Thursday, January 21, 2010

Britain’s dirty secret: class still matters

The article below is perfectly correct, though I personally encountered very few barriers whilst I was in England. What the author touches on very lightly, however, is the hostility of the British Left towards the one really good ladder out of a deprived background: The Grammar (intellectually selective) schools. That hostility has made class barriers worse during the years of Labour party rule. The Labour party talks the talk but refuses to walk the walk. They live in a dream world with little connection to reality. Amazing though it is, they will not admit that some people are inherently smarter than others. And if your theories are wrong, you will not get the results you expect

On rare days I feel sorry for members of the government. Running the country must be as frustrating as being a parent: it’s only in retrospect that you realise where you went wrong. But your new-found wisdom is of no use because the crucial moments have passed, and you can’t have your time again.

That’s what’s happened with the government’s belated engagement with the question of class. For years new Labour avoided the word. It was too divisive. It threatened the party’s delicate position in the centre ground. It was too easily linked with the uncomfortable word “struggle”. It was much better to talk instead of aspiration and disadvantage, inclusion and social mobility.

In Labour’s view of the world, anyone could get on as long as they raised their sights and worked hard. The twin problems facing the less privileged were those of money and ambition. The government would provide more of the first through redistribution, and more of the second through educational reforms and exhortation. Schools would drive up standards, the poor would pass more examinations, educational inequality would be redressed and we would enter a new age of meritocracy.

The strategy hasn’t worked. True, people from the lower and middle-income groups have more qualifications, but it’s done nothing for their relative position. Inequality has widened slightly, social mobility remains among the worst in Europe, and the well-off dominate top universities and the professions just as they always did. It failed because it ignored the truth. Labour acted as if social disadvantage was largely a practical problem. For a long time it avoided addressing the barriers that divide Britons from one another and make attempting to move out of one’s group as risky and as psychologically difficult a process as emigration.

The apparent emergence of a classless society, in which anyone might wear jeans, watch The X Factor or speak in a variant of estuary English, disguises the fact that Britain is still a highly stratified society, in which different classes are brought up to follow different rules about how to think, talk and behave. These classes prefer to socialise and work with those who share their values. Joining these groups is not a simple matter of gaining the right academic qualifications. They will admit and promote only those who can read all their unwritten and unspoken rules of behaviour.

This fact makes any attempt at social mobility a hazardous business. The ambitious have to abandon the culture they know for one that may not welcome them. They may end up belonging in neither world.

The oddity of Labour’s ignoring this for so long is that the difficulty of making this journey used to be explicitly understood. Grammar schools were created to give clever children a path out of one culture and into another. A while ago I talked to a retired grandee of the British arts world who grew up in poverty in two rented rooms in north London. He told me that his life was transformed by his teachers’ role in guiding him into a new world. Their advice went far beyond the classroom. They recommended books to read, lectures to go to, concerts he should attend. At 18 he went to university in London, where he learnt to argue and have intellectual conversations.

As a postgraduate he moved on to Oxford, which was a cultural leap he could never have made any earlier. A near-contemporary of his, a retired diplomat who followed a similar path, says that getting to Cambridge was what made him. He worked furiously hard to pick up all the clues about how to dress, walk, talk and think. Both men knew that their success depended on moving through classes.

None of that clarity has been possible in recent years. The widespread pretence that these barriers no longer exist, and the vagueness about what is needed to overcome them, has made social mobility even more difficult. At the same time, Labour’s attempts to liberate children from class by giving them a better academic education has added to the problem. The relentless focus on exam results has meant that many state schools have opted out of the activities that used to socialise pupils and give them the manners, self-control and teamworking skills that they need to progress outside. That has left a great many children, and particularly the most deprived, at a hopeless disadvantage.

It has been only in the past year or so that parts of the government have suddenly woken up to the fact that the strategy to create a fairer society isn’t working. Alan Milburn’s blistering report on social mobility recognised how split Britain was becoming, divided between those who had networks and social skills and those without. It pointed out that the ordinary middle classes were now also losing out to those in the upper middle, who had the connections. It called for national mentoring schemes and internships and for schools to be judged on whether they educated the whole child. Harriet Harman produced the Equality Bill, aimed among other things at reducing discrimination on the basis of class. And last week John Denham, the communities minister, said class was now as likely a cause of discrimination as race used to be.

This is difficult territory because it involves uncomfortable issues. It is not a simple story about prejudice. On the one hand, there are issues of power and exclusion. On the other, society is now becoming so divided that in some poor areas people are being raised without developing the character and attitudes they need to survive. They are emerging without basic manners and skills. One former Downing Street adviser says that it remains hard to have an honest conversation about this. Labour doesn’t want to look too closely at behaviour and character. The Tories, on the other hand, don’t want to confront the realities of structural privilege.

That seemed ominously true last week when David Cameron praised social mobility while confirming that he will not aim to close the income gap between the richest and the poorest. He didn’t acknowledge that the second would make the first far more difficult. In the same way, while the Tories’ Centre for Social Justice has produced some impressive and convincing analyses of what keeps people poor, class is not one of the factors mentioned. A spokesman told me that class was no longer one of the things that held people back. Society was more fluid, and to think otherwise was backward and sterile.

This is so far from the truth that it leaves one with no hope that the Tories will be any more effective at securing social mobility than Labour has been.

The depth of the divisions, and the difficulties of bridging them, were made clear to me by a man who has journeyed from a northern council estate to a blue-chip company via Cambridge. He wrote to me that it had been a grinding, exhausting climb, and yet he was still not fully accepted. “I’ve never had the ease which comes from knowing that there are family connections, or land, or money to fall back on. And that lack of ease will prevent me from getting to the board in my company, because that gracious ease can’t quite be learnt, even though I’ve observed all the rules, changed the accent, it’s still not enough. Larkin wrote about his inability to ‘climb clear of ... wrong beginnings’, and that’s as true in 2009 as it was 50 years ago.”

Social mobility matters because it is the small gesture we make towards fairness. If it is to get any easier, politicians must be more honest about what’s needed to move from one class to another, and they have to create pathways to achieve it. Without that, their constant talk of aspiration will be meaningless, because all we’ll be left with is the entrenchment of privilege.


Do federal education dollars work?

President Obama is not happy about Texas refusing his Race to the Top money, but I say let's give a languid, scholarly cheer for Gov. Rick Perry (R) and his decision to miss the chance at hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education aid. Texas has, in effect, designated itself a big control group in an interesting test of this haunting question---does increased federal spending make schools better?

The president didn't mention this in his speech at a Fairfax County elementary school today, although his announced plan to add another $1.35 billion to his fund for states and school districts making changes he approves of will just give this scientific exercise another boost. Some districts and states will get the money. Some won't. Which will look better in four or five years?

Policy makers and pundits have been arguing about this for decades. Big federal spending for schools began in the 1960s with Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That money went to schools with lots of low income kids. It does not seem to have done much good, although you could argue that those schools would have been even worse without the federal dollars.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act signed in 2002, the Bush administration and the Democratic-led Congress raised federal school spending to new heights. That seemed to correlate with modest increases in student achievement, but nothing impressive enough to convince the doubters.

Some people argue that finding the right school leaders and training the best teachers works better than spending more money on schools, although surely such extra efforts take more money. Some say there are plenty of examples of more spending producing better schools, and less spending producing poorer ones. My home state, California, is often cited as an example of a place that lost its educational edge when it started to have severe budget problems.

There are many ways to interpret the data. But now we are going to have a lot more of it, with many politicians using it for their own purposes. Okay, that's fine, but I hope the many bright economists who have immersed themselves in education research will keep an eye on Texas, and see how its schools do when compared to those of similar circumstances in states that take the president's money.

There might be a Nobel prize in it for somebody, if they crunch the numbers right. Just settling the argument would be enough for me.


It isn't elitist to insist on teachers who can spell

Britain's conservative Party wants to upgrade teaching standards. They've got an uphill battle ahead. To have any chance of success, they would have to fix school discipline first. You have to be desperate to take a teaching job in a British State school these days -- and "desperate" usually means "dumb"

A teaching assistant I know finds herself in an embarrassing dilemma. She really likes the young teacher she works with, but every time the teacher writes on the board, she winces. The teacher's spelling and grammar are dodgy to say the least. For instance, this recent graduate, working in a decent comprehensive, thinks 'theirs' has an apostrophe. 'I don't know whether to point out her mistakes,' the teaching assistant Diane says, 'because I worry she'll get upset. But the children are seeing really poor English and they think that it's OK because the teacher does it.'

David Cameron is in the same fix as Diane. The Tory leader says he wants to make teaching a noble profession that is, once again, capable of attracting the best brains. Dave has already upset certain commentators by promising a future Tory government will pay off the student loans of top maths and science graduates to entice them to teach. It will also refuse to fund training for those who get a third-class degree.

Oooh, snobbery! Elitism! Listen to the predictable howls of outrage from the snarling guard dogs of our education system. An education system so desperately far from elitist that British teenagers have plummeted down the international league table, dropping from eighth to 24th in maths, behind countries where they still write with sticks in the mud.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that science students in the UK are 'handicapped by a lack of well-qualified teachers'.

How dare people criticise any politician for trying to raise the bar? Believe me, these days it's a remarkable achievement to get a third-class degree. Being bad will no longer suffice. You have to be bloody awful. Merely writing your name on a dumbed-down exam paper will get you a third. Anyone who gets a third from a British university today is either too lazy or too thick to teach hamsters, let alone humans.

It is not elitist to suggest that children would be better off without a teacher who has not managed to distinguish himself in Deckchair Management at the University of Billericay. Private schools would never employ such a dunce; why should state schools, where the needs of children are far greater?

Gordon Brown talks grandly about an Age of Aspiration. Sorry, Gordon, but in order to aspire, children first need to come into contact with teachers who have been to the best universities and studied the most rigorous subjects: Teachers who know the difference between 'their' and 'there'. Teachers who can show children from poorer backgrounds not just how to learn, but how to live.

When I was 16, my English teacher, Linda Richardson, squeezed some of us into her green Deux Chevaux and drove several hundred miles to Stratford-upon-Avon to introduce us to this bloke called Shakespeare.

Thirty years later, it's still as fresh as paint in my memory. Seeing Judi Dench on stage was fantastic, but something even more dramatic was happening inside me. Suffice to say, I wouldn't be doing this job if a brilliant English graduate had not dedicated her life to educating her ignorant young charges in the fullest sense.

Tragically, there are precious few Lindas in our classrooms today. If you were that good and that able, why would you want a job where some gobby little horror can call you a stupid bitch without fear of reprisal?

Every year, thousands of talented teachers quit. They give up their dream of nourishing children with the best that has been thought and said, because our idiot Government insists they have to dole out reheated nuggets from the McCurriculum. That's not a profession, it's a battery farm.

When I did teacher training, I had a romantic notion I would send a class into raptures with W.B. Yeats's beautiful sonnet, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Within a few weeks, it became clear that the only poem I'd be reciting is An English Teacher Foresees Her Nervous Breakdown.

Obviously, you don't have to be a genius to teach. Some of the biggest brains can't communicate for toffee. Nonetheless, David Cameron is absolutely right. Shiny new buildings, greater parental involvement, smaller classes; none of these can make the schooling of our children world class. It's the teachers, stupid.

Can you believe that England's primary teachers need only C grades in GCSE Maths and English to be admitted onto a teacher-training course? If you can only get a C in Maths, how on earth are you qualified to prepare a pupil who is capable of getting an A?

David Cameron most certainly gets my vote in the epic battle ahead to turn teaching back into the intelligent, creative, noble profession it deserves and needs to be. You've got your work cut out, Dave.

Recently, a couple of very bright students on the Teach First programme (the innovative scheme that pays top graduates to join schools in poor areas) reported back to their tutor at Cambridge on their experiences in inner-London schools. The tutor told me the students had been shocked by the appalling ignorance, dreadful English and bolshy behaviour.

They weren't talking about the kids. It was the teachers.


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