Education: Hard times for the poor

In the Charles Dickens novel Hard Times, 1854, we meet Thomas Gradgrind, of Coketown, a rising capitalist and businessman. His tests and his targets, his measurements and his calculations remind us of nothing so much as of the British education system today.

‘With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic... Time for the manufacturer becomes its own machinery; so much material wrought up, so much food consumed, so many powers worn out, so much money made’.

This is the very spirit of the cruel regime of measuring and testing that makes British school children the most examined in the industrialised world. One hundred years ago the masters had a scale which described people at the bottom in descending order as, ‘simple’, ‘feeble-minded’, ‘morons’, ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’. Today, annual results of national tests at the ages of four, seven, 11 and 14 record how many children have achieved ‘the norm’, below it or above it for each age group. These SATS, standard attainment targets or standard attainment tests (even the ministry cannot agree what they are supposed to be) are an uneasy and confused mixture of assessment about what has been learned and a mechanism for school accountability about what has been taught. 3,000 tick boxes of achievement will be involved on the pathway to obtain a level 5.

The tick box system
The Labour government’s justification for this regime of national testing is that it raises educational standards. However, a report just published from the biggest inquiry into primary education in 40 years has denounced the testing regime as ‘inadequate’, concluding that it ‘provides unreliable information on standards, encourages schools to neglect lower achievers, narrows the curriculum and increases pupils’ anxieties’. This corroborates the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report this year which put Britain at the bottom of a league table charting the well-being of children across the developed world. The quasi-statistical scaffolding that has been erected around school and pupil assessment include tick boxes for emotional intelligence and social skills and discounts for special needs, English as a second language and free school dinners. A weighted ‘value-added’ number based on annual leaps in learning may be mixed in with such tick box scores to produce a mathematically complex model from which future achievements can be predicted. The idea is that data inputs will track the progress of each pupil but the road to this goal is littered with error. Research from 2001 suggests that more than 30% of pupils get the wrong levels in national tests and that the tests fail to measure important elements such as research skills and teamwork. Indeed, it is impossible to know whether the tick boxes measure children’s attainment, teaching quality or school and parental income.

Privatisation is the goal
The measure, name, shame and blame method of education is a cover for attacking the state sector and softening up the system for privatisation. So enthusiastic is the Labour government to keep the support of its friends in big business that they will virtually give schools away. Interest groups like the Church of England or Lord Harris of Harris Carpets become sponsors of new academy schools at knock-down prices. They have a political and ideological agenda and regard ownership of a school as a sign of philanthropy and civic pride. Lord Harris told the Financial Times in June this year, ‘I have a very good relationship with Andrew [Lord Adonis, Schools Minister]. He rings me up and says "Do you want this school?" and I ask what it’s like and if it sounds like the sort of place that we are interested in I say yes.’

Smash and grab
While some schools are gifted to sponsors, others become very desirable purchases and are subject to sudden takeover battles. Haverstock School in Camden was snapped up by HSBC, one of the biggest banks in the world, while its future was still under discussion by the local education authority, not that the school really belonged to Camden Council any more. HSBC bought a 50% stake in Haverstock in a deal signed with Kajima, a Japanese construction company (with business ties to Burma) that is refurbishing the school with £21 million from the local council. The initial Private Finance Initiative (PFI) agreement between Camden Council and Kajima for building the school was due to last until 2030. Quite who now owns the buildings and the debt is a legal maze that is beyond the comprehension of most voters. Haverstock comprehensive school was attended by Labour ministers Ed and David Miliband. Pimlico comprehensive school was chosen by Tony Benn and Jack Straw for their children. Westminster Council has long wanted to place Pimlico School in the hands of the private sector, largely because the school grounds, in a prime location, are ripe for property development. Although the council was considering giving the school to Westminster public school (very rich, very successful, very private) it made a sudden decision to give it to Future, a charitable trust run by John Nash, former chair of the British Venture Capital Association. Future also runs projects like Place2Be, a school counselling service, Street Pastors, an inner city church initiative and a string of private prep schools under the heading of Alpha Plus. 96% of Pimlico’s ‘stakeholder’ staff, students and parents were against handing the school over to an academy. They were ignored and now campaign against ownership by Future using such tactics as putting the school up for sale on eBay and setting up an e-petition.

Not in our genes
The current regime of SATS, like the IQ (Intelligence Quotient) tests of the past, measure inequality in terms that are useful to the ruling class. Today’s genetics-based socio-biology similarly functions to explain the uneven distribution of achievement in individuals and groups across the population. In 1953 the scientists Crick and Watson uncovered the double helix structure of DNA revealing the molecule that carries genetic instructions across the generations. This discovery led to a massive outburst of support for a mechanistic view of life. For socio-biologists, the reproduction of all existence, from the smallest living micro organism, to the organisation of human society itself, is primarily determined genetically. Such quasi-scientific sociology tends to an individualist, competitive and static evaluation of mankind which downplays the effects of environment, society, power and property relationships. James Watson is today an extremely wealthy businessman and one-time head of the US Human Genome Project which attempts to make money from patenting gene sequences. When Watson recently stated that ‘Africans are not as intelligent as we’, he is as wrong and as racist as any other bigot. He has no authority to extend genetics to society. There is certainly a genetic explanation for cystic fibrosis, but it is wrong to deduce that there is a genetic explanation for poverty.

The fight against biologistics and racism

There has been a distinct history of the movement from bad science to bad sociology and from bad sociology to bad science. Scientific ideas require evidence to support them and too often the evidence produced has been cooked-up statistics in the service of the ruling class – biologistics. In 1969 Arthur Jensen published an article in the Harvard Educational Review, ‘How can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?’ He asserted that the most important difference between blacks and whites in their performance on [now discredited] intelligence tests was genetic and that no programme of education could equalise the social status of blacks and whites, so black school students ought to be educated for the more mechanical tasks to which their genes predisposed them. In Britain this pseudo-scientific view was taken up by psychologist Hans Eysenck and used in support of campaigns against immigration from Asia and the Caribbean. Eysenck’s Race, intelligence and education, 1971 and The inequality of Man, 1973 were explicitly adopted by the National Front for use in a series of pamphlets including How to combat red teachers, 1979.

There was no difficulty at that time in opposing either IQ tests or biologistics as bases for measuring intelligence/progress. A similar challenge must be raised about SATS and we must demand to know exactly what is supposed to be tested, question how it is being measured, and expose the purpose of the national testing regime today.

Susan Davidson

FRFI 200 December 2007 / January 2008


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