Using aspiration to enable segregation is at the heart of the government's schools policy

Allan Beavis's picture
I have spent the best part of the day wondering why I get so angry when I read statements, as I did yesterday, that supporting local schools, opposing free schools and academies, pleading for inclusive, non-selective schools and favouring the teaching of a wide and varied academic, citizenship and vocational curriculum means you are “against” aspiration. Such accusations are intended to make you appear both mean-spirited - in thrall to the ideology of “dumbing down”, of having no ambition for your own children, of “celebrating mediocrity” – and, at the other end of the spectrum, elitist in the pursuit of stamping out social mobility by preventing working class or middle class children from aspiring to a better future via a free school or Academy.

But such finger pointing is calculated to mask the true intentions of the right wing – segregation by aspiration. Gove is too fearful to come clean and rubber stamp outright selection by re-creating grammar schools, preferring instead to appeal to the ambitions of parents by creating the impression that the new alternatives of state education - free schools, academies - will separate the wheat from the chaff, or the grammars from the secondary moderns, in all but name. Throw in the news stories that private schools are clamouring to become Academies or at the very least “advising” and “engaging” with them and it is easy to see how the government and the right wing are drawing on the perceived superiority of the educational institutions of the privileged to appeal to parents who want the best state education for their children.

Covert selection by faith schools has always pandered to the belief amongst the middle classes that they perform better and have less “difficult” children to contend with, so it is no surprise that faith schools make up such a large proportion of free schools. No surprise either that Toby Young announced that WLFS was in partnership with the London Oratory, who clearly have some association with him, despite telling parents that they have no partnership so who is not telling the truth here? Confusion seems to be the order of the day, but presented and rehashed as democratic “choice” and “variety”. It is all so cynical, that it is akin to leading lambs to the slaughter.

The obsession with results, tables and performance related scrutiny of teachers in American Charter Schools has resulted in them being ruthless in finding ways to exclude students who don’t succeed to the prescribed standards or toe the school line. The perceived success of KIPP schools has come at the shocking price of the high drop out rates of young black males. Where once there was aspiration, now dashed hopes, a sense of official failure and a return to a place where, cruelly, you have been told the grass is most definitely not greener.

Enabling segregation by aspiration it at it’s most toxic when it comes to the wholesale trashing of comprehensive schools – low academic standards, unruly behaviour, indoctrination by teachers, distortion of PISA data, abolition of BSF. But much objective research has shown that, overall, standards have risen over 20 years. In any case – isn’t the real aim of aspiration to raise standards and give life opportunities to ALL children, all of the time? That is not what the government is doing and it is not what the right wing or those rabidly in favour of academic selection want. They want segregation because it is elitist and self serving.

I can’t help concluding, cynically perhaps, that the much promised, very delayed revised Admissions Code is being held up because of the need to endlessly re-write, to leave rules and regulations ambiguous and open to interpretation and loopholes, to allow covert selection, to reduce the choices and rob the voices of parents. Will it suddenly appear in the dead months of the summer, sneaked in without anyone noticing and too late for anyone to do anything about it?

Social mobility sounds great. Accessible to all, something we and our children can aspire to. But in reality the present coalition government’s policies across the board are designed to favour an unfair division of wealth and resources. Segregation is slowly and insidiously embedding itself into our society and into our schools. Those who really believe in aspiration for all should stop feeling angry, stand up, be counted and oppose government policy.
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Sarah Dobbs's picture
Sat, 21/05/2011 - 22:55


Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 22/05/2011 - 08:33

Great post Allan. I suspect the Admissions Code is being delayed so that the MPs and Peers debating the Education Bill won't know what is in it as the legislate to open the schools market up to more free schools and academies. Once the Bill has passed its main Parliamentary hurdles, the real intentions will become clear.
Also revealing that schools like the WLFS, and others that have signed their funding agreements, don't want to make the contents public, even though the funding is being provided by the tax payer.

Rob Davies's picture
Sun, 22/05/2011 - 09:01

Great article. Aspiration for the few... This is a dangerous, one way path we are being led along.

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Sun, 22/05/2011 - 11:46

Thanks Allan for taking the time to write this very thoughtful and articulate summary of the current debate. So, how do we "stand up, be counted and oppose government policy" before it's too late?

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 22/05/2011 - 19:47

Allan, I think you presume a little too much malevolence on the part of the Conservatives. For many of them it isn't a calculated fight against the working classes, it is simply that they wish to reproduce their own childhood for the 'less fortunate'. Having been told throughout their childhood that their - sometimes narrow, dull and forced - education was for their 'own benefit' many convince themselves it's the truth. And, to be fair, for many of them it does have benefits. Academic qualifications and an Oxbridge education are marvellous door-openers, particularly for those whose families can't provide excellent jobs through their social network.
Once in positions of power people naturally 'want to give others what I had' to soothe the guilt and injustice they feel as they realise their own privileged education and life was probably at the cost of another child whose parent couldn't afford to go to private school or move into a wealthy suburb.

What is problematic is that this desire of politicians to put things right, fuelled by their own childhood and values, means reforms are often based on only their values and don't pay due regard for the value systems of others. The only way these difference in values can be explained is 'anti-aspirational' because the right usually can't conceive of any other way of life as being aspirational. For example, I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say they think it's terrible that a child wants to follow his father and work 'only as a builder' - but no-one ever complains if a child wants to take over the family farm - because one choice is considered 'aspirational' in middle class circles, whereas the other equally valid choice isn't.

When reforms come from this place of 'trying to save the poor' rather than based on evidence from the professions about what is needed, policies become vague, unclear, and contradictory. Both sides - left and right - are guilty of this. But we need to put to one side all these hang-ups and just focus on the schools that are right in front of us. Listen to what the real problems are of current parents, teachers, students and heads and solve those, rather than recreating some mythical education of the past.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 22/05/2011 - 19:51

Actually, even I'm being unfair here. I also think many people genuinely think that by giving more choice it improves the quality of education. For some that's prompted by guilt, for others it is a logical choice made after lots of research.

I do think it is a lot more tied to emotions and childhood than most people like to admit though.

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 23/05/2011 - 08:24

It should be remembered that free schools and academies were pioneered by the last Labour gov't although Gove and the Conservatives have developed these ideas with some alacrity. Also worth noting that Peter Hyman, a former political aide to Tony Blair, is intending to set up a free school in Newham with Andy Burnham's endorsement.

Gove has introduced the ebacc as a benchmark against which schools should be measured in their academic performance although the main criticism seems to be that it was introduced retrospectively and its definition is too narrow. We don't know what, if any future changes will be made to the admissions code, and there is no sign that grammar schools are being brought back on to the agenda. Due to the budget deficit the education budget has not increased in real terms but Labour would also have had to make public sector cutbacks.

I think the idea that there is a large chasm between mainstream Labour and Conservative (or Coalition) policies is fanciful and that in many cases the politicians' educational backgrounds and choices for their children are not wildly different.

That isn't to say a lot of the gov'ts educational policies are wrong or muddleheaded but to argue against them on a politically partisan basis doesn't seem right either.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 23/05/2011 - 09:55

I think Andy Burnham's background is actually very different to Michael Gove or David Cameron's. He did go to Cambridge but from a comprehensive school.

I wasn't in favour of the Labour academies. I don't believe schools need to be "independent" to become better. There are plenty of examples of schools being turned around within the maintained sector and plenty of examples of '"independent state schools" that have failed.

The point is that those schools got a massive injection of capital and revenue spending, new staff, leadership and often new pupils . All struggling schools should be treated equally in this way. However it isn't true that Labour introduced free schools in the way that the Coalition is proposing. Parents were able to call for a new maintained school - that is how Elmgreen School was set up. Now it is a free school or nothing. I think there is a distinction between parents simply wanting a new school and parents who want that school to be 'free' of the local authority. Surely parent groups should still have the right to choose between the maintained and free model?

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 24/05/2011 - 12:29


I agree with you that governments need to tackle the problems facing schools by listening to parents and teaching professionals and I hope you would agree with me that the current government haven’t done nearly enough of this but have been rather prescriptive about their big education reforms. Whether this stems from their own privately educated childhood memories or not – well, I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.

I don’t think their reforms are “malevolent” and I’m sorry if the tone of what I said can be interpreted this way but I do believe at the very least that the policy is misguided and is motivated by academic selection. Academic selection is applicable to both the “working” and the “middle” classes and it is very difficult to separate the concept of academic selection from class. The argument is that selection gives children from working class homes the chance to have better life opportunities but this always begs the question of what you do with the children who have been de-selected at age 11. I am still convinced that the comprehensive system has shown the ability, and has the greater potential over free schools and Academies, to give better life opportunities to the maximum number of children from working class and middle class backgrounds and that this is achievable without segregation. The spectre of secondary moderns still haunts us of a certain era!

I think Gove’s remarks in the Guardian which Fiona Millar drew our attention to yesterday only increases fears that some kind of educational apartheid is on the agenda. Punishing struggling schools on the basis of league tables, performance and competition, without taking into consideration other social and demographic factors, will penalise schools, their students, their families and their staff and will split local communities. Private schools sniffing around free schools, which has also been written about on this site, also shows the extent to which these new schools are being segregated from maintained schools and painted with the brush of exclusivity.

The outcome will be ghettosation and I really shudder at the long term social impact of that. Comprehensive schools help social cohesion and mobility. A concerted campaign to devalue and demonise them, at the same time as pitting them against and hyping up the superiority, of free schools, Academies and Grammars (some unproven and actually still theoretical) does prove the government is all about using aspiration to enable segregation.

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