In 1970, Basil Bernstein published ‘School Cannot Compensate for Society’, an article in which he questioned prevailing notions of cultural deprivation and compensatory education.[i] The latter, he argued, ‘implies that something is lacking in the family, and so in the child’ (Bernstein, 170), all of which ‘serves to direct attention away from the internal organisation and the educational context of the school’ (ibid). For Bernstein, then, the fault lay within schools, with ‘delicate overt and covert streaming arrangements [that] neatly lower the expectations and motivations of both teachers and taught’ (ibid), even though policymakers held families responsible for low aspirations and achievement.

More recently, Education Secretary Michael Gove has emphasised that schools and teachers must be held responsible for working-class underachievement; it is unacceptable to use home background as an excuse for low aspirations and so, in the words of one report, ‘Gove has attacked an English culture that accepts poverty limits the achievements of poor children’. Hence, in this Brighton speech:

… some in this country still argue that pupil achievement is overwhelmingly dictated by socio-economic factors. They say that deprivation means destiny – that schools are essentially impotent in the face of overwhelming force of circumstance – and that we can’t expect children to succeed if they have been born into poverty, disability or disadvantage.

On the contrary, Gove insists there is evidence, from abroad and from schools here, that

there need be no difference in performance – none whatsoever – between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier homes. They show us that a difficult start in life can be overcome, with hard work and good teaching.

Socio-economic factors are, therefore, irrelevant; and school league tables no longer take account of Context Value Added (CVA) data (see here and here; for more reasoned critiques of these statistical constructs see this summary and Gorard, 2010a) that would, according to Gove, have been used to justify working-class underachievement. On the face of it, then, Gove has given those he describes as ‘pessimists and fatalists’ nowhere to hide; and he might even be said to have adopted some if not all of the arguments put forward by Bernstein’s sociology.

However, consider now this second speech, in which Gove’s target is ‘soft qualifications’. He begins by describing a Gladstone speech from 1879:

The public were paid the compliment of assuming they were intellectually curious. They weren’t patronised by being treated as rude mechanicals.

In this Cambridge speech, Gove tracks a decline in public discourse (‘you might consider how far standards of oratory had fallen’) as politicians are now much more inclined to use popular culture to appeal to voters. This is a form of dumbing-down, as though anything more substantial than references to television (Blair) or popular music (Brown) would go over their heads. Similarly, education has been guilty of dumbing-down: Following Arnold, Gove ‘want[s] to argue that introducing the young minds of the future to the great minds of the past is our duty’; and he is quite sure that ‘there is such a thing as the best’. Again, Gove cites the fine example of those in education – here the Harris academies – who are giving working-class children ‘the opportunity to transcend the circumstances of their birth, just as the grammar schools of the past gave an, admittedly smaller, proportion of their predecessors similar opportunities’.

At this point one might ask why, if grammar schools of the 1950s were so successful, writers and policymakers of the 1960s needed to develop the concept of cultural deprivation. One might also ask if Gove’s disdain for popular culture, his casual dismissal of any alternative to the literary canon he describes, might contradict his view that ‘any society is a better society for taking intellectual effort more seriously, for rewarding intellectual ambition, for indulging curiosity, for supporting scholarship’. One might even consider it complacent, lazy thinking to assume that ‘the best’ can always be taken for granted, the learner’s role no more than that of a sponge, for ‘all of us are heir to the amazing intellectual achievements of our ancestors’. Finally, one might wonder at the ironies within Gove’s speech, the reference to Gladstone ‘addressing a crowd of landless agricultural workers and coal miners’ as Gove himself speaks to Cambridge academics invited to exert intellectual authority; or the reference to Jade Goody’s ‘hugely successful modern media career’ following mockery of other politicians’ use of popular culture. One might even conclude that he has little understanding of what constitutes a cultural text.

No matter, Gove’s rejection of what he calls excuse-making does bring to mind the argument unpacked by Bernstein (even if Bernstein’s critical take on selection would be less to Gove’s liking). Does Gove, then, simply recycle Bernstein’s ideas with a little neo-liberal spin?

The context for Bernstein’s article would include studies (for example, Education and the Working Class, Jackson & Marsden, 1962; or The Home and the School, Douglas, 1964) that helped construct cultural deprivation, given the need to explain working-class underachievement after the 1944 Education Act supposedly introduced a meritocratic system (one that, according to Gove, did benefit children from working-class backgrounds). Bernstein’s article, then, was a direct response to contemporary education policy, specifically programmes of compensatory education as introduced in the mid-1960s by a Labour government (for a recent overview of compensatory education through successive governments, see Power, 2008). The problem was a failure of social democracy to go far enough to redress class inequality, hardly a sentiment to find favour with Gove.

Further, by the end of the 1960s, it was clear that labelling theory had helped shape a new direction in education research, as evidenced by Social Relations in a Secondary School (Hargreaves, 1967) and Hightown Grammar (Lacey, 1970). In these latter studies there is a concern with the production of failure and working-class disaffection through, for example, streaming, and it was the relationship between different research traditions that interested Bernstein: ‘If children are labelled “culturally deprived” … [t]eachers will have lower expectations …, which the children will undoubtedly fulfil’ (Bernstein, 170).[ii]

If that brief quotation is taken out of context one can certainly imagine Gove nodding in agreement. However, it might be said that he has more in common with the theorists of cultural deprivation, for Education and the Working Class, say, is just as complacent about what goes on in schools as Gove is about knowledge as a given: he has tried to return to ‘an age before structuralism, relativism and post-modernism’, as he puts it in the Cambridge speech. For that reason, perhaps, one might not expect him to bother reading the following passage, in which Bernstein addresses the construction of ‘valid knowledge’ through research:

Research proceeds by assessing the criteria of attainment that schools hold, and then measures the competence of different social groups in reaching these criteria. We take one group of children, whom we know beforehand possess attributes favourable to school achievement; and a second group of children, whom we know beforehand lack these attributes. Then we evaluate one group in terms of what it lacks when compared with another. In this way research, unwittingly, underscores the notion of deficit and confirms the status quo of a given organisation, transmission and, in particular, evaluation of knowledge. Research very rarely challenges or exposes the social assumptions underlying what counts as valid knowledge, or what counts as a valid realisation of that knowledge. (Bernstein, 172)

For Bernstein the lack in question was a construct, whatever might come under the heading of cultural deprivation, inseparable from the perceived role of a reformist government. For Gove, the lack is the right kind of books, as though only Middlemarch might offer an appropriate intellectual challenge. It is here that Gove’s ideological project is made transparent, the two parts of his dumbing-down argument (expectations and the curriculum) brought together. If cultural deprivation and compensatory education are inseparable for social democracy, then, for Gove, denial of class differences is inseparable from denial of contested knowledge. As the Cambridge speech has it,

I believe man is born with a thirst for free inquiry and is nearly everywhere held back by chains of low expectation. I am convinced there is an unsatisfied hunger for seriousness and an unfulfilled yearning for the demanding among our citizens.

Note the ease with which this passage moves from innate qualities (‘born with a thirst …’) to participation in society (‘… among our citizens’) without any regard for the nature of that society. Elsewhere in this speech he links ‘good looks’ and ‘great houses’ as advantages to be inherited, as though physical appearance and material wealth are interchangeable attributes, before insisting ‘all of us are heir to the amazing intellectual achievements of our ancestors’. If Bernstein’s central theme is cultural power, Gove’s speeches are remarkable for the way in which they flaunt that power while denying its existence.

[i] References here to a reprinted version, in Butterworth & Weir eds, The Sociology of Modern Britain, Fontana/Collins, Glasgow, 1976, 2nd edition, 169-177.

[ii] One can, therefore, see this article as a prologue to his subsequent work on classification and framing (in Young, ed, Knowledge and Control, 1971). Moreover, more than 40 years later, this article continues to speak to the assumptions of education policy. The title alone remains an inspiration, given the number of recent papers that directly cite it in relation to both Labour and Conservative education policy: see, for example, Power (2008); Pring (2009, 2011); Gorard (2010b); and Young (2011). This is a topic I discuss later.

It is worth recalling that, in the 1950s, comprehensivisation was often regarded as the future that would deliver secondary education from the failures of selection and tripartism/bipartism (in many cases, the failure to successfully establish secondary technical schools meant a simple ‘choice’, if indeed that term be apposite, between grammar schools and secondary moderns). In those days the introduction of comprehensive schools might still be associated with progress and the erosion of class differences. It is worth recalling also that, following the Second World War, tripartism/bipartism had been imposed by a Labour government that effectively protected grammar schools from competition, just as nothing was done about private education; and grammar schools were, through the 1950s, certainly alert to the threat comprehensivisation might offer to their own well-being. (For summaries see Aldrich, A Century of Education, Routledge/Falmer, 2002; Benn & Chitty, Thirty Years On, David Fulton, 1996; Simon, The State and Educational Change: Essays in the History of Education and Pedagogy, 1994; Tomlinson, Education in a Welfare Society, OUP, 2005; and, as always, We have come a long way since then insofar as successive governments have promoted the idea that comprehensive schools are an ‘experiment’ that has failed. We should not, for example, be too surprised that it was the last Labour government’s disdain for the comprehensive model that so effectively prepared the way for Michael Gove’s more recent assault on state education as a whole.

And so to a new article in The Observer, in which Andrew Anthony describes his experience of life in a comprehensive in the 1970s:

As the son of a milkman, I never enjoyed the social equality with teachers that some of my friends took for granted. For while the school prided itself on its egalitarian ideals, I noticed that most teachers were more comfortable dispensing their enthusiasm on children with whom they could more readily identify, while offering kids like myself little more than well-intentioned condescension.

Anthony then recalls ‘the school’s careers adviser who suggested that my best bet was to become a panel beater’. This is nothing new, and the Observer journalist is one of those fortunate enough not to have been condemned by such lazy attitudes. Research since the 1960s has shown that many comprehensives, from the outset, simply reproduced the class-based assumptions of tripartism. That is, they simply reproduced the class-based assumptions of the wider society (see, for example, the relationship between class and selection in Lacey, Hightown Grammar, MUP, 1970; Ball, Beachside Comprehensive, CUP, 1981; and Gillborn & Youdell, The New IQism (in Demaine ed, Sociology of Education Today, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

However, this is where Anthony’s argument becomes confused. For example, he blames comprehensives for wanting to attract middle-class pupils because this will improve the school’s league table position. This might well be the case since 1988 (on the ability of middle-class parents to select and be selected, see Gewirtz, Ball & Bowe, Markets, Choice and Equity in Education, OUP, 1995; or Ball, Class Strategies and the Education Market, Routledge, 2003), but it can hardly be relevant to the autobiographical account he has thus far offered. In the first instance, the idealism of comprehensivisation insisted that such schools rejected selection and recruited students from all backgrounds, an aim that should be distinguished from what has happened since the introduction of a market in education trained both schools and parents to be competitive. I would suggest that Anthony’s account of his own schooldays refers, not to a failure of comprehensivisation as such, but to a failure of schools to be fully comprehensive. Anthony concludes that ‘[i]t’s high time the education system ended its preoccupation with social class’, an attractive notion if only we could somehow transform our class society, one in which education is directed related to occupational status. The continuing success of middle-class students might have something to do with the prejudices of teachers; it might also have something to do with the hegemony enjoyed by middle-class values.

Should we conclude, then, that the comprehensive ideal is doomed? More than 40 years ago Basil Bernstein said schools cannot compensate for society, but Stephen Gorard’s recent response is worth considering. Having discussed the continuing importance of social class background Gorard suggests:

 … schools can compensate for society – a bit. As mini-societies in themselves, schools and colleges can be shaped as the kind of wider society we would like, rather than left to represent only the society we have. (60)

Down the same page Gorard says ‘[s]tate-funded schools need to be as similar in character, intake and process as possible’ – what passes for diversity (a misnomer if ever there was one) in the education market is, therefore, not part of the equation. Here, I would suggest that a more flexible curriculum is vital if we are to improve educational provision for all. The hook for Anthony’s Observer article is a recent speech by Ed Miliband in which the Labour leader promotes the interests of those who do not advance to university, the so‑called ‘forgotten 50%’. We might ignore the conference rhetoric and remind ourselves that, in 2005, it was a Labour white paper that rejected the Tomlinson Report’s proposals for precisely the kind of curriculum I have in mind here, one that attempts to do away with the academic/vocational divide. Can Miliband’s Labour devise a response to the narrowing of the curriculum that will result from Gove’s English Baccalaureate, an exercise in rigour-by-exclusion?

The UCAS Tariff will be familiar to those of us who have anything to do with university applications and/or admissions. Recently UCAS has carried out a consultation regarding the future of the admissions system, leading to the publication, at the end of July 2012, of the UCAS Qualifications Information Review (QIR, available here). Somewhat predictably the Telegraph has announced that the Tariff ‘is likely to be axed following claims the existing system is outdated’; further, this is a move that ‘could give institutions greater freedom to prioritise candidates taking the toughest courses’.


The Telegraph then recycles an article from August 2011 to remind us of David Willetts’ concern that the Tariff fails to differentiate between subjects. What Willetts and the Telegraph want is a system that defers to the higher status accorded to ‘classic’ subjects; and this is, evidently, what the Telegraph means by ‘outdated’, that the current system does not defer to those subjects. Hence: ‘It may also lead to some academic subjects such as maths, science and foreign languages being given higher ratings than more vocational qualifications.’ What Willetts calls ‘not core academic subjects’ are more often called ‘soft’ subjects, of course. (For the Telegraph’s take on ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses used to boost league table positions, see here. On subject choice and university applications, Fazackerley & Chant, 2008, provide background for the Telegraph/Willetts position.)


What the Telegraph means by ‘greater freedom’ is less clear. Universities already have as much freedom as they want to make offers based on grades, points or a combination thereof, offers that respond to the individual student’s application to a given course. If they have no interest in using the Tariff they are free to ignore it; and some might already publish lists of preferred/non-preferred subjects.


Moreover, if we read the QIR, the results are less clear-cut than the Telegraph’s triumphalism might lead us to believe. According to the QIR the ‘gradual withdrawal’ of the Tariff (Recommendation 2) is supported by two-thirds of HE respondents, but this ‘did not represent a significant change in practice’ (8). This does not read like a clear and unequivocal consensus in favour of change, a view corroborated, as shown below, by responses to Recommendations 3 and 4, where questioning explicitly addresses consequences. Moreover, those who support the Tariff do so because it is more flexible: ‘For HEIs who use the Tariff for setting entry requirements and making offers the recommendation was generally not supported’ (9).


One can see, then, that the QIR does indicate, at the very least, conflict between those institutions who think the Tariff hampers them and those who think its withdrawal would undermine their independence. This conflict is evident also in what is said regarding Recommendation 3 (The development of a rigorous means of comparing ‘demand’ across different qualifications) and Recommendation 4 (The provision of a simple qualifications metric for management information); and discussion here takes us back to ‘classic subjects’ and ‘not core academic subjects’.


On Recommendation 3 the QIR suggests a divergence between those wanting to emphasise ‘academic demand’ and those who preferred ‘a broader measure of demand, recognising the value of a wider range of skills’. Hence, ‘a narrow focus on academic demand would risk devaluing qualifications that aim to provide progression to employment as well as HE’ (10).


Moving on to Recommendation 4, we find ‘[c]oncerns … that a measure based on academic demand would devalue vocational qualifications and may impact on HEIs’ league table positions, widening participation, student recruitment and learner behaviour’ (11). A minority (‘[l]ess than a third’) of HEI respondents ‘agreed that such a qualifications metric should be based on measures of academic demand and qualification size alone’ (11).


One can readily understand that the Telegraph has no interest in reading and reporting what the QIR says. It might well be that the UCAS Tariff will be dropped; it would, however, be a mistake to see this move as representing any kind of consensus among HE providers.

Since becoming Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has outlined plans for a change to A-Levels, beginning here with ‘fewer, more rigorous exams’ and the end of modular courses; and a new ‘national ranking system for students, here. Such policy statements, of course, depend on the assumption that standards have declined and must be restored, as in his aim ‘to make exam questions harder … [and] restore confidence in the system’, here. In this post I wish to dwell on this article in the Daily Mail, an attack on ‘crude social engineering’ in the form of a plot by ‘the Left-wing education establishment’, ie ‘the deluded notion that background matters more than ability’. In defence of standards Gove challenges what has now become a ‘bizarre notion’, the view that, having ‘attended a poor school’, one ‘should be able to automatically leapfrog students who possess stronger A-Levels in the race for university places’. Weaker students, as a matter of course, have been allowed to use inferior schooling as a form of certification. By implication the ‘stronger’ candidate has had the misfortune to attend a good school.

Most obviously, Gove’s article should be read alongside Sutton Trust research that outlines the advantage one receives from attending one of a small number of schools; or, more recently, fall-out from the decision to raise tuition fees. However, I shall go back to the so-called Bristol Affair in 2002, when admissions tutors were accused of discriminating in favour of students from state schools, at the expense of students from private schools (and this account by Melanie Phillips suggests that Gove has merely conformed to hysterical Daily Mail house style). In response, Bristol University pointed out that ‘traditional admissions criteria’ were inadequate: ‘We are … adopting a more sophisticated approach to identifying academic potential. Excellence exists in schools of both kinds, and we have a duty to find it.’ (This argument, of course, should be familiar to students who have had to sit an entrance exam because the university in question insists that exam results are ‘inadequate’ as a means to selection; but that is a topic for another time.) Then, in 2005, the Times Higher Education claimed a scoop in exposing the admissions policy at Bristol: ‘Admissions tutors have been told to apply two filters to ensure that the system is weighted in favour of bright but disadvantaged pupils.’ In essence, the ‘two filters’ approach meant that Bristol was using a form of affirmative action (not, so far as I am aware, their wording; and not, of course, the same as positive discrimination, which is what Gove bemoans, above). Subsequently, Hoare & Johnston (2010) studied admissions to Bristol University, finding that, even though private school students had better A-Level results upon entry to degree courses, ‘students from state schools with such high scores are more likely to achieve the highest degree grade than are students with similar scores who attended independent schools’ (18). A similar conclusion was reached in the Milburn Report, Unleashing Aspiration (2009, 92-94).

Given that Hoare & Johnston (2010) provide a statistical analysis, one might investigate the validity of their results (and that too is a topic for another time). Nonetheless, the Govean dilemma is clear. Firstly, he wants a system that can measure students’ achievement in crude, positivist fashion without disturbing the status quo. Secondly, as elsewhere in education, we are asked to believe that social class no longer matters; there are ‘good schools’ and ‘failing schools’ defined solely by the competence of teachers. As Gove writes in the Daily Mail article, ‘excellent teachers’ are those ‘who [don’t] make excuses about their pupils’ backgrounds’.

The A-Level system has always been elitist, catering to the needs of a small minority of students; and this elitism hides behind the contradiction inherent in any meritocratic project, that effort must be reconciled to innate ability. Effort, in short, should simply confirm natural talent, otherwise it is mere compensation. Gove writes of ‘the simple and old-fashioned expedient of giving the most able students the highest grades’; and this is code for norm-referencing, when achievement was defined in terms of one’s place in relation to others in the hierarchy. A few lines down he is sympathising with those ‘hard-working students’ with ‘a string of great passes’ who then find their results do not ‘mark them out from the crowd or guarantee a cherished college place’. Here, to make sense, ‘hard-working’ can only mean ‘most able’, that is, those who should stand out on the basis of innate ability. He then complains of the lack of differentiation and the numbers walking off with a clutch of A stars’ (an award he thinks should be based on norm-referencing, of course). Only a small minority can, or should, ever be successful; and only a small minority should see their effort rewarded. Gove dreams of a return to the 1950s. His deception (borrowed, of course, from those times) is that any other scenario for higher education must result in a dilution of standards, the inevitable consequence when working-class students benefit from positive discrimination.