What caused the riots? Are we even asking the right questions?

December 8, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

I recently attended an excellent roundtable event at the House of Commons, run by the Runneymede Trust as part of their Westminster Riot Roundtable programme looking at possible links between the summer disturbances and race issues.

Students from several schools in areas affected by the riots presented their research among local residents and young people and concluded that according to most of their respondents, race had little or nothing to do with it.

I won’t try to summarise the really enlightening discussion that ensued, but wanted to share three particularly interesting points that were raised – discussion very welcome:

  • One participant related that when rioters were asked why they had attacked their own communities, they responded “what community?”
  • Lots of comments tended to sideline or minimise the looting elements of the disturbances, seeking answers in other aspects that could not so easily be dismissed as ‘just criminality’. However, several participants pointed out that status and entitlement are related to the possession of material goods in a consumerist society, and so their seizure is a political act regardless of the articulated intent of those looting.
  • One of the very last comments was by a student who had not spoken so far, who said (and I paraphrase) “You can say it’s not about race, but it is. Because they tell you at school that if you work hard you will succeed, and that’s true. But in the real world you can work hard and you don’t succeed”.
All of which led me to think that the questions that are being asked:
  • how could/why did young people attack their own communities?
  • was it political or just criminal?
  • were the riots about race?
might be better phrased as:
  • What does community mean for young people in our most deprived neighbourhoods?
  • what does the looting tell us about young peoples’ relationship to brands and capitalism?
  • how is the relationship between race and opportunity evolving in our cities?
What other questions aren’t being asked that should be, and are there good discussions of the above that I’ve missed?

Social mobility – time to say what we mean

November 25, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

I have attended a whole string of events on social mobility over the past couple of weeks, which have left me deeply confused about what people mean when they use the phrase. Becky Francis has made this point in a previous blog, but the social mobility is such a dominant theme in education at the moment that it bears some further examination.

At a seminar organised by us examining arguments for national and local curriculum in relation to social justice, esteemed educational sociologist Professor Michael Young said that he was ‘appalled’ at the way politicians use the term ‘social mobility’. If we actually mean ‘social mobility’ when we say it, he argued, then we have to accept that as some people move up, others move down. Especially when we’re talking (as has Michael Gove) about more students on Free School Meals going to Oxbridge. How can it be otherwise, unless Oxford and Cambridge are going to expand to accommodate all that untapped potential without displacing the children at independent schools who would otherwise have taken those places? There needs to be ‘space at the top’ if more children are to rise to the top.  The same applies if we take social mobility to mean people moving between income quintiles, i.e. whether there is movement between children born to parents in the bottom 20% income bracket to the top 20% of earners when they grow up. This relative quintiles game is, by definition, a zero sum game.

When I brought this up at an event looking at the implications for social mobility of the government’s White Paper on Higher Education such thinking was branded ‘deeply worrying’ by several participants, including MPs. The idea that social mobility was ever a ‘zero sum game’ was rejected outright. I could see what they mean: research was cited showing that overall, students leaving Higher Education tended to access and retain employment with higher returns in status and in income than their parents had. So it seemed that they were talking about social mobility in terms of doing better than your parents did and I should have been clearer that I was not. This inter-generational kind of social mobility implies that overall there will be more degree educated people in good jobs than there were in previous generations. But does it also accept that those who were born to less well off families are still in less well paid jobs than those born to better off families, even if more of those jobs are degree-level and better paid?

Let’s just do a thought experiment: realistically, if students from all backgrounds performed more or less equivalently at school, and the proportions going to univeristy, to Russell Group Universities and to Oxbridge fairly reflected the make-up of society, then families used to the idea that their children will do relatively well and go to one of the best universities in the land (because that’s what children from families like theirs do), would need to get used to the idea that only the exceptionally bright will do so. The 7% of the population who attend an independent school would commandeer just 7% of the places at universities of all types (as opposed to nearly half at the most selective they do currently). Unless the number of university places is going to continue to rise (which looks unlikely in the short term) then more and more students from ordinary or disadvantaged backgrounds taking a finite number of places would mean fewer and fewer better off students getting a place. At all. Any any university. To take it to its logical conclusion, a genuine meritocracy might mean that the image conjured up by the term ‘NEET’ might have to change. The relationship between university degrees and top careers might also change, but this is pure, perhaps cynical, conjecture. Anyway, I can’t see it happening, but I hope that the point is clear.

This ambiguity in implications of the term ‘social mobility’ makes it a very useful hard-to-argue-with phrase for politicians to use, without having to acknowledge the implications of what success in these policies might look like for different sectors of society: one can see why they do it. But it also makes it extremely difficult for the rest of us to know what on earth they mean, and I think we need to start asking them to clarify. Do they mean ‘we want children to do better than their parents did so that society is better off overall’ (everyone wins), or do they mean ‘we want all children to do as well regardless of background so that disadvantage can no longer be conferred between parents and their children but neither can advantage‘? Because it matters: for our view of the sincerity of the attempts to tackle entrenched disadvantage suffered by some communities, and for the shape of the policies employed to do so.

One thing’s for certain:  whatever politicians mean, their policies often have little to do with promoting social equality, or enabling those at the bottom to ‘catch up’ faster than those at the top race ahead which is, arguably, an alternative meaning of the term ‘social mobility’ but is better captured by other phrases now out of vogue, such as ‘social justice’ or ‘social inclusion’. And, as Michael Young argued, for countries like Finland and Sweden it is social equality which makes social mobility far easier to achieve.

Who loses from education cuts?

October 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

On the day that RSA director of education Professor Becky Francis has spoken at the NUS Zone conference in Liverpool on the disadvantage faced by working class children before they even begin formal primary schooling, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has published a report revealing that early years funding will suffer more from cuts than the formal schooling sector over the coming five years.

Further education funding is also set to take a harder hit than other sectors.  As pointed out by a recent RSA report, FE colleges cater for large numbers of relatively disadvantaged young people in the UK and so this group will be disproportionately affected by the reduction in spending.

I Love Hackney: why don’t the rioters?

August 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Economy 

The well viewed video of a woman lecturing rioters in Hackney last Monday reveals an identification with place that is clearly not shared with the young people she is addressing. We need to pay more attention to the ways in which the spaces inhabited by young people differ if we hope to engage young people positively in the shaping of our neighbourhoods.

Research on place reveals that different communities inhabit spaces in different ways, and that the subjective meaning of a space can differ wildly depending on who you are. Age, ethnicity and socio-economic status and gender can all be factors, and intersect in complex ways. The speaker in the video is black, female and adult, and speaks of being “ashamed to be a Hackney person. Because we are not all gathering together and fighting for a cause…sort it out black people”. This is not a voice asking young people to toe the line, to obey the rule of law, to submit to conventional authority. But rather to align with what she perceives the spirit of the place where they live to be: one where if there is disorder it should be a collective resistance of the community for a social or political end.

The thing that shocked and frightened so many last week, I think, is that there is a disconnect not only between young people from deprived areas and representatives of the state; but also between them and their ‘own’ communities, including those with a tradition of resistance to the state. There seemed to be no accountability, no control.

The Hackney understood by the looters is not the same Hackney understood by the speaker in this video. Nor is it the same one I know. I live near Hackney, and friends working for the local authority have t-shirts reading “I love Hackney’. This is partly ironic, but it works because places like Hackney inspire affection: they have a certain gritty romance in many people’s imagination. They are places where you find self-organising grass roots festivals, community choirs, guerrilla gardening, active freecycling networks: functioning and constructive forms of gentle disruption and challenge to bureaucracy and capitalism of which large sections of the public might approve.

But why aren’t large numbers of young people minded to care about these traditions, identities, senses of place? Well, because my Hackney, the Hackney of the speaker in the video, and that of many young people who live there are simply not the same place.

To illustrate, I am reminded of another incident from another area of London where I lived at the time: the stabbing of 16 year old Kodjo Yenga in Hammersmith in 2007. This was one of the first in a spate of highly publicised killings of – it seemed – ever younger victims across London in what seemed like an epidemic of knife crime. The murder happened on Hammersmith Grove, 100m from the house I shared with friends, in broad daylight, in front of dozens of witnesses. Hammersmith Grove, for those not familiar with the street, is a wide avenue lined with trees and huge, white West London town houses. Ralph Fiennes, the actor, used to live in one of them. It is the way I walked home from the tube because it felt safe. I remember thinking after Kodjo was killed: this street, on the same day, at the same time, is a different street for black or Asian teenagers than it is for me. It is quite simply not the same place.

We find it difficult not to be shocked at the gulf between how those involved in last week’s disturbances seem to value and interpret the places they inhabit, and how we feel they should. That gulf, unfortunately, was already there, which is the more frightening fact for many people.Young people, especially, can inhabit worlds that it is difficult for adults living in the same place to understand. For better or worse urban landscapes represent a multiplicity of meanings simultaneously and we need to look hard if we are to understand. Some fascinating work done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (look at the drawings) on young people and territoriality reveals a world hidden to adult eyes: one where city streets are labelled “Asians and posh people”, “Estate: all chavs, no Asians”, or “Enemies”. I expect that to other people those same places might be “nice houses but too expensive”, “near the shops”, “trendy”, or an infinity of other things depending on the realities lived in by the observer.

Previous research by Professor Becky Francis has found that young people in some urban areas feel simply unable to leave their own estate: the boundaries of territory and space being set by observance of rules invisible to other residents. As such, the disturbances last week may have offered an opportunity to break more than the rules of wider society, offering a freedom of movement that is normally unavailable to certain groups of young people.

The RSA Area Based Curriculum seeks to promote better links between young people’s learning and the places where they live. But if we want to create a shared reality in our neighbourhoods and towns we need to remember that what those places are is neither fixed nor singular. What we understand those places to be is only part of the story, and young people in particular have a lot to teach us about the reality of the places where they live as well.


Don’t blame the girls – society’s aspirations are also a problem

July 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

The recent Ofsted report on Girl’s career aspirations makes the assumption that because girls do better than boys at school, but are less successful in the workplace, there must be something wrong with girls’ choices of educational path and career.

But are girls themselves the first place we should look for an answer as to why success at school does not translate to success in the workplace?

Of course there may be powerful factors influencing children’ – boys’ and girls’ – choices of career that require addressing. Although having said that, as Becky Francis’ recent blog has argued, discourses of ‘aspiration poverty’ are problematic. Even if girls did assume that they would take top jobs in typically male-dominated industries, would all the men start quietly going into part time secretarial roles, or caring? Would senior managers erase all discriminatory assumptions, and would leaving work to have children stop having an effect on pay and status? In other words, is it the girls and their aspirations that are in fact the problem here?

Secondly, the unquestioned correlation of doing well at school with doing well at work that sits uneasily with me in this instance. The first sentence of the report reads “Young women achieve better educationally than boys at the age of 16. A higher proportion of girls than boys continue in education to degree level. Their early success, however, does not translate into similar advantages in terms of careers and pay in later life”.

Before focussing on the girls and their lack of ambition, do we not first need to question the assumption that success at school should beget success at work? It is far from obvious:  the behaviours and attitudes that are rewarded at school are not always the same as those rewarded in the workplace. Is what gets you good A Levels the same as what gets you promotions, the best jobs, or that pay rise, especially in the higher eschelons of the private sector? In other words, the assumption that if you do well at school means you should do well in life needs testing in light of the fact that for girls this clearly doesn’t happen.

And is there not an important gendered element to this as well?

I’m no expert and I’d welcome readers’ views, but it strikes me that feminine (not necessarily female) characteristics such passivity and conscientiousness stand you in good stead in formal education institutions and passing standardised exams; whereas masculine (again, not necessarily male) characteristics of assertiveness and aggression are more likely to be rewarded in management and board rooms. On the other hand, the exposure of abuse at the Winterbourne Care home has raised important questions over what kinds of attitudes and behaviours we need to promote in a world where an ageing population means that caring of the vulnerable becomes ever more important.

The RSA has long been arguing that the formal education system does not necessarily provide young people with what they need for life and work. And we’re not only talking about those young people who do not do very well within the education system, we’re also talking about those who perform in exams yet do not do so well as others in the workplace. Rather than looking at the girls to be more ambitious (although we should), perhaps we should also look at the fitness of the system which could be measuring and rewarding the wrong things, as well as how we define and value what it is we think boys and girls should aspire to be?

Is anyone failing our kids?

March 30, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

We’re hosting a debate here at the RSA tomorrow in partnership with Channel 4 to coincide with the Jamie’s Dream School television series. The title is ‘Who is failing our kids?’. Almost half of students in the UK leave school without the government defined minimum of five ‘good’ GCSEs. Something is going wrong – whose fault is it?

Is it in fact anyone’s fault?

Could we just as easily ask the question, Who gets the credit for serving our children well?

More children are achieving across the board than ever before, more children are staying on post-16 than ever before, and more go to university than ever before. The number of failing schools has dropped so dramatically that Ofsted have had to commandeer the English language (in a manner so bizarre it’s a wonder that children bother at all) and declare that ‘satisfactory’ (OED definition: “satisfying expectations or needs, leaving no room for complaint”) is ‘not good enough’?

Firstly, however, on who’s to blame for what is wrong. Everyone will have their own view who this might be and the list is a long one: is it the parents who are interested enough, teachers who aren’t qualified, schools with the wrong priorities, wider society with its ills (general and specific), the rich with their private schools, the poor with their lack of aspirations, bureaucrats with their targets, academics with their progressivism, the government with its political agenda, universities with their selection policies, employers with their recruitment policies …I could go on.

Why so much disagreement? One reason is that education is so complex, children are so diverse and the factors determining their success in exams are so multiple that categorical answers to questions this broad are difficult to pin down.

Another reason is that we still lack a clear consensus on whose responsibility the education of children actually is and for whose benefit it is carried out. In a recent seminar for the Education and Employers Taskforce Research Group Professor Ewart Keep highlighted the lack of consensus in Britain (relative to other countries) over who the ‘customer’ is in education (students and their parents, employers, or wider society and the state?) and whose responsibility it is to ensure that the economy has the right skills (individuals, the state or employers). If we don’t agree on who is supposed to be doing what and for whom, then how can we hold anyone to account for the fact that we’re not where we want to be?

Now to what’s going right. Why do we find it so difficult to celebrate the successes in the system? Partly because the attainment gap between rich and poor is still shamefully large, and even more so when we compare ourselves internationally.

It is hard to celebrate success that discriminates against certain groups by birth.

It is also partly because education is so politicised at the moment that no government or opposition will not acknowledge the successes of their predecessors (note the current emphasis the Coalition places on the relative decline in Britain’s position in international league tables, as opposed to the year on year improvement in attainment within Britain over the previous government’s tenure).

Finally, though, even without the above reasons, there is still the bizarre and perennial (or annual) claim that as exam results rise, standards must be dropping. If more students are gaining As at A Level then the exams must be getting easier goes the conventional wisdom. In an education system measured by how students do in exams surely this is a no-win situation for the schools, teachers, and students? If all students across the country suddenly did very well in their GCSEs what would happen? GCSEs would lose their currency and we would need to find different means for universities and employers to choose between students. The A* grade at A Level, and the IGCSEs are examples where this is already happening.

Education and in particular the exams sat at the end of it serve the function of differentiating young people for the labour market by their performance.

While this is the case some of our children will be failing (or being failed) because all jobs and all routes to employment are not, unfortunately, equal.

And who are we going to blame for that?

Think Big, Teach Local

January 28, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

It’s an exciting moment in the Area Based Curriculum project in Peterborough. We’re at the point where we try to move away from bothering busy people with important jobs, asking them to do things they wouldn’t normally do, and towards a role supporting people moving ahead with their own projects. Where the RSA stops being ‘doer’ and begins to act in the role of ‘supporter’.

Communities and schools work together to design a curriculum. We don’t do it for them. We don’t determine who gets involved, or what goes in the curriculum. That’s the whole point.

The point of an Area Based Curriculum is that communities and schools work together to design a curriculum. We don’t do it for them. We don’t determine who gets involved, or what goes in the curriculum. That’s the whole point. Eleven years of working with schools on Opening Minds has convinced the RSA of the power of a curriculum that is conceived, designed and implemented by teachers in a school. The Area Based Curriculum goes one step further: reaching out beyond the school gates and asking the people in a local area to pitch in and work with teachers, bringing their ideas, resources and expertise.

The problem is, of course, that in order for the work to be worthwhile we of course do have a view on what should go in the curriculum, and who should be involved. We insist that the curriculum reflect the diversity of a local area, and seek to engage those not normally involved in education. We ask that the projects take proper account of the national entitlement of all children to a certain set of shared knowledge, at the same time as reflecting local knowledges and priorities. Our reasons for doing the work in the first place are based on principles – educational and ethical and political. For it to be worth doing we must care about the outcomes, and take responsibility for ensuring that our intervention is not a hollow one that reinforces existing power structures and exclusions, fails to secure different outcomes to what existed before, or worse.

Our project in Peterborough is at the point where we do what we said we went there to do, and try to provoke a genuinely community owned and led curriculum. We have to hope that we have got the balance right: between providing enough steer to the work so that we achieve and can measure what we set out to do, and stepping aside at the right time to allow the teachers and community partners in Peterborough to develop and own their own projects.

The Big Society must intend to achieve better outcomes for society, and someone has to define what those are – otherwise why bother?

This tension between the stated aims of a given intervention and local ownership, of course, is present in all work by agencies seeking to enable people to do things for themselves. This includes central government espousing ideas like the Big Society. At the beginning the intervention, or policy, or suggestion for change is just that – ‘centralised’, ‘top down’, ‘external’. The Big Society must intend to achieve better outcomes for society, and someone has to define what those are – otherwise why bother? At the same time the enactment of the Big Society needs to be internalised and owned by communities, professionals and individuals. What are the mechanisms for making this happen? How do we establish a shared sense of what we are trying to achieve? And how far does or should the original intervener (in this case the Coalition Government) retain responsibility for the outcomes?

The Area Based Curriculum is, ultimately, about culture change. It’s about subtle but crucial shifts in perceptions of ownership, responsibility and expectation. So too is the Big Society. We will soon find out whether our assumptions about how to effect change in a way that empowers have been correct, and we will learn a lot on the way. Sharing this learning with others doing similar work will be crucial to informing the success of the Big Society.

Downton Abbey, and whose aspirations are they anyway?

November 18, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

It’s been gone for a couple of weeks now, but in case anyone is still looking for an excuse to have another conversation about ITV’s phenomenally successful costume drama, do read on. As those who watched the show will know, one of the sub plots involved Lady Sybil, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, trying to help housemaid Gwen to obtain a position as a secretary – an aspiration of self-betterment generally resented by servants and masters alike. I don’t think anyone could argue that Gwen should have been prevented from trying to move up in the world, nor that it is a tragic injustice that she had to fight so hard even to convince her friends of her right to do so.

However, I don’t know if I was the only person who felt slightly uncomfortable when Lady Sybil’s political ideals meant that she kept pushing Gwen to apply for jobs when rejections left her distraught and in tears and convinced that she had been wrong to step outside her station. One couldn’t help but feel that Gwen’s real life struggle was a kind of test case for the privileged Sybil’s radicalism and that there was every possibility of losing sight of Gwen’s best interest in Sybil’s principled pursuit of female empowerment and social progress.

What has this to do with education? Well for a start, it reminded me of (in the sense of being the opposite to) a scene in the hilarious – but frighteningly real – comedy spoof ‘People Like Us’ where the fictional headteacher and his deputies suggest including in the school mission statement the line ‘every child will be supported to reach their full potential’ until one of the deputies points out that that seems a bit disingenuous. “Because lots of them aren’t going to, are they?” Cue general agreement and confused frowns.

When does responsible realism become intolerable low expectations, and when does principled ambition on someone else’s behalf become their exploitation for one’s own political ideas?

The government and wider society need all children to aspire to university, and need to work to encourage them to – otherwise we are no better than those in Gwen’s day who accept the status quo without a thought. How, in this day and age, can we not have high expectations for all children and want all of them to ‘reach their potential’? On the other hand, how fair is it for teachers to insist that children ‘raise their aspirations’ and ‘aim high’ when the opportunities simply are not there? More than 200,000 young people were unable to secure a university place this year. Whose children are going to step aside next year to ensure that groups currently under-represented in higher education get a shot? I don’t know, but there will probably need to be more than 200,000 of them.

I wasn’t sure what answer writer Julian Fellowes would give in the last episode of Downton Abbey: whether Lady Sybil’s interference would lead to disaster for Gwen, or whether her ambition and determination on Gwen’s behalf would vindicate her by the triumph of her ideals. Perhaps because the show was themed around the winds of progress and change that were sweeping through England immediately pre-1914, we were treated to a happy ending and Gwen gaining a position as secretary for the telephone company (just to press the point home). Here in the real world, however, the winds of change seem to be blowing in the opposite direction, creating fewer opportunities, not more.

Might the answer be that we need to delink ideas of aspiration, potential and ambition from a linear hierarchical notion of success, defined by entry to university and professional elites, which inevitably results in failure, or its perception, for many? John Hayes suggested in a speech at the RSA last month that sector skills councils could be rebranded as ‘Guilds’ to increase the prestige attached to what he terms ‘craftspeople’.

Will this be enough do we think?

What do the great and good think everyone should know? Desmond Tutu, Shami Chakrabarti and Lord Bingham give their view

March 18, 2010 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

See also What should everyone know?

What should everyone know?

March 15, 2010 by · 15 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

QuestionWhat should be included in the National Curriculum? What this question really asks is ‘what should everyone know?’.

And this question is not as simple as it seems. This is why the RSA is holding a debate on this topic on 22 March at 6pm, inviting some individuals from outside the education debate to discuss the question.

I’ve had a go at unpacking some of the questions thrown up by the question of what should go in the National Curriculum in the form of some sub questions:

  • What knowledge is so important that EVERYONE in our society should know it?
  • What should everyone know HOW to do?
  • What should every young person know in order to have an equal chance of making their way in the world?
  • What is so crucial to participation in our culture and society that every child needs to have access to it?
  • What is so crucial to the maintenance and transmission of our cultural and intellectual inheritance that every member of society needs to be taught it so it doesn’t get lost even if it has little of no utility to the individual?
  • Is there such a thing as useless knowledge?
  • What is so crucial to our economy that the largest possible number of children should be given the foundations so enough choose to pursue it?
  • What should be taught in schools because society can’t or won’t teach it to all children equally?
  • What is so important to shaping and changing our society for the future that all children should be introduced to it now? When is this indoctrination, and when is is values driven education?
  • How does our view of what everyone should know reflect our view of what society we want? Or does it?
  • What should everyone, perhaps, NOT know? How far does the enlightenment ideal of full, complete and free access to knowledge still hold, and is there any ‘truth’ that we would want to ensure – in retrospect – that no one knew? (How to make an atomic bomb, for example?)

Check out Shami Chakrabati’s response on our website – or look at the full video.

What do you think everyone should know? Answers below please.

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