good place to begin. “Why do some talented children grow up to fulfil their ambitions and become leaders in any number of fields, while others never realise their full potential?” asks Baroness Clare Tyler. Hmm. I wonder why ‘talented’ people like David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband have grown up to fulfil their ambitions and become leaders? The sheer dumb luck of having been born into ambitious, wealthy families might just have had a teensy bit to do with it.
“There is a growing body of research linking social mobility to social and emotional skills, which range from empathy and the ability to make and maintain relationships to application, mental toughness, delayed gratification and self-control. These research findings all point to the same conclusion: character counts. People who overcome adversity and realise their full potential tend to exhibit many of these traits.” Aha. So all those sons and daughters of the privileged have overcome ‘adversity’ to run the country, the professions, the media and parliamentary committees?
The foreword contains much more of this muddle-headed thinking, which basically boils down to the idea that, since those at the top of society have ‘character and resilience’, school should ‘teach’ those lower down in the pecking order these ‘skills.’
But let’s continue. One of the first references quoted is a book by Paul Tough, “How Children Succeed.” This book is written by an American about America, a country widely understood to be more meritocratic and significantly less divided by class than the UK. This book is also popular science, not an academic study. It concerns me that a parliamentary committee would quote this kind of writing to support a recommendation to government, but there is worse to come.
James Heckman’s work is also extensively quoted. Whilst this is more robust academic analysis of the ‘character’, the studies are all based on American data and analysed for an American audience; social mobility in America is, as I have noted, very different to that of the UK. In the UK, the elephant in the room is class, which matters more than just about any other factor in everything we think, say and do.
What’s more, the other more academic studies which are quoted with the suggestion that there might be a link between success and ‘character’ are likely, as is often the case, to get cause and effect the wrong way round. I describe of this as the ‘umbrellas cause rain’ misconception – you see umbrellas when it rains, so the umbrellas must cause the rain. In this case, the fact that successful people have desirable ‘character’ must imply that the ‘character’ caused the success, rather than that people brought up with a particular set of cultural norms (or character traits, if you like) happen to be the type of people who, through many other advantages, get to be successful in our society. It’s a class thing, once again.
Entertainingly, in the section of the manifesto regarding schools, anecdotal evidence from “a focus group of Teach First graduates” found that “while the teachers felt that building character should be a central aspect of their role, they did not see this as a core element of their school’s strategy.” Uhuh. So, some overwhelmingly middle class people (Teach First - lovely people, naturally - being a programme to give ambitious graduates with high academic grades – i.e. education-positive middle class types - a taste of teaching in secondary schools) found that working class people had a different set of social norms to their own, and they were surprised that the schools which they worked in were not expecting the children to be as middle class as a typical Teach First graduate…
Then the report references Singapore, a country so completely different to the UK as to be outer space. Singapore is a frontier society with no space for passengers; you either survive and thrive, or you go elsewhere. More than one in five of its people are millionaires, it actively encourages immigration and has an unemployment rate of less than 4%. ‘Shameless'’it isn’t. The only place with any remote similarity in the UK is London, which is almost exclusively populated by ambitious people who by definition have a heightened desire to want to get on in life, and even then the similarities are few and far between. We have literally nothing to learn from Singapore.
After visiting outer space, we’re back to America and the KIPP programme, which targets ambitious but poor parents who want their children to succeed. It’s an interesting diversion, but doesn’t say much other than that ambitious parents will help their kids in any way they can, regardless of wealth. Maybe they’ll learn and teach their children middle class values in the hope that they’ll have middle class kids, which does seem to happen here in the UK. After diverting to a free school and a charitable foundation in the UK we’re back to America where a study in South Carolina and Pennsylvania tells you little which might be relevant in a UK context.
By the time the report recommends that “participation in ‘extra’-curricular activities (become) a formal aspect of teachers’ contracts of employment” (oh, whoopee, more for teachers to do) and that “all private schools (should) share their professional expertise and facilities that promote Character and Resilience with schools in the state sector” (as if commercial schools are able to ‘teach’ character and resilience any more than a state school, and making the blithe assumption that they would be able to share any kind of practice which would apply to non-selective, government-funded schools), I began to lose the will to live. Do the APPG on Social Mobility have any sense at all that education is built on middle class values, and that the children of the middle class (and aspiring middle class) tend to succeed in education because everything within it is stacked in their favour? Does an understanding of the concept of Cultural Hegemony not feature in their education?
The saddest thing about this ‘manifesto’ is the sheer amount of work which has gone into it, for so little reward. Its first principles are so flawed that its analysis and recommendations are meaningless. Whilst its authors were no doubt well intentioned, they have headed off where many others venture – down an intellectual dead end, leading nowhere. School reinforces existing advantages and disadvantages and is in no real position to change much of anything, much less something as abstract and deep rooted as ‘character and resilience.’
As an aside, it is worth noting there is an ongoing belief that Britain’s commercial schools are particularly good at instilling ‘character’ in their charges. It’s also worth distinguishing between local day schools and the much smaller number of boarding schools; in a boarding school, where parents have effectively handed over the parenting of their children, an argument could possibly be made to the effect that the school ‘teaches’ character. But even then, a small amount of thought reveals that, given that parents actively chosen a particular school, one could reasonably expect that they have chosen one which largely reflects their own beliefs (and values they have already instilled in their children) about character. The potential to ‘teach’ character in a day school is as negligible as it is in a state school.
But back to the core thesis. Schools can’t and don’t teach values in any meaningful sense. They may reinforce or challenge existing values, but they can’t ‘teach’ these, since children learn their values from their parents and carers. Furthermore, schools which claim they do teach ‘values’ all say roughly the same thing, echoing middle class, education-positive ideas which middle class, education-positive parents and carers have already spent a lifetime instilling in their children.
You might argue that, as children get older, they may reject their parents’ values and therefore they might be open to ‘learning’ values at school. Further thought will expose the flaws in this argument too, as you consider how, since school ‘values’ are simply a reflection of those of the educated middle class, you don’t need school to learn those - they are all around you should you chose to recognise, learn and live by them. Listen to Radio 4, read a broadsheet newspaper, visit a library, go to a museum. School will expose you to middle class values if you don’t have them, and help a little if you want to learn them, but not much more than everyday life will. The icing on the cake, once more.