I have benefited hugely from selective education. My parents were the archetypal middle class couple—mother a teacher, father an accountant working in the City—and we lived in the south-east London suburbs. My parents paid for my older brother and sister to be educated privately, but by the time my turn came they had run out of money. I was rescued, though, by Conservative education policy of the 1970s; having passed the 11-plus, I was eligible for a local-authority-funded place at Dulwich College, a prestigious public school (at the time third in the league tables). In my sixth-form science class of 14, 13 of us went to Oxford or Cambridge. (The one who didn’t was called Dudman; we thought it was an example of nominative determinism.) In my year, the school sent 73 to Oxbridge, more than half with scholarships; our primary question was selecting from the teachers’ alma maters which of the Oxbridge colleges we should apply to. When I arrived at St John’s, Oxford, I was one of five from my school that year.
There is no doubt that selection benefits those who are selected. But the real question, for the education system as a whole, is the effect it has on the whole cohort. Had we continued to live in Poole, Dorset, we would have tried to send our children to the local grammar schools, since we knew they would be in a social and intellectual environment that would suit them and enable them to thrive. When we moved to Nottingham, we had a dilemma: the choice was between a comprehensive Church school, with a great Christian ethos, but a very diverse social mix, or paying for private education which would offer great resources, but felt a bit like a spiritual desert. We opted for the former, but it was a difficult decision. Our children had fewer people at the same level as them academically, and access to fewer resources than they would have had. There is no doubt they learned some key life skills, and the Christian context was important. But one of my nagging questions has remained: what does it do for those at the lower academic end to be with such a wide mixture, rather than amongst a group of their peers?
Having been a governor now at three secondary schools, I am conscious of the unrealistic and contradictory pressures being applied to secondary education in contemporary political and cultural discourse. The first is a kind of industrialisation of the educational process, where widget-children come in at one end of the process with a set of scores, and they pass through the educational production line, during which value is added, so that they exit the process with comparatively better scores. Those running the educational factories are assessed on the amount of value added, even though they are the ones who actually score the widgets at the beginning and end of the process. And the companies who provide the end exams can also run training for teachers to show them how to teach the children to pass the exams, so the system is inherently open to both corruption and reductionism. No wonder those of long experience complain that this is less education, and more exam-pass training.
But the second, contradictory pressure that I hear in political discourse is the assumption that schools and teachers operate in loco parentis. How do we tackle religious extremism? In schools. Who is responsible for good sex education? Schools. Where do we disseminate a vision of what it means to be a responsible citizen? In schools. I listen to the news twice a day, and the BBC News is my browser home page—yet I don’t think I can remember a single statement from any politician which suggests that parents have responsibility in these areas. And this is despite it being well established that the single greatest determinant for children of success in gaining qualifications is…parental involvement.
Given these twin and contradictory pressures, it is not surprising that the teaching profession feels under pressure. The level of turnover in teaching is quite astonishing.
Almost four out of 10 teachers quit within a year of qualifying, with 11,000 leaving the profession before they have really begun their career and record numbers of those who remain giving up mid-career, according to analysis of government figures.
When I was a personnel manager in industry, if my departments had anything like that level of wastage (for that is what it is) both I and the department manager would be out on our ears. And yet when has Government ever been held to account for this? The administration and bureaucracy is similar in other public service sectors; my wife, a GP, reckons that she now works about an hour a day longer than she did ten years ago. At our Governor’s meetings at my children’s school, I think it is fair to say that only a small proportion of us really understood the statistical measures that the senior staff were working with—yet we were the ones to whom they were supposed to be accountable.
Into this context comes the latest Government volte face is the announcement of the introduction not just of new grammar schools, but the possibility of any school to be ‘selective.’ This is in defiance of any support from research, that is, what actually happens and what the evidence actually says. The best guess on this new ‘policy’ is that it is an attempt by Theresa May to assuage those who are disgruntled with current policies, and might be upset when it turns out that Brexit doesn’t actually mean Brexit, since the word has no actual referential content. When, oh when, will a Government stop treating public policy as a political and ideological football, and in education do what is best for education? When, for example, will anyone take notice of the fact that current educational strategies mean that girls do better than boys in every subject?
The apparent purpose of this new policy is to assist ‘upward mobility.’ Never mind that it won’t actually do this; can we ask what this actually means? If some people are going to be upwardly mobile, and given that we are not all ‘moving up’ all the time, this means that, correspondingly, some other people will need to be ‘downwardly mobile’. I wonder who the Government proposes these people should be? Will it be those who, in our increasingly unequal society, already have a monopoly on wealth and influence? The hint at questioning the charitable status of public schools might suggest this, but overall it is unlikely. Societies, like free market Western economies, who apparently prize social mobility, actually turn out to be the least mobile, since, when it is easiest to ‘move upward’, those who corner the market in wealth and influence simply use this freedom to consolidate their own grip on power. Or, as Charles Moore puts it, in Theresa May’s meritocracy, what will become of the useless and stupid?
The soapy answer is, “Well, everyone has merits. In a well-run society, these will all be recognised and so everyone will be fulfilled.” In principle, this might be true, but we tend to judge merit by comparing the behaviour of one person with that of another. Experience teaches us that relatively few people are outstandingly good, brilliant, brave, entrepreneurial and so on.
Social systems based solely on merit therefore tend to be harsh…One of the tricks needed to run a nation as opposed to a big company or a team of rocket scientists, is to accept that people can be pretty useless at lots of things. There are millions of us, Mrs May. Please don’t forget us.
And attempts to socially engineer mobility always have perverse results. The fact that I went to Oxford actually puts my children at a disadvantage, since in their applications they have had to state how their parents were educated. If we have made sacrifices to send them to a more academically demanding school, that too would disadvantage them. So, in order to do the best for them, I have to choose an academically weaker school, so that they will get preferential treatment due to the disadvantages meted on them by my previous decisions. If you want your children to do well, you need to put obstacles in their way, so that the educational system will be able to compensate them for it!
And how is ‘upward mobility’ characterised in this public narrative? I recently heard someone from Liverpool bemoaning the lack of aspirations of people ‘in the north’ because they were not aiming to be ‘doctors and lawyers.’ I was struck: does not being a skilled artisan constitute aspiration? What about someone who does a great job working in manufacturing industry, or mining, or farming? If the education system is designed to enable people to be aspirational, and being aspirational means making everyone middle class, is it any wonder that we continue to lack any respect for working culture? And if there is no vision for education to equip people to do these other jobs well and effectively, as rounded and responsible citizens, is it any wonder that we are chronically dependent on immigrant labour in order for these jobs to be done?
What might Christian theology contribute to all this?
First, it contributes a rounded and integrated vision for human flourishing. We are not individualised units of economic production, and the purpose of education is not simply to give us employment skills, even if that is part of the task.
Secondly, it contributes a better vision of work as vocation. Employment is not simply about making and economic contribution to society (though it does do that); neither is it simply about ‘adding value’ to whatever we are involved with. Pay is not a recompense for the inconvenience of labour as it prevents us undertaking the leisure we would otherwise make use of. Nor is pay something determined by market forces that depend on the power of our negotiating position to determine.
Instead, work is about using the gifts and skills that God has given us, in line with the vocation or calling of God on our lives in order to participate in God’s sovereignty of the world by exercising his dominion as his vice-regents, created in his image and sharing in his creative purposes for the world. Pay is the reasonable remuneration as part of this process.
Thirdly, it contributes a vision of both society and family, where the importance of family structures and stability provide a safe and secure context for the flourishing of children and their full participation in education. The education system should complement strong family structures, and not replace them.
Finally, the Church will continue to make its key contribution to education at every level, through national structures and interests, but also by calling individual Christians into teaching at every level. Much of our modern education system arose out of Christian initiative and concern in the nineteenth century—not to turn people into operational economic units, but to help them grow into mature adults, able to contribute to the greater good of society and to fulfil their own vocation.
(If you are working in any aspect of education, as teacher, parent or governor, don’t forget to check out the excellent Grove Education series.)
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