So no posts for nearly a week. Partly this has been due to being extremely busy, and partly due to the fact that not a lot has been annoying enough to warrant a rant. Until, that is, I saw this report on the BBC about a recent report from the Sutton Trust analysing the failure of English grammar schools to take large numbers of poor pupils. Although the vast majority of England’s most socially selective state secondary schools are non-grammar schools in control of their own admissions policy, the report states that the remaining grammar schools are taking half as many children from disadvantaged backgrounds as they might. Religious schools make up a hugely disproportionate percentage of the most socially selective schools.
Or to put all that another way, the English middle class not only uses the public schools to ensure its children are educated separate from the lower orders, but it also exploits the remaining grammar schools and increasingly religious schools to achieve the same end. In southern Ireland, especially in Dublin, Gaelscoileanna are also being adapted to the same purpose. More of Northern Ireland later.
The English (and British) education system has of course been the focus of great attention over the past decade, with Tony Blair – a public school Oxbridge educated type, like much of the New Labour front bench – famously putting ‘Education, Education, Education’ at the heart of his programme for government. At the same time, Blair promoted faith schools, although after 7/7, we hear a lot less about this. We continue however to be subjected to huge quantities of nonsense about sink schools, Academies, and the rest.
While investment in education has undoubtedly gone up, the government has in fact placed its faith in the private sector and the market. Performance related pay, hit squads, allowing religious nutters to dictate aspects of the curriculum in Acadmies they fund, have all singularly failed to achieve their goals. In fact, some of the Academies have proven to be disasters educationally. Yet so focused is New Labour on its (increasingly futile) determination to maintain the support of the middle classes of south-east England, that nothing will be done by this government to mount a serious attempt to reform the education system. The education system in England is completely skewed by the public schools, which mean that the state sector in the most electorally important parts is practically seen as fit for only the under-privileged and disadvantaged – the poor, immigrants, “gangs” etc. A great deal of the moral panic about youth culture in London and elsewhere stems from the fact that the middle classes have no interaction with those outside their income bracket, and fear them.
This has been a culture New Labour has encouraged. Rock stars using drugs is fine and no bar to an invitation to Number 10 – but people from council estates doing the same should be jailed. The prime minister’s son being drunk underage in public is funny, but someone doing the same from a low income bracket is a yob, a hoodie, a chav. Despite the occasional rhetoric about doing something about Oxbridge’s admission procedures, the fact is that New Labour has singularly failed to tackle where the most significant social division in the education process lies – at primary and secondary level, as the Sutton Trust report amply demonstrates.
Another theme of New Labour policy on education has been Britishness and citizenship. Brown in particular wants to use the education system to inculcate values that will supposedly ensure greater social cohesion and harmony within the UK. A fine objective, and one progressive people can applaud. The education system has always been a key area in republican societies to promote egalitarian and democratic thinking, be it in France since the Revolution, or in Little Rock in the 1950s. However, the class reality of the British education system demonstrates how hollow Brown’s thinking is. The values he speaks about – respect for others, civic participation and duty, can never flourish in such an unequal system.
Which themes bring us nicely to Northern Ireland, and the complete mess that the Minister for Education and her party has made of abolishing the 11+, and the near total support in the Assembly for a religiously-divided edcuation system. Class interest, the absence of a civic republican ethos, the lack of vision inherent in the current centre-right, managerial consensus in politics throughout these islands, are all wrapped up in a nice bow in this issue. Since Martin Mc Guiness anounced the abolition of the 11+ in 2002, his party has done nothing to get ready for managing the change. They knew they always intended to take education again, and yet made no preparations. This has been criminal, and a betrayal of the interests of their own biggest supporters, the Catholic working class, as the Provos chase the votes of the expanding Catholic bourgeoisie, becoming its new voice, in succession to the Nationalist Party and the SDLP. Appointing perhaps the most incompetent minister in the Executive to the post in order to boost her chances of taking a Westminster seat she would never have taken up was simply emblematic of the failure to engage with this issue in a substantive way. The one substantially progressive move made by the Provos in government, and they have screwed it up from day one.
Although Mc Guiness confirmed the funding planned by the Direct Rule ministers for a couple of integrated schools, there has been nothing done to foster integrated education, and to confront the division of our children on religious lines. There is no republican vision at work here, merely the same old sectarian politics. The education system, whatever happens the 11+, will remain divided on religious and class grounds, selection will continue in a new form, with the children of the middle classes continuing to flourish at the expense of those further down the social scale.
All in all then, education offers a depressing view. No major political party has the will nor even the vision to tackle the serious defects in the system. Be it the poison of the public schools, grammar schools, or religious education, our political leaders are not only uninterested in substantial change, but they actively support the very interests that benefit from the abandonment of the children of the working class.