Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | May 25, 2008

First tremors of a tectonic shift?

This my post is unusually political, although I am not normally interested in politics. Depending on my readers’ comments, I reserve my right to say “oops!” and delete the post. But while it is online, please read it and comment on it.

In the last few weeks, I started to pick in the general white noise of discussions about English education some strange signals. It started perhaps in April in a conversation in Oberwolfach, where my English colleague, a fine mathematician from a good red brick university, was explaining to our American friends what white British underclass was and why something had to be done with it before it, like a cancer tumor, killed British education and then the country itself. Admittedly, my colleague had a beer too many, but his position had appeared to be deeply held and systematically developed.

Since then, almost every day I had seen on TV, red on Internet and in newspapers, even heard at conferences on education the same sentiments expressed with various degrees of openness. In short, it appears that
British middle classes are becoming prepared to voice their desire for an institutionalised re-segregation of education along the class divide. Or you may wish to formulate it in a more emotional language: middle classes are no longer prepared to sacrifice their children for the sake of social cohesion.

After the spectacular loss of Crew by-election by Labour, many commentators announced the collapse of the New Labour electoral base. Even more revealing were remarks on electoral tactics: I heard on TV that Labour’s attempts to portrait the Tory candidate as a public school toff backfired because

“they went against the middle classes’ aspiration to give their children good education”.

(A reminder to the non-British and a non-UK based reader: in Britain, “public school” means “a rather privileged private school”).

Finally, a recent publication in Times Higher Education, Elite institutions’ class bias simply reflects ‘meritocracy, 22 May 2008, made me to write this post. I quote the paper:

Bruce Charlton, reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University, provoked a furious response with his claims that the greater proportion of students from higher social classes at highly selective universities is not a sign of admissions prejudice but rather the result of simple meritocracy.

Dr Charlton says in a paper shown to Times Higher Education: “The UK Government has spent a great deal of time and effort in asserting that universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, are unfairly excluding people from low social-class backgrounds and privileging those from higher social classes.

“Evidence to support the allegation of systematic unfairness has never been presented. Nevertheless, the accusation has been used to fuel a populist ‘class war’ agenda. “Yet in all this debate a simple and vital fact has been missed: higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes.”

I think that the issue of whether IQ is (partially) genetically predetermined (a matter of heated debate in follow-up comments in THE) or entirely shaped by upbringing and education is irrelevant. Whether the very concept of IQ makes any sense is also irrelevant (I personally think that IQ is rubbish).

What is relevant is that lower social classes receive, for a variety of (mostly obvious) social, cultural, economic and political reasons, a lower quality education (in school and in the family), while upper social classes enjoy access to a better quality education. I feel that almost everyone would agree with this simple observation.

The principal question is: to what degree deficiencies of earlier stages of a person’s education can be compensated at later stages? You would perhaps agree that this is a key question of educational theory, and its understanding is crucially important for any informed policy making in education. Obviously, the answer very much depends on a particular discipline or subject. For example, almost everyone would agree that music can be taught successfully only if it is taught correctly from an early age. If a child’s sense of pitch is destroyed by an out-of-tune musical toy, it is more or less irreparable.

I am not an expert in education policy, and I am not in position to judge education as a whole. But I am a teacher of mathematics, and I feel that I have to make a controversial statement: the same “irreparability principle” applies to mathematics:

If certain key cognitive skills are not attained by certain age, they are unlikely to get developed later.

I hope that this my claim is politically acceptable because we all know that it is acceptable to confess in public that one does not understand and cannot handle any mathematics at all (I heard it many times). If people proudly profess their math phobia, I have a right to offer my explanation of the roots of the phobia.

The aim of the post, however, is not to voice my opinion, but pose some uncomfortable questions.

  • Could it happen that our system of (mathematics) school education damages most children, and damages so deeply that later repairs are simply not cost effective?
  • If so, what should be mathematics teachers’ advice to policy makers?
  • Should we formulate our advice differently depending on who is in power: Labour or Tory? Indeed, they are likely to interpret the same words differently.

We have to remember that re-segregation can be quickly achieved by very polite means draped as parents choice — for example, by a voucher system (when every child is given a voucher which can be cashed in any school of his/her parents’ choice) combined with schools’ right to select, in case of oversubscription, children by academic ability.

  • Now imagine that you have to give an advice to a jubilant freshly elected Tory minister. Will you propose a “voucher + academic selection” system as a simple and inexpensive way to restrict the educational damage to lower social classes and improve mathematics education of middle class children?

I call for an informed public debate of the issues — before the political pendulum swings from the left to the right and one set of irrational policies in education is replaced with another, opposite, but equally irrational set.

Prior to attempting to make the debate public I wish to invite my readers to give their opinion. Remember, you have an advantage of being able to comment — if you wish — anonymously!


  1. Alexandre —

    It is good that you raise these questions for discussion. A related, perhaps larger question about UK education policy, is this: Is there an optimal proportion of the population that should go on from high school to tertiary education? The current British Government’s policy has been that 50% of all school leavers should go on to higher education, and tertiary student numbers have increased to a level where this proportion is now about 40%, I believe.

    As far as I can tell, the 50% target was chosen from thin air, with no economic or sociological rationale. The Government has acted as if it believes that the higher the proportion of school students in tertiary education the greater is the social good. But such a belief is simply false. Perhaps the socially-optimal level is far less or far more than the figure of 50%.

    A modern, technologically-driven society needs a highly-educated workforce, across a range of disciplines. But if a society produces more graduates than its economy can use, what happens to the additional graduates? If they don’t emigrate, I expect they suffer unemployment or under-employment, and employers start demanding unnecessary qualifications in order to filter applications for vacancies. The UN’s International Labor Office (ILO) even has a name for this phenomenon by employers: the Paper Qualifications Syndrome. The net effect will be a generation of graduates with prior expectations of well-paid, fulfilling careers, whose post-study experiences will instead involve working, if at all, in jobs for which they are over-qualified. It is hard to imagine any social benefits from such a policy outcome.

  2. I think there is a perception that the education of many children – certainly of rather more working-class (I retain the traditional term) children than middle-class – is badly damaged by the behaviour of a relatively small minority who are persistently disruptive and who, under policies of “inclusion”, are essentially impossible to remove or effectively discipline as long as their parents are uncooperative. Stipulating this for the sake of argument, certainly one response to this would be vouchers, or the reintroduction of the 11-plus, or whatever. But surely a more rational response would be to allow the removal of the persistently disruptive children to somewhere outside the mainstream of schooling – especially since they are almost guaranteed to be in no position to learn anything wherever they go (apart from that they can do what they like with impunity, a lesson which presents significant difficulties to all concerned in adult life).

    My gut feeling – and it is no more than that, as a middle-class kid who attended a good comprehensive and now teaches at a good public day school my experience of troubled inner-city schools is limited to a single term’s training – is that, in terms of social divisiveness, vouchers would actually be worst (encouraging the activist middle classes to abandon “normal” schools which would correspondingly get worse and worse), a return to grammar schools less bad but still unsatisfactory (as it still denies the secondary-modern portion an undisrupted education) and intolerance of repeated disruption least bad.

    It may of course be that there is no real problem; but it is not easy to find parents or teachers who believe that.

  3. I read your blog daily; I’m an American Math teacher for students with disabilities. I’m really unfamiliar with the British education system (so much of the vocabulary is mysterious to us!), so I’m wondering if you know of some good links that explain British education…? It would help me understand what you’re talking about!

  4. Adrienne: a good question. I’ll try to find something. Or maybe my British readers can offer a concise translation of standard terms. A suggested glossary:

    red-brick university
    public school
    grammar school
    independent school
    comprehensive school
    working class
    middle class (I suspect British usage is slightly different from American)

  5. Alexandre —

    You should add that strange British education policy word “module” to your list of brittano-specific jargon. In every other English-speaking country I have lived in, the entity to which this word refers is called a “course”, as in, “I teach a course on category theory”.

  6. I’ll attempt some sort of explanation, at least of secondary school (ages 11-16 or now more usually 18). I’m also, shamelessly, going to talk almost exclusively about English and Welsh education; the Scottish system is different though not fundamentally dissimilar. I think there may be some small differences in Wales too.

    Adrienne: perhaps the most fundamental difference from what I understand of the American system is that British education is primarily driven by public examinations; schools and pupils both will be judged on the results achieved in these nationally-set and -marked papers.

    In a state (that is, funded by government; “public” in american terminology) secondary school, there are essentially three stages: “key stage three”, which culminates in what are known as “SATS”, “key stage four”, which culminates in the “GCSE” examinations, and “the sixth form”, which on a traditional academic track culminates in “A levels” (there are vocational tracks here too, but they are still very much seen as second-class options by most, rightly or wrongly).

    KS3 runs from 11 to 14, the first three years of secondary school (I think these would be middle-school years in the US). A wide variety of subjects are studied in what is essentially a buildup to GCSE, but only three subjects are examined at 14: maths, English and science. Much effort is expended on making children believe that these examinations are important to them, though they are of no lasting consequence; however, they are very important to the schools, as they are used to compile “league tables”, of which more later.

    KS4 is whole-heartedly a runup to GCSE examinations. These replaced the old two-tier system of public examinations at age 16, “O(rdinary) levels” for the academics and “CSE” (certificate of secondary education) for the less academics. A typical child will take perhaps eight GCSEs in different subjects, though more is common in “academic” schools. Only mathematics, English and (I think) a science are compulsary at this level. A typical student would take, say, mathematics, english language, english literature, two or three sciences (usually as a two-GCSE combined science), a foreign language, a humanity, and an art/music/tech type subject. Grades run A-G and “A*”, a grade introduced when grade inflation had made an A too common. While all of these are pass grades, the phrase “good GCSE pass” means C and above, which is notionally equivalent to the old O level.

    Unlike the KS3 SATs, GCSEs are genuinely important to children and will affect their futures significantly. They are also used in league tables; schools are, mainly, ranked on how many pupils achieve “five good passes” including maths and english. This is a sort of graduation-at-16 standard, and often governs admissability to further academic-track education.

    A levels are where children specialise much more; typically a pupil will take four “AS levels” (the first half of the two-year course) and drop one at the end of the “lower sixth”, completing three “A levels”. They are substantially more demanding than GCSEs, and determine admission to universities.

    I think it would be fair to say that British students past the age of 14 in a typical school will spend almost no classroom time studying anything that will not be examined; the exams are sufficiently demanding in number, content, and necessary technique, and sufficiently important both to them and the school, that many students and teachers alike would see it as borderline irresponsible to teach material other than that “necessary” except to the very strongest students.

    More to come. Questions/corrections welcome.

  7. Having dealt at least to some extent with structure and curriculum, let me turn to Sasha’s list of terms; I am not an expert, so may miss shadings of detail, but here are my understandings:

    red-brick university – a respected, academically solid but not ancient university with a research-driven tradition. As opposed to “oxbridge” (oxford and cambridge, the ancient academic elite) and the “new universities” (younger, generaly less research-driven universities, perhaps more like a good degree-awarding community college).

    public school – not what you think. A public school is a particular kind of private school, so-called because when they were starting the alternative to public schooling was private tuition (at home). The distinction between a public school and other types of private school is arcane. While there are many public day schools (indeed, I teach at one), most people probably associate the term with very expensive and ancient boarding schools such as Eton and Harrow designed to educate the sons (generally exclusively) of “gentlemen”. Often (but not always) academically selective.

    independent school – any private (or public) school. This would be our preferred term, for perceptual reasons.

    grammar school – an academically selective, state-funded school. Once universal, now abolished in much but not all of the country. Most academically-selective schools are now independent and require fees to be paid by most of their intake (some bursaries are usually available).

    comprehensive school – a state-funded school which does not select on academic ability. Brought in to replace the old grammar/secondary modern system. The vast majority of British students at non-fee-paying schools now go to state comprehensives.

    11-plus- the examination taken at 11 in areas with grammar schools to determine which sort of school will be attended. Now those not gaining admission to a grammar go to so-called comprehensives; when these schools were near-universal, the school for the 11-plus failers was the local “secondary modern”, at which an academic education was not much available. A totemic symbol of social divisiveness.

    working class
    middle class – these are deeper waters than I am prepared to tread, I’m afraid. Suffice it to say that the typical English person feels very strongly about which class they are, though other English persons may not agree as to which class any particular person is. Not necessarily determined to education, wealth, accent of speech, family background, own career or parental career, though related to all these.

  8. Rick — thanks!

  9. I hope it was at least some use; I welcome comments, corrections and queries! (And of course if it is of any use in future posts please feel free to reproduce any of it, Sasha.)

  10. Thanks so much for taking the time to help me develop some vocabulary!

    It sounds like “grammar school” (British) could be compared to “charter schools,” (U.S.), which are publically funded schools that petition the state and local department of education to be exempt from certain typical requirements such as scheduling and spending of staff development funds. They operate with some degree of independence from their district, usually providing parents and teachers with greater flexibility in meeting the needs of their particular local community, but not total independence. Usually they aren’t selective in choosing their students; they usually draw from their normally assigned geographic boundaries.

    “Magnet schools,” or “magnet programs” (which would be for a subset of students within an otherwise typical school) usually ARE selective, though still publically funded and not as independent as charter schools, and students can apply from all over the larger school district. For example, in my county, there is a Science/Technology Magnet high school, a Performing Arts Magnet school, and an International Studies/International Baccalaureate Magnet school. Kids travel by school bus or car to get there, which can be a long commute.

  11. OK; it sounds to me (and of course I don’t know the American vocabulary all that well) like the grammar school, where it still exists, would be more comparable to a magnet school. A grammar school typically has little or no more independence than any other state-sector school, it’s all about academic elitism (I mean that in a positive sense, btw).

    The comparison that springs to mind for charter schools is our new “city academies”, which are state-funded schools run “in partnership” with businesses or charities, typically replacing highly-troubled inner-city schools. They tend to be much better funded than other state schools and have vastly more independence in all respects from the LEAs (“local education authorities”, probably similar to your school districts). They are also not academically selective.

    This glosses over the (critical) fact that both grammar schools (for many, many years) and city academies (which are fairly new, and for their entire history) are profoundly politically controversial and divisive, just hugely so. I don’t know if the equivalent is true in the US.

  12. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Kalimba!

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