Working class kids are dumb.
This seems to be the view of John David Blake, who lays into the Tories’ recent statements on education with particular zeal, in ‘The Terrifying Face of Tory Education’. (‘Terrifying’! Really!) He is, as he says, a history teacher, so he knows all kinds of shit about shit.
As it happens, I too was once a history teacher, so I too know all kinds of shit about shit.
Let’s see how his shit and my shit compare, shall we?
A quick low-down on personal backgrounds first, though, since that matters a great deal to Mr Blake. He used to teach at a grammar school! *gasp*
Now, first off, a confession – probably best to get this out of the way: I spent two years working in a grammar school. Gnash your teeth if you wish…
But don’t give him too hard a time, y’all. At least grammar schools are still funded by the state, so he was earning an honest living off the toil of the taxpayer, just as every honest man should. I, on the other hand, have always worked in private, fee-paying schools, taking no penny of my salary from the taxpayer, unless perhaps indirectly by teaching the children of government employees.
You might say, actually, that Mr Blake has combined the worst of both worlds: living off the sweat of others whilst teaching only the privileged, well-behaved and brightest of the country’s children. In his eyes, one of those is a sin. Three guesses which.
But backgrounds are important to Mr Blake; a sticking point for him is that Tory education policy was dreamed up and announced by some guys who were educated in selective, sometimes expensive schools and then went on to university at Oxford – thus disqualifying them from any credibility:
Baker, Gove and Willetts seemed inordinately fixated, for a group all of whom were educated at Oxford after (respectively) public, private and grammar school educations, on the notion of “real skills”. Since “real skills” clearly aren’t currently being taught in schools (otherwise why the need for the new technical colleges?) I can’t help but wonder what the phrase actually means. Did Baker pick up no “real skills” at St Paul’s? Did Gove’s have no “real skills” as President of the Oxford Union? (part 2)
Yeah, those guys have no idea what they’re talking about. ‘Cause nobody who has ever been involved in Labour’s education policy went to selective schools (*cough*VernonCoaker*cough*) or Oxford (*cough*EdBalls*cough*KevinBrennan*cough*) or was president of the Oxford Union (*cough*MichaelFoot*cough*) or all three (*triplecough*TonyBenn*cough*).
But the ad hominem strategy was never going to be a good way to prosecute an argument, so let’s move on to Mr Blake’s problems with the policies.
First, creating new grammar schools. Mr Blake deploys the common complaint that they take away bright kids from other schools, thus depriving the dim kids of the company of their intellectual (or perhaps just hoop-jumping) superiors:
Obviously, where grammars continue to exist they cause problems (especially, say, Kent, which has an appalling record of educational achievement and has been run by the Tories since the dawn of time) – they can drain the brightest kids away from other schools, they often gobble up resources unfairly… (part 1)
I could almost buy this, except for the fact that bright kids do not exist to help dim ones, nor should we be treating them as if they ought to. ‘Brightness’ is not catching; the only benefit bright kids have for dim ones is that their general attitude toward learning and work ethic might inspire. The hope that this might happen is not a particularly good reason to keep bright kids in classes with slower learners, or more disruptive pupils, than themselves, mostly because the influence tends to flow in the other direction: weak or difficult pupils inhibit the learning experience for the bright ones far more than the bright ones enable it for the weak and disruptive. I mean, should doctors force healthy people to hang around the wards in the hope that their positive attitudes might improve the attitudes of the sick? After all, healthiness is no more catching than brightness.
As I say, I could almost buy that, except Mr Blake then carries on to say this:
…[grammar schools] generally result in a divide between middle and working class children in education (which often mirrors a racial divide).
Now, anyone may correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of grammar schools was that they took in the bright kids irrespective of background. This was sort of the point of them: any kid bright enough, working class or no, could attend. Grammar schools divide the bright from the dim; apparently they also divide the middle class from the working class. By analogy, then, Mr Blake thinks the working class are dim. If they can’t get into grammar schools, and all you need to do to get into grammar schools is be bright, then working class kids must not be bright. Or ‘ethnic’ kids, for that matter, since grammar schools cause (?) highlight (?) a racial divide.
This attitude of Mr Blake’s is frankly insulting.
I do not think it remotely true that the working class, or the non-white, cannot benefit from grammar schools. All you have to do is be clever, and cleverness knows no class-based or racial boundaries. The problem at the moment, of course, is that there aren’t enough grammar schools to service all the bright kids. The other problem, one which is nothing to do with the education system per se, is that children from deprived backgrounds, of whatever race, tend not to be brought up in environments in which learning is prized. Either nobody bothers to tell them that education can improve their minds and lives, or they are actively discouraged by immediate peers and role models from pursuing it in the first place. Send grammar school representatives into these areas to recruit, and the class/racial divide such schools cause (?) highlight (?) will disappear. The ‘problem’ of separating the bright from the weak will persist, of course.
The only way grammar schools would become a massive issue in education again is if someone proposed building dozens of them in every local authority in England and Wales.
Which is effectively exactly what Kenneth Baker is proposing.
Hurrah for Kenneth Baker. One issue solved: there will be enough grammar schools to service the bright kids. Now just send them out to recruit.
And, incidentally, don’t include behavioural history as part of the selection process. My own experience as a teacher – and this is anecdotal of course – is that most of the behaviour problems in schools are caused by bright kids who are bored out of their fucking minds. Personalise their education, allow them to pursue their scholastic interests, and put them in small classes where they can get lots of attention from the teacher, and bingo. No more bad behaviour.
Then there are the proposed vocational diplomas:
Diplomas force children at 14 to choose between academic and vocational education – the decision to study GCSEs or Diplomas is the defining issue around which everything else is then shaped in their lives, because it determines how many other GCSEs they can do, which in turn affects what they can study at Sixth Form (can they do A-levels if they decide the diploma isn’t for them? Well, possibly, but not the “hard subjects”), which shapes what, if anything, they are able to do at university level.
This is just silly. Why the hell do we have FE colleges, if not to enable people to go back and do GCSEs and A-levels after they have done something else for a while? Education does not have to stop at age 16 or 18 if a person doesn’t want it to. What’s to stop somebody from doing a vocational diploma as a teenager, working for a while with it, then going back on their own time to do some GCSEs and ‘hard’ A-levels? Nothing.
But of course, this is not really about learning. This is about evil Tory LEAs stuffing all the ‘difficult’ kids into vocational schools where they don’t bring down the league table ranking:
[Baker] wants each local authority in the country (about 100 of them) to set up separate schools which will take children with an interest in vocational work – so popular will these schools be, said Baker, that soon local authorities will want more of them. And indeed, which local authority run (as most of them are today) by Tories wouldn’t want a school into which you can legitimately dump at 14 every difficult child in every other school in your area?
This strategy would apparently isolate kids from everybody who knows them and make sure they know their place forever:
Take them out of that environment and put them into a new school where no one knows them and everyone has an incentive to keep them just where they are for as long as possible and these children will be cut off from the higher levels of academic achievement throughout the rest of their school career at the age of 14 (and, let’s be honest, if that happens, very few of them are going to go back in their own time later in life). Worse, they will be earning qualifications which, the history of educational qualifications in Britain would suggest to us, are less likely to be highly regarded by universities or employers (the reason we have a GCSE today was because employers were only interested in the “academic” O-level not the “second-class” GCE). Students will be divided by outcome; and not the outcome of the same set or a similar of examinations, but at different qualifications entirely, within a system which is already set up to favour those who follow the traditional route.
Oh, I see: they won’t go back to school later in life, after being sequestered in the vocational schools to keep them out of the classrooms of the privileged middle class kids. They’ll, like, not go to university! Or get jobs!
Again: silly. They’ll get jobs. Maybe not hugely remunerative ones, but they’ll get them. They won’t go to university, but hey, lots of people don’t. It’s not for everybody. It helps if you want office jobs, or academic jobs, but not everybody wants those.
And if we’re being honest with ourselves, if employers insist on job candidates having GCSEs these days, it’s probably because that’s one of the few ways to confirm that an applicant is functionally literate and numerate (and even then you can’t be sure). If we had fewer problems at the pre-secondary level – if kids could definitely all read, write, and ‘rithmetic by the age of 11 – employers would likely have less of a box-ticking mentality about the GCSE.
The US model is a good one to look to: although vocational schools are few and far between, they offer the core curriculum alongside the vocational skills. Half the day is spent doing English, maths, history, and science, and the other half in the workshop. If that was done here, kids in vocational schools could get GCSEs easily. It might take them an extra year or two, but they’d have them by the age of 17 or 18.
This has nothing to do with improving education for the least well-off in society; this is about saving Home County parents from having to send their children to school where working class kids also go. That’s Kenneth Baker’s offer: build a new sink school, local authorities, and the rest of your schools will drained of the poor, the problematic and the needy. Wave goodbye to the black and the backwards, it is Grammar schools for everyone (who already votes Tory).
And your argument, Mr Blake, has nothing to do with children’s needs, despite your protestations about pastoral care and attention. It has everything to do with class warfare, in which the person who appears to hold the lowest opinion of the working class is not Kenneth Baker, but you.
Moving on, we get into the arena of ‘real skills’, which we’ve already seen Mr Blake doesn’t think well-educated Tories are fit to judge.
Leaving aside their rather optimistic faith that the only thing required to turn around our most disaffected youngsters is some time with power tools, or the fact that they were just making jobs up out of thin air (not everyone who leaves the new technical schools will be guaranteed a job unless the government starts interfering with the economy in a fashion that “David” and “George” are not going to be happy with), what we seem to be talking about here is a vision of education which relates solely to the things you can do practically at the end of it. I have real problems with this, largely because as a History teacher, I find that when people say “skills” they mean “things that will obviously make you money” rather than “things that will allow you to assess, understand and work to alter yours and other people’s place in the world”. (part 2)
So: the Tories want to fix education so that people can better themselves; Mr Blake thinks the purpose of educating a child is so that he can better other people. Who’s right?
A good education is not something that can be shared, in the sense that, once you’ve got one, you can’t siphon off a little bit to someone who hasn’t. In that respect, education is very much a selfish endeavour: you want the best possible one you can get, which will accrue to you the greatest possible benefit. But ‘benefit’ is a fairly subject value; some people feel benefited by ‘making money’, others by ‘assessing, understanding, and working to alter their and other people’s place in the world.’ But ultimately, it’s up to the individual to judge that. In fact you might say the purpose of education is to provide the individual with the critical skills necessary to make that judgment.
But the Tories just want to educate you so that you can ‘ make you money’, those evil bastards. This from the guy who was just whinging about people being ‘guaranteed a job’! Make up your mind, Mr Blake! Should they be guaranteed a job (and thus make money, how horrid), or should they assess, understand, etc? Or, perhaps, they should somehow be getting non-paying, world-altering jobs. I dunno. I’m confused. You complain that these kids won’t get jobs, but then you say education shouldn’t be focused on enabling them to make money. So somehow education should be focused on enabling them to get jobs that don’t make money. I don’t get it.
But this allows us to move into another of Mr Blake’s critiques, which is that the Tories aren’t promising jobs. Leaving aside for the moment the absurdity that anyone should be guaranteed a job (is this a new human right?), he says:
Unless someone gives building firms, engineering firms and others a great deal of money, there aren’t going to be any jobs for these young people to go to. The banks haven’t got any money, and David Cameron is ideologically opposed to government giving any money…
Excuse me, but the people who should be giving these firms ‘a great deal of money’ are their customers.
Finally, Mr Blake carries on to rail against fee discounts for university students who repay their student loans early:
…when our bright, articulate working class youngster gets to the dreaming spires, or the solid red brick, or the upcoming 1992 university, she will discover rich people will be getting their university places for cheaper than she is.
Willetts, a beaming smile on his face, guaranteed that 10,000 new university places would be provided by giving students who paid back their debts early a discount on their fees. (part 3)
I must admit, I don’t really know how this policy operates, given that the fees are paid at the set rate before the student begins to pay back his debts. Perhaps he will be given a discount on the repayment interest rate. But it was my understanding that all (English) students at all British universities pay exactly the same amount of money in tuition and fees. Getting a cheaper interest rate on your student loans hardly translates into ‘getting [your] university places for cheaper’.
Government-funded student loans represent a market failure anyway. The reason we have them is because banks don’t like to give out loans to people with no collateral who are likely to default. The government absorbs that risk via the taxpayer – but still attempts to obviate the risk by garnishing a person’s salary for repayments as soon as he ceases to be a student and gets a job.
Now, one could argue that since we want to encourage people to go to university, whether they are rich or poor, these are reasonable government policies. But surely it would be better for students to borrow from a private lender, with the state acting as guarantor, than for the state to lend the money and then garnish wages.
It was also my impression that student loans were means-tested, so this complaint is a little odd to me:
There are student now who manipulate the student loans system by taking out loans they are entitled to, sticking the money in a high interest savings account, and then getting through their university with handouts from mummy and daddy. Now, fantastically, they’ll actually get to keep not just the interest from that cash, but some of the money too. It’s like a lottery only rich people can win.
If there are ‘rich people’ getting student loans, maybe it’s time to change the way those means are tested. They do it in the US – it’s called the FAFSA. It’s pretty harsh. Even some people who are low on means indeed have trouble getting government aid. Of course, they take a different view of paying for university in the US; grants are swell, loans are tolerable, but if you expect to go to uni for fucking free you’d better get a scholarship. Most American university students I knew worked at least part-time throughout their course (including me). British university students appear to take their government money, pay their rent, and spend the rest on beer. There is no shame in tending bar or waiting tables whilst studying – and I’m sure many British uni students do – but give me a break. If the government is stupid enough to give you a loan you don’t need, and you stick it in the bank to collect interest, good for you. The fact that not everybody can do that is no reason to start bitching.
Meanwhile, those students who do have to pay something but really need the loans face the prospect of not claiming their discount. But, you cry, presumably they can go into high paid jobs? Then they can pay it back faster. Well, possibly … although one would think the Milk Round is going to be a little curdled for a while, and besides, why should the decision to enter teaching, or medicine, or nursing, not be a reason for a discount on your fees, whilst a decision to enter banking or corporate law saves you money? It is an absolutely naked piece of government welfare to the class from which all three of these men, and their leader and their shadow chancellor, are drawn.
The government has every reason to incentivise people to go into high-paying jobs. That lovely welfare Mr Blake and Don Paskini like so much doesn’t come cheap – it requires money. To put it bluntly, for every graduate who pays off his loans early by getting a high-paying job, the government expects to soak him for the maximum possible tax and National Insurance contributions. These people are the wealth creators (well, not from lawyers, obvi), and government can hardly hand out generous welfare without access to some, y’know, wealth. Doctors, nurses, and teachers are not wealth creators; they are at best wealth enablers, ensuring that people are healthy and knowledgeable enough to go out and create some; they are at worst wealth drainers, as some teachers especially are so bad at it that they simply suck up taxpayers’ money without even giving their kids some decent book-learnin’.
But as it happens, this is kind of something I agree with Mr Blake about. If the government is going to mandate the same tuition fees at East Buddhafuck Polytechnic as at Oxford (’cause to do otherwise would just be another example of the Tories fucking over the poor kids by making only crappy universities affordable to them), then the amount the students are made to pay back should be the same across the board, too.
On the other hand, the policy doesn’t really sound to me like aid for the Tory class. Mr Blake spends a bit of time pointing out that they don’t have any ‘real skills’ because they’ve worked in politics and its subsidiaries all their adult lives. From what I’ve heard, that career path doesn’t pay very well until you claw your way up the ladder. Conversely, lots of normal (read: non-toffs) people leave university to get productive jobs, found companies, etc. ‘Discounts’ for those who go into the paid professions, rather than the work-for-peanuts ass-kissing professions, seems to me like it might help working-class graduates rather than hurt them.
But as Mr Blake reminds us, this isn’t about class warfare, despite the fact that he thinks working-class kids are stupid, badly-behaved, and likely to go into low-wage jobs if they manage to get as far as university:
And what [Cameron's] men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate for power, uncaring of how they get it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people kept them out of power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people Labour never gave you.
Hmm. Change a couple of words, and that paragraph would read:
And what Brown’s men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate to cling onto power, uncaring of how they do it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people has been demonstrated whilst they’ve been in power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people the Conservatives would never give you.
This is obviously not about the substance of the Tories’ proposed educational reforms; it’s about the Tories themselves. And why should the voter give a good goddamn where the Tory leadership went to school thirty years ago? All a voter should care about is whether the policies will work. I don’t think they will; they’re so milquetoast that I doubt they’ll have any effect if enacted. Cameron’s men aren’t being radical enough.
This is about hatred for the Tories, in their incarnation of The Privileged, and finding every way possible to insinuate that they’ve got it in for people who aren’t like them. To what end, I ask you, would they do this? Is it really in the Tories’ interests to foster an ill-educated, poverty-stricken underclass who would (a) simply have to be supported on benefits anyway, and (b) never ever vote again for the party that robbed them of all chance at social mobility? Perhaps Mr Blake thinks this is just the beginning, and eventually the Tories will strip away the benefits too, so that everybody who’s ‘not like them’ will starve to death, thus ridding the country of an inconvenient burden?
I’m sure Mr Blake doesn’t actually think that. What he also doesn’t think is what has actually happened: that social mobility has worsened under Labour, educational achievement has worsened under Labour, and enough people realise this that they’re likely to vote for the very party that supposedly fucked everybody over back in the eighties.
Finally, Mr Blake is invoking the kind of political cant that was the standard 25 years ago. Is he appealing to new voters, young voters, the very people who would be most affected by some of these policies? No – a voter turning eighteen next spring will have been born in 1992. Too young to remember how evil the Tories were. Too young to know anything but thirteen years of Labour government. The only people these days for whom ‘toffs! class warfare!’ is going to work as an electoral rallying cry are the ones who were bitching and moaning around the place in 1984 and who think all Tories are exactly like Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact she’s been out of power for twenty years.
If you want people to take your criticisms seriously, Mr Blake, then make some serious criticisms. Don’t stand or fall on the ancient reputation of the Conservative party and a bunch condescending remarks about how haaaaard everything is for the, by your implication, stupid and unemployable working class.