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!