Bernstein and Gove #2

In 2010, speaking to the Conservative Party Conference, Michael Gove gave an early indication of plans for a new national curriculum. Since then, one can say his attempts to reshape school curricula have been, to put it mildly, controversial. Most recently, there have been responses reported here and here, and Gove’s own response to those criticisms, and then this response to Govian name-calling. It is clear that, in Bernstein’s terms, both classification and framing are contested. In my last post (starting with Bernstein’s1970 article, ‘Education Cannot Compensate For Society’) I discussed a relationship between Bernstein’s rejection of cultural deprivation/compensatory education and the way Gove has constructed current government policy as, specifically, an attack on low expectations on the part of schools and teachers. However, to better understand the class forces that underpin education policy, we might consider the way Bernstein’s writing evolved from the late-1960s.[1]

In ‘School Cannot Compensate For Society’, Bernstein (1976) deconstructed compensatory education as the necessary response of social democracy, one that depended on the notion of cultural deprivation. Further, he suggested that research might have contributed to the stigmatisation of working-class culture, and acknowledged that his own research, by ‘focusing on the subculture and forms of family socialisation’, might be culpable in this respect, ‘distract[ing] attention from the conditions and contexts of learning in school’ (Bernstein, 1976: 172).He noted that ‘[t]he concept, “restricted code”, to describe working-class speech, has been equated with “linguistic deprivation” or even with the “non-verbal” child’ (ibid). Then, following his account of two groups of five-year-old children telling a story differently, he concluded that, rather than a working-class lack, ‘what we have here are differences in the use of language arising out of a specific context’ (173).

Hence, Bernstein related the elaborated code to universalistic meanings and the restricted code to particularistic meanings: the latter are context-bound. By the time of Bernstein (1999) this discussion of context had seen, firstly, a distinction between vertical and horizontal discourse; and then, secondly, a distinction between hierarchical and horizontal knowledge structures that illuminates the current contrast between ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’. In the work I discuss here Bernstein first addressed the implicit, class-based assumptions of school curricula; and then developed a better understanding of context. For example, in the1975 version of his paper on visible and invisible pedagogies there is a clear expression of the perceived relationship between school and family, given that ‘[t]he weak classification and the weak framing of the invisible pedagogy potentially makes possible the inclusion of the culture of the family and the community’ (Bernstein, 2003a:127). There is nonetheless a difference between class-cultures of middle-class and working-class families, with continuity from the former to the classroom, discontinuity from the later. In 1975 Bernstein referred to old and new middle classes; the immediate context here was the emergence of social democracy’s mixed economy and, as a consequence, a significant public sector. Subsequently, in a revised account, he discussed the significance of an emergent education market (Bernstein, 2003b: 86‑89).

Evident here is one of the key developments in Bernstein’s work. In the 1970s both visible and invisible pedagogies were seen to express middle‑class concerns, and ‘the conflict between visible and invisible pedagogies, … between strong and weak classification and frames, [wa]s an ideological conflict within the middle class’(Bernstein, 2003a: 121). A few pages later in this latter paper, there is a distinction between the middle-class child, for whom there is ‘socialisation into the textbook’; and a working-class child, for whom ‘[t]he weakening of classification and frames reduces the significance of the textbook and transforms the impersonal past into a personalized present’ (127). By the time of Bernstein (2003b), the invisible pedagogy had been associated with the slow learner and/or working-class low achiever, for whom such an approach would not be abandoned by the end of primary school. In particular, in secondary school, the importance of ‘strong pacing [that] will tend to reduce pupils’ speech and privilege teachers’ talk’ (77-78) brings to mind the emphasis that Gove has put on content and rote-learning. Moreover, there is a distinction between autonomous (‘justified by the intrinsic possibilities of knowledge itself’) and dependent (‘justified by their market relevance’) visible pedagogies (86): this certainly underpins the current obsession with both a core curriculum, as constructed by English baccalaureate and facilitating subjects, and also the restructuring of an academic/vocational divide. Thus far, we have seen illustrated Gove’s preference for strong classification and framing. Subsequently, in the discussion of different kinds of knowledge structure, Bernstein (1999), shows how school curricula confused vertical and horizontal discourses; and one might conclude that this paper echoes Bernstein’s earlier (1976) concern with the limits of reformism.

Proposals for the history curriculum are illustrative. In his 2010 conference speech Gove claimed that, currently, school history ‘denies children the opportunity to hear our island story’. Here, the unproblematic construction of ‘one of the most inspiring stories I know’ is inseparable from its presentation as an ‘opportunity’. Since then, discussion of the new history curriculum has addressed both content (classification) and pacing (framing), echoing arguments over a contested history that were rehearsed in the late-1980s.[2] It is apparent that Gove objects to both non-academic discourse, what Bernstein (1999) calls ‘local knowledge’, and also some aspects of academic discourse, for example, the content of the history curriculum. In the terms outlined in Bernstein (1999) the academic discourse that meets with Gove’s approval is defined by a hierarchical knowledge structure, one that cannot acknowledge the contested nature of knowledge. That history might be seen to be a construct (even if, in practice, methodological issues have been reduced to ‘skills’ designed to detect something called ‘bias’) would give the discipline a horizontal knowledge structure and align it to the non-academic or vocational knowledge that has been associated with a lowering of standards. Local knowledge is made up of ‘competences [that] are segmentally related’, juxtaposed by Bernstein to the generalising tendencies of vertical discourses (160); and it is segmentation that draws attention to the contested nature of knowledge, the controversy that attends any claim to know what is and is not important. This is where a distinction between hierarchical and horizontal knowledge structures is important (162ff), for it is the generalisation made possible by hierarchical knowledge structures (166-168) that allows Gove to effectively render history invisible, replacing it with ‘our island story’.


[1] One can identify a narrative here, and Bernstein’s (1999) late paper begins with his own summary of this process (157-158); while Arnot & Reay (The framing of pedagogic encounters: Regulating the social order in classroom learning, in Reading Bernstein, Researching Bernstein, Muller, Davis & Morais eds, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004, 137-150) offer a similar account by way of introduction to their research report (137-138). Here I shall use ‘Class and Pedagogies: Visible and Invisible’ from Class, Codes and Control: Volume 3 (first published 1975; references here to the 2003 edition, as Bernstein, 2003a); and a revised version, ‘Social Class and Pedagogic Practice’ (in The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse, Class, Codes and Control: Volume 4, first published 1990; references here to the 2003 edition, as Bernstein, 2003b). The first version follows on from the early association of home‑&‑school and in-school research issues as developed by Bernstein in ‘On the Classification and Framing of Educational Knowledge’ (in Young ed, Knowledge and Control: New Directions for the Sociology of Education, 1971; reprinted in Class, Codes and Control: Volume 3).

[2] For contemporary responses to post-1988 changes see Husbands, What is History Teaching? Language, Ideas, and Meaning in Learning about the Past,1996; or Lowe, Schooling and Social Change, 1964-1990, 1997, in particular Chapter 3 on ‘Contested Pedagogies’; or Raphael Samuel’s 1990 account in History Workshop Journal 29/30 for more detail.

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