Deprivation is, it seems, destiny for children in British schools. Or at least it is according to Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Bousted recently used her column in the Times Educational Supplement to berate ‘those now in charge of education’ who have the temerity to ‘refuse to accept that teachers alone cannot compensate for the lost life chances of poor children’. Bousted is critical of those she describes as being ‘great adherents of ED Hirsch and his powerful knowledge curriculum’ who refuse to accept that children living in poverty ‘find a narrow academic curriculum, topped off by timed exams, alien to their lives and their interests’.
Schools cannot and should not attempt to solve all of society’s problems. Teachers are already expected to spend too much time promoting citizenship, character, healthy eating and anti-bullying initiatives. However, this does not mean that poverty is an excuse for low educational attainment. Children from poor families are every bit as capable of mastering a rigorous academic curriculum as their wealthier peers. Fortunately, a growing number of teachers now take this view and have high expectations for all their pupils no matter what their home circumstances might be like. Unfortunately, this group of teachers is now Bousted’s sights – she accuses it of being the ‘New Blob’. The original ‘Blob’ was, of course, former education secretary Michael Gove’s derogatory label for those who stood in the way of his reforms.
If the New Blob comprises those who do not accept poverty as an excuse for low attainment, then count me in. Progressive education, idealised and promoted by the original Blob, of which Bousted was proud to declare herself a member, has become deeply entrenched in British schools. It has proved itself to be toxic to the life chances of the poorest in our society.
Back in the 1960s, prime minister Harold Wilson backed a comprehensive education system on the promise that it would effectively provide grammar schools for all. Alas, this was not to be. Instead, the knowledge-rich grammar school curriculum was attacked as ‘middle class’ and ‘elitist’. Teachers, trained by progressive educationalists in universities, started to enshrine prejudice against working-class children into the core of the education system, at the same time as flying the banner of equality.
A commitment to teaching the ‘best that has been thought and said’ has been replaced by an array of educational fads. Teachers are encouraged to focus on ‘relevance’, only teaching topics of ‘interest’ to less well-off children. However, such a focus merely reinforces existing inequalities. The obsession with ‘relevance’ means that, by virtue of their differing experiences and backgrounds, middle-class children benefit from a richer curriculum than their working-class peers.