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Neoliberalism and the family: a question of ethics

Reclaiming Schools

by Pam Jarvis, Reader in Childhood, Youth and Education, Leeds Trinity University

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Long before my university post, and even before I was a classroom teacher, I was a young mother in Thatcher’s Britain. In my mid-twenties, I had three small children, including twins, with less than three years between them, Thatcher’s policy for children under five was that they were their parents’ responsibility, so as we had no family close by to share childcare, I became a sort of stay at home mum until my oldest daughter was ten. I say ‘sort of’ because I started my first degree with the Open University, and began teaching adults in community education on a very part time basis directly after graduation.

It is difficult to communicate how different things were then; as L. P. Hartley says in The Go Between (1953)

‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’.

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Curriculum for equity: the journey so far

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by Gary Walsh

The intention of this post is to summarise some of the insights shared on the Curriculum for Equity platform to date and to suggest some themes to focus on going forward.

I created the Curriculum for Equity website and Twitter account towards the end of 2015. Part of the motivation for doing it was a frustration that in Scotland we seem to be constructing an understanding of equity in education that is framed in terms of academic attainment at the expense of other issues. While attainment is important, I am concerned that this is a very narrow understanding of equity that could divert attention away from vital precursors to equity such as social justice, rights and democracy.

In their literature review, Woods et al (2013) describe the tendency of education policy makers to construct this narrow understanding of equity:

“…policy on school leadership and equity has, in fact, been implemented by governments as a means to identify and exclude factors that inhibit national education performance, which is measured through PISA to produce performance league tables for international comparison (OECD, 2010). The standards agenda is, arguably, incompatible with the account of equity as the reduction of social injustices that affect people’s lives… [it] creates a spurious meritocracy that favours the interests of middle class pupils.” (Woods et al 2013, 16)

The idea of Curriculum for Equity therefore is to share relevant research, news articles and other bits of content that are relevant to educational equity in the wider (and arguably, correct) sense.

Each of the website’s contributors have outlined some of the approaches and ways of thinking that are needed to achieve equity in education.

Dr Avis Glaze emphasised the importance of teacher quality among other key components. Ken Cunningham CBE cautioned against the language of ‘closing gaps’ and the risk it poses of leading us down various rabbit holes. George Gilchrist reminded us of the social factors and broader structures (including educational ones) that can disadvantage some learners. Jackie Brock challenged us to be ambitious and realise that innovative community partnership approaches and support for a range of other practical measures are needed, including learning through play in the early years, support for parents and teachers, building on successes and reducing bureaucracy. Mandy Davidson reflected on her role as a teacher and the importance of relationships in achieving equity. Ed Cadwallader suggested that the ambition of achieving equity is actually a form of ‘social engineering’ and that we should not be afraid to consider it as such.

All of these perspectives informed my recent piece for the website, in which I suggested that we need to reconsider the meaning of equity and the role of values in our education system, and that we should actively challenge the politicisation of education and other forms of systematic injustice.

What is particularly encouraging is that many of the contributions and indeed the principles guiding Curriculum for Equity can be located in relevant research. For instance, Smyth (2004) outlines the idea of a ‘socially just school’, which is reminiscent of some of the website contributions. They are schools that

  • articulate their purposes;
  • advance a concern for social injustice;
  • continually (re)focus around learning;
  • pursue a culture of innovation;
  • enact democratic forms of practice;
  • are community minded;
  • display educative forms of leadership; and
  • engage in critical literacies

While this initially looks hopeful, Smyth notes that this is not an easy fix: he finds that progress in schools that use this approach can be hampered by two related factors. The first is when schools are operating within a neoliberal policy arena, which itself is a direct cause of social injustice and can undermine the efforts of schools. The second is when teachers and school leaders have a limited understanding of what social justice actually involves, despite their commitment to the rhetoric of social justice, thereby limiting their abilities to enact approaches that could help to achieve it.

Regarding the latter, Smyth’s concern is when teachers are compelled, often by policy makers, to adopt an understanding of social justice that locates the ‘deficit’ in pupils themselves rather than in policy or the education system. His research suggests that this can result in teachers focusing on approaches that aim to compensate for the perceived cultural or psychological deficits of disadvantaged children and young people (’emotional intelligence’ is given as an example). The aim of such interventions is to increase the abilities of children and young people to ‘decode the system’ and become ‘successful consumers and entrepreneurs of schooling’, thereby allowing them access to the kind of relationships and social capital that are needed for success – something that their more privileged peers tend to be able to do without much effort.

In other words, achieving equity and social justice is understood in terms of ‘fixing the kids’ and not ‘fixing the system’. In such cases, school curricula tend to be designed around the needs of the education system instead of the needs of children and young people.

If we were to lead the equity drive by taking systemic, cultural, social and political factors into account, challenging them where necessary, that would mean something very different to focusing purely on the ‘poverty-related attainment gap’, which risks presenting the abilities of children as the problem. It would challenge us to tackle the opportunity gap and to ask critical and potentially uncomfortable questions such as:

  • Why do we continue with ability grouping in Scotland when research strongly suggests that it can add to the disadvantage experienced by many children?
  • How can we better connect educational research and educational policy in Scotland? Evidence suggests that doing so may improve educational equity.
  • What do we do if policy makers succumb to the lure of a ‘market-based’ education system? Evidence suggests that this would further endanger educational equity.
  • How do we construct a version of ‘educational leadership for equity’ that foregrounds issues of social justice, rights and democracy? Distributed Leadership for Equity and Learning could be an example.
  • Related to above, how do we create the kind of structures and cultures in which teachers’ knowledge and agency can develop, particularly around the issue of equity?

Perhaps these are the kind of questions that the Curriculum for Equity platform could help us to explore – feel free to suggest some others in the comment section below.

I hope that the website continues to evolve and perhaps even makes a difference to education and ultimately to children and young people in Scotland. At the moment the intention is to keep it as an unofficial space for dialogue, learning and what Stephen Ball (2015) refers to as a “site of struggle” and a platform for “fearless speech”. Feedback and comments received so far seem to indicate that this approach is the right one to take – it is feedback such as this that emboldens these efforts.

It has proven to be an illuminating and worthwhile experience so far. Thank you to everybody involved!

About the author

Gary is the creator of the Curriculum for Equity website. Click here for more information.

The Scottish Government’s holistic education policy: a story of profound success or failure?

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

The Scottish Government experience of education can give us all a profound lesson, but I’m not yet sure what that lesson will be. The positive lesson might be that you can have a holistic approach to education provision, which has a strategy for childcare, early years, and schools that support further and higher education policy effectively. In particular, its key aim is to address inequality in attainment from a very early age, to solve one driver of unequal access to higher education. More people have a chance of a place at University and higher education remains free.

The negative lesson might be that if you don’t solve the problem at an early stage, your other policies look regressive and reinforce inequalities. Instead of seeing a government committed in a meaningful way to reducing educational inequalities throughout a life course, we see government hubris in one area supporting a vote-chasing and…

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Scottish education: sleepwalking into the abyss

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by Gary Walsh

I am writing this post as a challenge to the narrative developing in Scottish education circles at the moment. I believe that we are in danger of sleepwalking into an abyss of ill-conceived reform based on an impoverished understanding of the purposes of education, confusion about the meaning of equity in that context, and a politicisation of the education system the like of which we have not seen in generations.

The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence was developed and indeed heralded as a radical programme for educational transformation. The original CfE document (published in 2004) remains the most purposeful document available to us. I would like to suggest that now would be the perfect time for the underpinning values of CfE and the Four Capacities to be reviewed and updated.

A lot has happened since 2004 and indeed the ‘National Conversation’ that preceded the CfE document. The global economic crisis of 2008 happened. The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum happened. Now Brexit and Trump have happened. All of these represent key challenges that have tested and will continue to test Scottish society. The world is going through a phase of mass disruptive change: politically, socially, ecologically, economically and culturally. We are faced with some of the greatest challenges of our times including global inequality, climate change, social conflict and lack of cohesion, a failing economic system, as well as rises in global terrorism and right-wing political agendas.

This presents many challenges for education and lifelong learning, not least in terms of uncertainties about funding, leadership and administration, but it poses fundamental questions that have a direct impact on the purpose and meaning of education and learning itself: what is worth knowing and doing? What kind of world should we be trying to create? In an age of anger, mistrust and fear, how can education and lifelong learning help to cultivate compassion, trust and collective action? If ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, what kind of village, and how can it be done? What is the vision for society that we are aspiring towards?

The values that are inscribed onto the ornamental mace at the Scottish Parliament that apparently define not only CfE but the principles of society and democracy itself –  wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity – are fine words. I am astonished however by the number of people I have spoken with in recent years who do not know where these words came from. In a 2006 paper entitled A Curriculum for Excellence: A Question of Values, Donald Gillies points out the truth which is that the values were chosen by the silversmith who designed the mace. Gillies suggests that this puts the whole basis of CfE, and the claims that it is designed around the principle of democracy, in doubt.

The slogans we call the Four Capacities – confident individuals, responsible citizens, effective contributors and successful learners – are certainly not beyond question either. Where did they come from and what do they mean? What vision of society are we expecting children and young people to confidently, responsibly, successfully and effectively contribute towards? Without a coherent vision for the kind of society we are aiming to create, the Four Capacities are meaningless.

Donald Trump arguably possesses all of the Four Capacities. He is certainly a confident individual. He is extremely effective in what he contributes. He has successfully learned how to do so. Is he a responsible citizen? A majority of the American electorate seem to think he is.

Mark Priestley and Walter Humes simply ask this of the Four Capacities: “Would it make much difference if the capacities were given as effective learners, responsible individuals, successful citizens and confident contributors?” (Priestley & Humes, 2010: 351)

It seems vital that we continue to develop and further embed CfE. The first step should be to scrutinise the Four Capacities (if not drop them completely) and re-visit the place of values by opening up a long-term dialogue about the meaning and purposes of education in Scotland.

There are many sources of inspiration that could help us to do just that. Professor Stephen Ball articulates the requirements for educative schooling and the education of democratic citizens as being “concerned with literacies for active, local and global citizenship, including a critical view of the world of work”, a “responsibility to contribute to the development of “high energy democracy” (Unger, 1994) in ways which draw upon ‘narratives of human possibility’” and a rethinking of “the relationship between education and opportunity, equity, and wellbeing”. (Ball, 2013: 26)

I would add social justice to that final list. We haven’t even begun to tap into the possibility of developing a shared understanding of these kinds of ideas. We could open up an empowering dialogue around the question of purpose, principles and values in Scottish education, and it would be especially fascinating to learn what children and young people think. Having developed a shared sense of purpose, we should then put our trust in the professional abilities of teachers, researchers, youth workers and lecturers to help us realise our ambitions, instead of allowing a situation to develop where they are completely entrapped by top-down bureaucracies. I am advocating that everybody – educators, children, young people and communities – can bring their collective knowledge, experience and expertise to the table and that together we can ignite education from the ground up.

Instead of clarifying our thinking around CfE and the purposes of education, we are currently doing the opposite. We are getting further and further away from the original intentions of CfE: so much so that its principles can scarcely be located in the National Improvement Framework. We are no longer engaged in a process of radical transformation – if indeed we ever were. Instead we are set to become entangled with a shambolic programme of standardised assessments and yet more benchmarks that will attempt to specify everything but will ultimately mean very little. 

A recent Statement for Practitioners from Education Scotland references the CfE principles and values, unchanged from the original 2004 document, in the appendix! Make no mistake about it: the bigger picture is not at the forefront of policy-makers’ minds. We have moved on from discovering and questioning the principles of education. We are now dealing in a crude game of gaps, numbers, graphs, comparisons, data and outcomes, all of which are politically driven and motivated by a desire for marginal gains designed to appease voters, in which the principles and purposes of Scottish education could be lost for a generation.

Which leads me on to the issue of equity. The narrow focus we currently have on the ‘Attainment Gap’ rather crassly presents poverty as a technical challenge to be counter-acted by increasing the effectiveness of teaching and assessment strategies. There is no doubt that effective teaching is part of the solution, but it must be understood in the overall context which is that teachers and pupils are working in the some of the most socially unjust circumstances in Western Europe.

Educational equity does not simply mean that everybody should get five Highers. If we are serious about equity being one of the core purposes of education we need to think way beyond academic attainment. Equity is about fairness, justice and inclusion. It is about ensuring that education serves to enhance the wellbeing of all of us and not just a few of us. It is about understanding and challenging the broader structures of power that serve to perpetuate various categories of inequality.

How then do we achieve equity in education? Here are some thoughts as a starter-for-ten:

  • All educators should be empowered and encouraged to actively advocate and campaign for the rights of children and young people, illuminating and challenging the unjust circumstances in which so many children and young people are living. This would involve supporting teachers, for instance, in refining their understanding of children’s rights and social justice issues, and being equipped with an in-depth understanding of the material and psychological impact of poverty on children and families. I would argue that the contents of courses such as Edinburgh University’s BA in Childhood Practice and University of Glasgow’s MSc in Youth Studies should be standard issue for all educators.
  • We need to develop a broader narrative that goes beyond issues of effectiveness in education. The pressures and disadvantages of ‘performativity’ in education are well documented. This means constantly revisiting the values, principles, purposes and meaning of education – and trusting educators to act on the basis of those principles, not just in response to targets, benchmarks and/or Key Performance Indicators.
  • Education policy should be understood as part of a broader project of social change. This means aligning education policy in concert with other policies that are designed to create equity across the system more generally and, vitally, eradicating poverty. The only way to do this is by implementing progressive policies that are designed to redistribute wealth more equally across society. In keeping with that overall mission, education policy should be developed on the basis of a social, humanistic model rather than an industrial/accountability model (these points are further argued here as part of the Common Weal Policy Lab on education and inequality).
  • During a period of politicisation of education, educators should be free to ‘get political’ in their responses. We cannot escape the fact that public state education will always be political. There are many educators in Scotland who would quietly subscribe to the theories of Critical Pedagogy and Critical Democratic Education – but I would argue that the associated practices are notably absent in Scottish education. We have a well-meaning but ultimately subservient group of professionals who are desperately trying to make things better by working within the confines of the status quo. We need more people who are willing to speak out against injustices, mis-guided political tinkering and anything else that is clearly not in the best interests of the children, young people and communities that education is supposed to serve.
  • We need a much more diverse group of professionals working in education (institutions and policy making) and a more diverse educational offer. Teachers and education policy makers tend to be people for whom education has ‘worked’. They have made such a success of it that they return to it as a profession. There is a lot to celebrate here of course, but does it not make the task of meeting the needs of young people for whom the current system does not ‘work’ much more difficult? Who is there in the system that can really understand the situation of these young people and can act convincingly on their behalf?
  • The status and role of early years practice, youth work, vocational learning, adult education as well as ‘atypical’ models of education such as Folk Schools, Place-Based Learning and Kindergarten should be examined and strengthened where necessary. Scotland has typically developed its education policy by consensus building (noting the ‘con’ in consensus). The resulting one-size-fits-all approach may have worked for us in the past but now it seems outdated and, like many education systems around the world, in need of a serious rethink.

I said at the beginning of this post that I wanted to challenge the current narrative in Scottish education. I have argued that we should get back to the basics of values, principles and purposes and I have argued that we need to get serious about the issue of equity.

Comments are very welcome below as are online responses to this post using the hashtag #ignitingeducation – let’s spark a more open and meaningful dialogue.

Thank you for reading.

About the author

Gary is the creator of the Curriculum for Equity website. He is a freelance facilitator with particular interests in values, character development, social/emotional skills and social justice. He is a founding editor of #scotedchat (a weekly chat on Twitter about Scottish education) and the co-author of Speaking of Values. You can use the contact page to contact Gary directly.

Curriculum for Equity is a collaborative blogging platform – if you wish to write a blog for the website please get in touch.

Resetting the dial:- 5As for Scottish Education: the answer to all our problems?

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First and foremost many thanks to those who have emailed, called, DM tweeted and facebooked in response to my first three blogs on the current position on Scottish education. I also got a message from one teacher’s father who said she was greatly inspired by the blogs!  Truly parental engagement!  What is interesting is the lack of public responses to some of the blogs and the private nature with which many share thoughts- this in itself if maybe worth a future blog about the culture and confidence of the system.  Alas, another blog…..

Onwards with the 5As blog….

When I first starting writing the last three blogs of Scottish education, earlier this summer, I always had in mind a fourth blog to offer up some solutions and a possible vision for taking the array of matters raised forward. The need for this was reinforced when I shared them with a…

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Social Engineering – part 2 of 2

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by Ed Cadwallader

In a previous post I argued that social engineering is what schools do and the specific features our school system installs are hierarchy, passivity and atomisation. I ended by asking the question ‘what sort of society should we engineer?’ In this post I argue that our schools should try to engineer equality, the belief that our fellow citizens are no more or less valuable to society than ourselves; autonomy, the ability to work and self-organise without direction from authorities; and community, the habit of forming connexions to those around us through enjoyment of shared activities.

To achieve this requires an adjustment to the curriculum but it also requires a more fundamental change to the ethos of schooling. At the moment the purpose of school is to obtain grades in qualifications and where possible academic qualifications, as vocational ones are predominantly offered to those who have not been successful academically. A clear line can be drawn from academic ability, to good grades, to higher earning potential and thus to higher social status. School in its present form connects academic ability, which strongly correlates with having educated parents, to high social status. In order to engineer an equal society this ethos must be replaced with the starting premise that although we may not be equally capable as workers or thinkers, we are equally valuable as citizens.

There is, and will always be, a wide difference between the best and worse academic performers so in order for the contention that we are equal to be credible, the curriculum must be broadened beyond academic study, for all children. Rather than a vocational component, that trains children for a specific occupation, this should be a practical one that, like its academic counterpart, provides children with knowledge and skills applicable to a broad range of future paths. For this, I propose that children should, in teams of four or five, set up and run small businesses. At primary level these would operate within school, using school issued currency then at secondary children would move on to the real world and make real money.

Running businesses would develop children’s ability to agree a shared goal and work with other people to achieve it, to organise themselves and to build strong relationships with clients, by making realistic promises and honouring them. Such a feature of the curriculum would help correct the natural inequality that bedevils school in its current form. Despite the worthy efforts of Growth Mindset advocates there is a weak relationship between effort and academic reward; a child with an IQ of 140 can, with minimal effort, outperform a herculean striver with an IQ of 70. In a practical endeavour like running a business the correlation between effort and outcome is much stronger, all children would grow up knowing that, whatever their natural gifts, they can be successful if they are prepared to work hard.

Fostering equality amongst members of a school community also requires changes to the way the academic curriculum is delivered. Not its content, all children deserve to study the best that has been thought and said, but its mode of assessment. Making grades the ultimate objective of study reduces the motivation of all who are given average or below average grades, with the strongest discouragement accompanying the lowest attainment. Grades should therefore be abolished. Exploring relationships and the mind through great works of literature, deepening our understanding of society by gaining knowledge of the past, stripping the world down to abstraction in maths and then testing abstract theory through scientific experiment, all this and more is its own reward and it is a reward we should not dare to taint with badges of inferiority.

I have heard it argued that as kids know who is bright and who is dim it makes no difference that these judgments are crystallised into letters and numbers. I disagree. Making what is implicitly understood explicit and public makes a powerful difference. Consider a football team. All the players know who the best and worst players are, yet all can enjoy playing together. However, if the coach gave each player an individual mark out of ten at the end of every game, the team would quickly fall apart, poisoned by envy and stigma that do not exist when players’ individual merits are left ambiguous.

The curriculum changes necessary to engineer equality can also be a driver for greater autonomy. Currently all work in school is set by those in authority and in the academic sphere this is, to an extent, inevitable. Students don’t know the best that has been thought and said and so cannot be expected to spontaneously choose to study it. In the practical sphere, in contrast, no such explicit direction is necessary. Students can be given a remit of deciding a shared goal, which could be to make money or launch a social enterprise, and the freedom to pursue it. The opportunity to choose what they want to achieve and to solve whatever obstacles the real world presented would show children that work does not have to be bestowed by those in authority, it is something we can define for ourselves.

Creating a student economy would also allow children direct experience of a fundamental right and responsibility of a citizen in a democracy, that of choosing a government with the power to tax and spend. Allowing students to confront in practice the questions of ‘how much of our earnings should we keep and how much should be dedicated towards a common fund?’ and ‘how can we ensure that the money we pool is spent wisely?’ would raise citizens better equipped to be full participants in our democracy by dispelling the notion, implicit in current school structure, that the world runs as it does because of the decisions of powerful others, made behind closed doors.

Many schools shy from student democracy, or permit it only in heavily constrained form, because of the antipathy of many students towards school. But that antipathy is a product of hierarchy, that tells a few they are bright and successful and most that they are average or worse. A school that treats its pupils with equal respect would face no such impediment to responsible student government.

School can engineer a sense of community by fostering connexions formed by enjoyment of shared activities. Having children work together, towards shared goals, rather than solely towards individual ones facilitates this. Schools could go further by using the arts as bridges to the wider community. Instead of using Art, Music and Drama lessons to produce work to be assessed they can be used to produce work to be displayed, played and performed. The point of the arts is not to master skills and techniques, doing so is a means to achieve a broader goal of expressing ourselves and congregating with people to experience the joy those skills allow us to create.

Student leadership in organising such arts events would develop the skills and habit of bringing members of the community together to celebrate our shared culture. The house system provides a further opportunity to develop this organisational capacity and to extend it to the sports field. Dividing students into teams (‘houses’) and organising competitions between those teams, rather than just having school ones, raises by an order of magnitude the number of opportunities to participate. More participation means more connexions, a broader set of people united by a shared pastime.

Communities are strong and harmonious to the extent that their members know and interact with each other, but such interactions do not always happen organically, especially when populations are mobile and have diverse cultures and languages. By making the development of those connexions, and the skills to carry on making them, an explicit goal of schooling we would make our society happier and more at peace with itself.

How we structure school has profound implications for the nature of the society we live in. Almost everything a child learns about the world beyond their family they learn at school. This learning encompasses what is explicitly taught in the curriculum and what is implicitly understood about our relationships with the authorities and one another. Therefore to work in Education is to be a social engineer, whether we balk at that responsibility or embrace its challenge. I believe we should engineer a society of people who respect one another as equals, who respect authority but understand it is their duty not to bow to it unquestioningly and who seek out their neighbours, knowing that the connexions they’ll form are the foundation of their security and happiness.

About the author

Ed Cadwallader is an Educational Consultant who advises schools on assessment and curriculum design. He is interested in history, economics and the dangers that lurk around the corners of modernity. You can follow Ed on Twitter @Cadwalladered and his personal blog is Kingdom of Even.

 

Social Engineering – part 1 of 2

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by Ed Cadwallader

To say that a policy is ‘social engineering’ is to say that it is bad, with no further explanation required. This strikes me as strange because social engineering is a very apt description of what schools do. The curriculum is a competition between individuals to see who’s top and who’s bottom. Children born to middle class parents are usually taught that they are at the top, their work is valuable and they can expect to have stable, well-paid employment in the future. Children born to poorer parents are far likelier to grow up with the mirror image of that experience, their academic performance denoting that they are inferior, less valuable citizens. School provides our formative understanding of how we as citizens relate to those in authority and each other. The way school is structured ensures three prominent features are embedded in these relationships: atomisation, passivity and hierarchy.

The overwhelming focus of our school system is exam results, that is the grades we receive to denote our individual achievement. Virtually all jobs involve working with other people towards shared goals, yet for the first fifteen odd years of our working lives we are taught to conceive of attainment in purely personal terms. Later on, our employers invest huge sums in making us more effective collaborators, effectively trying to unteach us the conception of work as a solo enterprise that we learned as children. Of course, schools to varying degrees engage their pupils in group work to try and foster these elusive team-working skills, but this if anything exacerbates the problem because the groups in question have no identity and their achievement no meaning. The lesson of group work is that working with other people is a means to achieve our own targets, the group is the tool of the individual rather than the other way around.

As well as raising us as atomised workers, school makes us passive ones. The tasks to be completed are defined by those in authority as is the quality of our responses. Pupils are taught in minute detail how to pass the particular exams chosen by their school. The lesson they absorb while doing so is that work means doing precisely what you’ve been to do, the way you’ve been told to do it. This passivity extends to disputes between pupils, as the correct response to any such disagreement is ‘tell a teacher’. The authorities at school assume the responsibility for all matters of student life, great and small. When problems arise in society, often problems caused by the way we as citizens behave, a cry goes up of ‘something must be done!’ This is the learned reaction of people who have formed their idea of how society works in a benign autocracy.

Atomisation and passivity weaken the fabric of society but their negative impact pales in comparison with the most damaging feature that school engineers into our relations with one another: hierarchy. It is simple to rank children based on school performance from best to worst. The language we use to describe them – ‘high ability’ ‘low attainer’ – makes this clear and it is a hierarchy of status, those we label as high achieving will gain secure, professional employment while ‘low achievers’ can expect insecure employment or none at all. A child’s position in the hierarchy determines their relationship with those in authority, as those treated with respect grow up to be respectful and those shamed with contempt become oppositional and defiant. The fact that the prison population is overwhelmingly made up of the latter group is usually explained by a deficiency of learning, lacking a good education these people turned to crime. But many people immigrate without qualifications and they don’t show the same propensity to commit crimes. Rather than what the lowest attainers didn’t learn at school we should think about what they did, the humiliating lesson they are considered the bottom of the social pile. If that was your formative experience of a society how much respect for that society and its values would you have?

Divisions of status harden into a class chasm because they not only affect how we relate to authority, but also how we relate to one another. Equality is a necessary condition for friendship and so the child who gets As is very rarely friends with her peer who gets Fs. As adults those who were successful in education and grew up to exercise control over the education system are untroubled by personal connections to those who are so ill served by it. Meanwhile, working class children who have the ability to succeed within the system are placed in the unenviable position of being asked to say to their friends and family ‘I’m going to leave you behind in poverty and go and join a separate, higher class of people’, if they are to pursue the social mobility that middle class system designers have decided they, but not their friends and family, deserve.

School engineers a divided society of citizens ill equipped to challenge established power structures, with fear and antagonism on both sides of the line that separates those who passed from those who failed. Social engineering is not an occasional threat posed by changes to university admissions procedures, it is a feature of modern society.

Though the responsibility is great and terrible the question educators must ask themselves is: what sort of society should we engineer?

About the author

Ed Cadwallader is an Educational Consultant who advises schools on assessment and curriculum design. He is interested in history, economics and the dangers that lurk around the corners of modernity. You can follow Ed on Twitter @Cadwalladered and his personal blog is Kingdom of Even.