This week my best friend came to visit my family in Cumbria. For two years he has been working as a primary school teacher, first on Hong Kong island, and now, just over the Chinese border, in Shenzhen.
He teaches the first grade international baccalaureate in a Canadian international school, with a group of 16 students. These children pick their own topic for the term, and my friend helps them design their own learning programme. They also design their own assessment methods at the beginning of the unit. They learn on a tailored, malleable curriculum, where mathematics, english, geography, art, history, and other subjects are all integrated into a topic, rather than learnt as separate disciplines. Independent of the assessments that the students design, my friend assesses the students for their capabilities in conceptual and evaluative understanding; on their ability to select, organise, connect and debate ideas; on their ability to enter into dialogue; to self-reflect; to question. For kinaesthetic ‘fidgeters’, he sticks velcro under the desk so that they can rub it with their hand and keep themselves busy, or he attaches a rubber band to a chair leg so that they can stretch it with their foot…
It’s amazing hearing him describe this style of schooling – my closest analogue would be friends of mine who attended Steiner Schools. While we walked along the old miner’s track that runs parallel to Coledale Beck, nestled in the mountains, we listened to the unheard vocabulary of this unknown model of primary learning. My sister has a 17-month toddler, who was riding along in a rucksack on the back of my brother-in-law, a clutch of bracken in her hand,–babbling about the birds. We could all tell that this style of education would be an incredible advantage for her. It was just so apparent that what he was describing matched up to the little being we were carrying in our midst.
Of course, these opportunities are open to children from very affluent backgrounds (my friend was here on a flight funded by his school, offered to all ex-pat employees at Christmas time–a Western holiday they take before the obligatory national two week-holiday for Chinese New Year). My brother-in-law responded with a perfect summation of our joint wonder and envy at these children and this model of learning, when he said: ‘I feel like I just went through school messing around in all of the lessons, not being taught anything, and then at the end of term, I would teach myself for the exam.’
I certainly agree with my brother-in-law, and we have to thank our middle class homes for their environment of encouragement, which meant there was a space for us to ‘teach ourselves’ for the exam. While I would credit to my teachers for helping me prepare for exams, I have to admit that my educational life was in its most part just that: exam preparation. I always had the sense that these exams were somehow beyond the learning, yet at the centre of the learning. We knew that all of the creative processes of learning could be fun and interesting, but the important thing was to knuckle down, prepare for the exam and perform on the day. At no fault of the teachers, somewhere in that process the fun, excitement and leaning disappeared–and once the exam was done, it was often the case that any content of that term was rendered irrelevant, and eventually lost to the soup of the summer.
The striking thing about this contrast is that it extends not just from student to student and classroom to classroom by across schools, and how schools cultivate their own cultures of accountability, thereby becoming engines for the reproduction of socioeconomic structures. Comprehensive education in the UK follows a national curriculum that restricts learning from possibly resembling this model delivered in a private international school in China. The national system of evaluation known as Ofsted sets and evaluates standards in which schools, teachers (and students) have absolutely no say.
When we look at the history of this nationalised model of the ‘good school’, we see that it is bound into the emerging history of the bureaucratic culture of accountability that foregrounds neoliberal ideologies. Ofsted was founded in 1992. Initially a government-run and -funded body for standardising and evaluating the performance of schools, Ofsted is now a privatised body of inspection teams. As Jane Perryman highlights, Ofsted is the way the government ensures that ‘standards’ are met, while those normative ‘standards’ of assessment, ironically, are anything but standardised. Instead, Ofsted is open to the negative contingencies of inspectors and their expectations of schools. Inspection teams carry agendas influenced by statistical data that ignore (and often thereby enforce) the mitigating circumstances of socioeconomic conditions, themselves expressive of differences in class, race, religion, ethnicity, and normative/anti-normative ‘family’ backgrounds.
In the age of austerity, Ofsted enforces the social inequalities that austerity measures encourage. Mark K. Smith has evaluated the broad negative impacts of austerity upon education. Ofsted works by patterning these social structures into a seemingly benign structure of educational evaluation. As Sandra Leaton Gray states, ‘schools encourage certain patterns within society to repeat themselves’, and in this respect, ‘middle class children go to better schools, such as voluntary aided schools, where they are taught to have high expectations of themselves, and to be successful’. Ofsted takes as its model a white middle-class school in a reasonably affluent area containing white middle-class children. Ofsted then translates these race- and class-based differences into a discourse of citizenship, provision, care, leadership, guidance and community. Here is an extract from the most recent report about the primary school that I attended between the years 1994-2000:
‘Information about the school
This is a larger-than-average-sized primary school. The large majority of pupils are White British heritage; a few pupils speak English as an additional language. The proportion of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals is below the national average, as is the proportion with special educational needs and/or disabilities.
This is an outstanding school. Pupils grow into mature, confident and well balanced young citizens extremely well prepared for their next stage of life.
Outstanding spiritual, moral, social and cultural development contributes to excellent relationships and exemplary behaviour. Whether it is participating in Shakespeare’s plays, being advocates for the environment or competing in athletics events, pupils cannot get enough of school.’
(I include a PDF of the full document here: bps)
Why use Shakespeare to qualify the ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’ of students at Bramhope Primary School? Arguably, this offers an insight into how the ‘White British heritage’ of students mitigates the qualitative evaluation of this report. Shakespeare connotes a White British heritage, and hence by performing Shakespeare, these students help the school to meet the moral, spiritual and cultural standards of inspectors who want a school that upholds White British values. We often find Shakespeare used in this way. Shakespeare is the literary yardstick of White British middle-class society, for whom education is a laboured necessity, education and success a matter of of personal pride, but learning and culture also a some-times pass-time and assumed privilege.
I don’t know how to sum up this week.–My niece is crying and there is a tea waiting for me in the kitchen. I guess the point is, we’re building schools to meet standards that have nothing to do with schools and education and everything to do normative values of ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’. This comes as no surprise. Nor does the fact that the most economically advantaged students are afforded the most progressive education, ostensibly outside these normative cultures of accountability. Schools that do not have to perform to the Ofsted model are schools where children can be ‘self-led’ in a serious and instrumental way, yet, the children afforded the opportunity to attend these schools have themselves only attained that place through serious economic advantage.