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Can you cure society’s ills at the blackboard?

A decade after Blair promised to prioritise 'education, education, education', his government still sees schools as a lab for solving every social problem.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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What have been the defining moments of Tony Blair’s prime ministership? Last Sunday, the Observer assessed Blair’s impact on British society over the past 10 years (1). While the ill-fated farrago of the Iraq war in 2003, the unprecedented ’emotional’ outburst at the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the ban on foxhunting were correctly identified as ‘key moments’ of his reign, Blair’s insistence – before he was elected to government – that New Labour would be primarily about ‘education, education, education’ was oddly absent from the list.

As the Blair years have rolled on, it seems education really has become a laboratory for trying out ‘big ideas’ that will magically provide internal coherence for the government and outward cohesion in society at large. Indeed, over the past week there has been a veritable ‘scramble for education’, wherein union leaders, policymakers and cabinet ministers have shown that they can only relate to society through the prism of the classroom.

One consequence of today’s blinkered obsession with schooling is that it encourages a rather myopic dissection of its every facet. Last year, it was the fat content of Turkey Twizzlers that was of prime concern. Now it’s whether schools will become ‘pressure cookers’ as a consequence of ‘climate change’. Teachers have been demanding this week ‘the right to walk out of hot classrooms during soaring temperatures’ (2). It seems the National Union of Teachers (NUT) can predict future weather conditions with an accuracy that would shame the Met Office. Apparently, in future summers there will be frequent heatwaves and thus ‘schools should close during the summer’. In the past, the old left mistakenly argued that ‘education is a right’. Now NUT leaders believe that at the first sight of sunshine, there should be a ‘right’ to forget about education altogether. As one teacher put it, ‘if temperatures soar then it may be necessary to disrupt children’s schooling’ (3).

Still, this made a brief respite from stories about children disrupting schooling. Normal service was resumed on Wednesday when the education secretary Alan Johnson said that website providers had a ‘moral obligation’ to stop pupils posting offensive school videos that demean their teachers or other children. He said: ‘The online harassment of teachers is causing some to consider leaving the profession because of the defamation and humiliation they are forced to suffer.’ (4) Now, unwittingly appearing on some jokey YouTube clip would hardly be the highlight of anyone’s teaching career. But surely this is simply a more hi-tech version of ‘defamatory’ graffiti or cartoon caricatures of teachers that schoolchildren have long enjoyed executing. The difference today is that New Labour launches a campaign against kids acting like, well, kids – with website providers, rather than teachers or government, forced to be the moral guardians.

The seeming inability of ministers to use words and values to socialise children was also in evidence with Johnson’s latest initiative: to reward school pupils financially if they don’t play truant or misbehave at school. Incredibly, this was accurately satirised in the inaugural episode of the BBC drama, Party Animals, wherein a junior Home Office minister proposed giving delinquents a ‘good behaviour bond’ (ie, a bribe) to entice them to behave (5). Now life is imitating art.

Improving classroom behaviour, we are told, is vital if we’re to tackle anti-social behaviour in wider society. The spate of tragic and needless killings of black teenagers in London this year has inevitably been connected with poor educational attainment. And once again, if only poorly disciplined students (and their parents) learned to love their homework assignments, they’d be less open to the nefarious temptations of ‘street culture’. Steve Sinnott of the NUT called ‘for a national investigation into the impact of street culture, amid rising concerns over murders and stabbings’. ‘There should also be better monitoring of black boys’ performance’, he said (6).

In a roundabout way, Tony Blair (and Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality before him) echoed this view, citing an anti-learning subculture as being responsible for black boys’ underachievement and, by implication, for stabbings and murders. It seems neither the government nor the teaching unions bother to read the latest Ofsted statistics. While it is true that black pupils obtain fewer GCSE passes than pupils from other ethnic backgrounds, their attainment rate has increased rather than decreased over the past 10 years (a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that black adults are more integrated into the economy than would have been the case previously) (7). If sections of the British student body are under-performing, those responsible for promoting an ‘anti-learning culture’ are the government and the education authorities themselves.

Increasingly, the UK education system resembles a smorgasbord of anti-aspiration propaganda. If black and other schoolchildren come through the education system believing that the society they live in is both destructive and inherently oppressive, it’s little wonder that some students may become fatalistic about their life chances. Bombarded with similar messages in the wider world, too, this will have a more powerfully negative influence on a black student’s outlook than the collected works of rappers like the late Tupac Shakur, who are frequently blamed for violence. In fact, many black students I’ve taught either laugh off the ludicrous excesses of gangsta rap or feel uncomfortable with its decidedly low-rent connotations. The high-profile (but still extremely rare) incidences of teen murders in the capital are born out of social factors rather than songs. Have sociologists and commentators ever blamed Glasgow’s gangs-and-knife incidents on the influence of bagpipes or the city’s jangly indie bands?

Today, blaming everything on cultural influences means that banal suppositions on gangsta rap somehow influencing teenagers can be taken as good coin. Nevertheless, it’s precisely this official belief in cultural determinism that means the education system becomes loaded with ever more demands for ‘responsibility’ (and grounds for meddling) than ever before.

All of these developments have little to do with providing a decent, liberal education system for all. As we’ve seen over the past week, the classroom becomes both the cause of problems (teacher stress, bullying, even heatstroke) and the solution (namely, getting everyone to behave). For all the current digressions on Blair’s 10 years in power, it seems mediating governmental decisions through ‘education, education, education’ has stood the test of time and still largely goes unquestioned. Who needs 10 more years of that?

Neil Davenport is a freelance writer and lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport dissected the ‘anti-learning’ culture supposedly affecting Black youth. He also pointed out that the Government’s plans to fine students who leave school early criminalises youth and degrades education. Rob Lyons said that beyond all the excuses, Snoop Dogg was refused a visa because of old fashioned fear of him being a ‘bad influence’; and Catherine Scott questioned whether teaching other cultures and practices makes children more tolerant. Or read more at: spiked issue Education.

(1) The ten defining Blair moments, Observer, 8 April 2007

(2) ‘Teachers demand right to walk out of hot classrooms’, James Meikle, Guardian, 9 April 2007

(3) Ibid

(4) ‘Web bosses must block pupils’ videos mocking teachers, says minister’, James Meikle, Guardian, 11 April 2007

(5) Not Quite Party Animals’ by Neil Davenport

(6) ‘Black people urged to tackle school underachievement’, James Meikle, Guardian, 9 April 2007

(7) ‘Minister plans to improve black pupils exam results’, Matthew Taylor, Guardian, 9 September 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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