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Standards

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.

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.