The Structure of State Education

August 26, 2015


The Logic of State Education

Since their creation in 1870, state schools have experienced more, not less, direct political intervention in the structure and content of their teaching. Even before state schools were introduced there were fears of a political nature from both the upper and lower classes. The upper echelons of society were worried that mass education would lead the workers to “think” and ultimately come to a conscious, informed decision that collectively it was possible to revolt against the living and working conditions they had to endure. Many workers themselves feared that by sending their kids to government-controlled schools they would be subject to institutional indoctrination and would later be economically manipulated.

Sitting in a building listening to instruction from designated experts isn’t necessarily the best route to education; we are increasingly able to continue education outside of our mandatory schooling through technological and social means. Alternative educational models continue to demonstrate the negative effect of bureaucratic models on children’s capabilities to learn; The Netherlands provides an Open University where grades are prohibited, removing the culture of competition pervasive within institutional education.

The focus from recent Secretaries of State for Education on a new wave of academies and “free” schools has placed a requirement to promote particular notions and ideas to students while protecting them from what are deemed to be “inappropriate teaching materials”. If an academy rebels and filters the required conservative cultural ideology from their teaching, the school’s state funding can be cut. This ultimately means that the Secretary of State has dictatorial power over not only the content of what is taught in schools, but also power over the legal terms required to close down the schools they deem to be failing to achieve specific political aims.

Failing On Its Own Terms

The statistical models with which academic achievement is measured by the state are often problematic and play a significant role in perpetuating the educational inequality still persistent within state schools today. Complex human beings are reduced to simplistic statistical judgements, preparing them for a world of work under capitalism. Even if we do accept this statistical model as signifying academic achievement it still fails by its own standards.

Educational inequality is still a significant factor in the UK education system, and economic disparity between students continues to be a determinant factor in the grades achieved. In 2013, to cite one study of many, Ofsted revealed that only 38.1% of Free School Meal (FSM) pupils gained five or more GCSE A*-C compared with 64.8% of their non-FSM peers. Also, according to a parliamentary briefing report in 2012, Black Caribbean boys were highlighted as being far more likely to be excluded from school (the majority of pupils who are excluded have either Special Educational Needs, are eligible for Free School Meals or are Black Caribbean), are twice as likely to be characterised as having behavioural, emotional or social difficulty compared to White British boys, and are most likely to have the lowest attainment levels (Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, excluded). Despite government reforms over the decades, these problems are just scratching the surface of the issues that persist within the state education system.

Research from 2010’s How Fair is Britain survey also provides evidence that attainment continues to be strongly pegged to socio-economic background, as well as gender, race and special needs. Here are a few headline findings:

  • Girls outperform boys routinely at aged 5, at age 16 and at degree level throughout Britain.

  • Ethnic differences at GCSE level are narrowing except for the top where the two highest performing groups are Chinese and Indian students.

  • In England, the best performing group are Chinese girls; even those on FSM outperform all other ethnic groups whether on FSM or not. The worst performing group is Gypsy and Traveller children. Their performance is declining. Fewer than 1 in 6 obtain at least five good GCSEs.

  • The performance of Chinese children is scarcely affected by whether or not they are eligible for FSM, whilst by contrast that of Indian children is strongly diminished if they are eligible for FSM.

  • In England, 17% of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) get five good GCSEs including English and Maths, compared to 61% of children without identified SEN.

  • When SEN is combined with those eligible for FSM, outcomes drop even further. Of children with SEN and who are eligible for FSM, only 10% of girls and 8% of boys in England obtain 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths.

  • Across Britain, disabled adults are three times as likely as others to have no qualifications.

The issue of academic achievement is clearly not a monolithic one. The disparities highlighted above are caused by numerous factors, but it’s still clear that economic disparities play a large role. Whilst the 2010 survey does offer some positive changes, the negatives far outweigh them; the simple fact that adults with disability issues are three times more likely to not have qualifications is an indictment of the system in itself. These issues, which are yet to be addressed in any meaningful way, are of great significance and the state education system must be challenged militantly, immediately and passionately to ensure these changes are made.

Gendered Education

According to Martin Lawn & John Furlong, the structure of education has become increasingly centred on the ‘use value’ of school subjects (this concept is entirely distinct from a Marxian understanding of the term, and instead refers more to factors such as ‘employability’ in a capitalist context), with subjects such as business and law taking precedence over other subjects such as sociology. This is because social sciences in particular are stereotypically seen as being less useful when entering the labour market. Influential advisor to Michael Gove [the previous Secretary of State for Education], Dominic Cummings, went so far as to claim that large amounts of social science work among “third-rate higher educations” are of questionable value.

State-funded secondary schools also appear to be affected, with many schools deciding not to include subjects based on their potential use value. Not only that, but the curriculum of state-funded schools appears to be gendered, with pupils being socialised into preferring and pursuing particular subjects.

One member of our collective, after having attended a state-funded all boys secondary school in South London, confesses to having been left with no idea what sociology was, or even psychology. Besides history (which they felt alienated from), there were no social sciences being taught in their school. Upon attending college they found that they were one of only three boys in a sociology class of about 20. It was not long before they felt alienated and began to wonder if they were studying a “girl’s subject” – a label they had heard a few times from fellow pupils.

The concept of a ‘gendered education’ is not new. While boys are encouraged to study sciences and business-orientated subjects, girls are often encouraged to do more ‘feminine and caring’ subjects which require more empathy and in some cases subjective analysis. This would explain the absence of subjects such as ‘Health and Social Care’ from boys’ schools and their prevalence among girls’ choices (in 2009/10, 95.8% of GCSE health and social care pupils were girls).

As a result we witness large gender disparities regarding academic attainment, which then often forms the basis for career choice. The figures for the 2014 A-level results collected by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) show that a gender gap is still very apparent within the UK education system. Over 80% of students who took their sociology exam were girls. Almost 80% of psychology exam-takers were girls. While over 65% of mathematics, economics and physics exam-takers (all stereotypically masculine subjects), were boys. Interestingly, it is the ‘girl subjects’ that are often seen as being less ‘career-focused’, which basically means that these subjects are least likely to lead you to a stable career with good pay. As a result we see a glass ceiling being created for girls from a pretty early age; they are socialised into preferring the subjects where the pay is less and any career is more unstable.

This only partially explains why men dominate the high-paid jobs, particularly positions such as managers, even in sectors dominated by women. Here we also see an association between the ‘use value’ of subjects and the gender that they cater to. ‘Boy subjects’ are assumed to lead to better careers thus giving them a better ‘use value’ and in some cases, even allow men to conquer female-dominated careers without the ‘necessary’ qualifications.

Perhaps we could go as far as to say that state education primes children for a world of heteronormativity. This certainly appears to be the case when we look at sex education in state schools. Sex education is vital to ensuring that young people, and later adults, know how to maintain a healthy sexual lifestyle. Not only that, but sex education also makes young people aware of risks, Sexually Transmitted Infections, and how their bodies work. According to the Sex Education Forum, education appears to have an enormous impact on the sexual health of young people, so why sex education is not mandatory in schools (outside the realm of science) is beyond belief. A national survey showed that 32% of young people found the information they received on sex and relationships to be of little or no help. This comes as no surprise when you consider that parents are allowed to withdraw their children from certain parts of sex education, consequently leading to students getting a skewed and misinformed picture.

Inadequate sex and relationship education (SRE) can leave young people disillusioned and vulnerable to exploitation. Examples of this can be seen in the Metro’s Youth Chances Survey 2014 where over 80% of LGBT respondents said that their schools did not even have posters or leaflets showing diversity of sexuality or gender identity, while 90% were either unaware of a school policy that protected LGBT staff/pupils or did not believe one existed. This corresponds with the fact that self-harm and suicide rates are highest amongst young gay, lesbian and transgender people.

One obvious conclusion here would be to make SRE inclusive and flexible. There should not be a preference to a particular sexual identity and pupils should not be able to miss out on aspects of SRE that their parents or school deem inappropriate or ‘irrelevant’ for their child. Having an ALL-inclusive SRE is beneficial to all pupils because it will help them understand that not everybody falls into heteronormative categories, and that that is okay. It is also imperative that SRE focuses more on the relationships side and does not shy away from the darker topics such as sexual violence and grooming. Relationships education also needs to expand beyond the realms of marriage and monogamy, as those are not the only relationship forms or desires.

Whiteness in the Classroom

The idea of an inclusive curriculum stretches further than the gendered aspect of education. Despite some ‘slight amendments’, state school curriculum continues to be unreasonably narrow and whitewashed. Michael Gove emphasised this by dropping Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird from the national curriculum last year. The theme behind the novel is prejudice, something that is still going strong in Britain; making it an integral piece of literature, not just for learning but for gaining a deeper understanding of how our society operates. By replacing it with content focused ‘more on tradition’, Gove has effectively stifled this important focus on modern inequalities within English literature classes. Not only that but he’s effectively omitting the little relatability this subject has with pupils from various backgrounds.

During a conversation about our school experiences, a member of our collective said that she found English in school to be both uninteresting and unmotivating due to the fact that it only contained books by white authors and their stories were aimed at a white audience. However, she admitted to loving the course anthology when it was explored in school because it included stories from across the world. She was unable to identify with the whitewashed content but instead drew inspiration from the women writers of colour who were not British but she felt she could identify with all the same. By eliminating valuable non-British content from the curriculum, schools risk further alienating a vast number of pupils who come from different backgrounds. It must be understood that pupils may identify with non-British authors for a variety of reasons and that this is increasingly the case because of the diversity and dual identity that exists within schools. Pupils might consider themselves British but at the same time identify with a culture that is considered non-British because of their parents or family origins.

The history curriculum is a prime example of whitewashing. Inner city state schools, in particular, do a disservice to their pupils who tend to be more ethnically diverse. Although as British inhabitants it is important that we learn British history, it is also equally important for histories of other countries and continents to be explored. History plays an integral role in the formation of identity. If all the historical, powerful figures that pupils are exposed to are white men, then those who do not identify with the ‘white male’ are more likely to be disillusioned with their identity.

Similarly, if the figures pupils identify with are always associated or connected with subservience and powerlessness in relation to one another (as is the case with much of ‘black history’ in the curriculum), there’s a good chance that pupils will internalise those assumptions of inferiority. If schools want to empower all children and young people they need to stop painting Britain’s history in a superior light and at the expense of other histories. The inclusion of Ancient kingdoms and dynasties (perhaps as a comparison to the British Empire) or the inclusion of different ethnic presences in Victorian Britain for example, would be of great benefit to pupils of all backgrounds. With this there also needs to be an emphasis on women figureheads, as history tends to neglect the massive role that women have played.

The current curriculum for state education has been rather slow in adapting to the changes in society. It is not inclusive to LGBT and for all the talk of a multicultural Britain, the curriculum doesn’t reflect this at all. Colonialism, slavery and immigration overlaps British history and ‘tradition’ with many many other histories and traditions, so there is no reason as to why they should not be acknowledged. We are well aware of the fact that the vast majority of the population represent a particular ethnic group, however with existing diversities, the media, internet and gentrification; the curriculum cannot afford to NOT be inclusive. We are not suggesting that everything is represented in equal proportions, but if the representation (or lack thereof) of a person(s) within the curriculum, does not attempt to dispel negative stereotypes or connotations associated with said person(s) then it cannot be classified as inclusive.

by RMovement | @ou_rmovement | R Movement is an intersectional grassroots organisation that aims to help local communities through educational organisation in the hopes of pursuing liberation.


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