Reading educational books, tweets, Facebook posts, and blogs, you would be forgiven for thinking that what we do in schools is the most important activity that humankind can engage in. Take a look and you’ll find posts everywhere that exclaim the power of education to change a person’s life, and as a beneficiary, someone who has managed to break out of the cycle of poverty and has now even become a teacher, I am living proof that learning is a tonic
However, I am perhaps the exception that proves the rule. I have been the beneficiary of social mobility for one, not social justice for all. For everyone like me who has managed to break through, there are thousands who don’t make it and are caught in a trap made for them by the very system that is supposed to develop them.
The idea of education as a liberating force spans all divides of the debate on its purposes. Taken from a capitalist stance, education functions as the means by which a person might improve their usefulness and economic potential, helping one accrue material capital and escape poverty. From a progressive, student centred perspective, education facilitates a young person’s development as an individual, what Biesta termed subjectification (2009) and, from all kinds of positions in between, education is thought to create freedom for us to overcome society’s barriers.
But, if education was this powerful, surely, we would have reached the meritocratic utopia by now? Clearly, we haven’t, so what is it that’s holding us back?
Basil Bernstein said: ‘education cannot compensate for society’ and in part, I agree with him.
As we have moved through the 21st Century, there has been a resurgence in the idea of knowledge as the central gift that education can provide. I believe that enabling everyone to access to knowledge, whatever their social class, race, income bracket or any other label we might ascribe, is an essential step towards a more just society. I’m proud to be part of a profession that is placing the child’s right to access the collected works of mankind at the centre of what we do. What I’m not convinced by however, is that in our relentless pursuit of academic excellence, we are providing everything our students need to thrive.
I don’t intend to contribute to the great debates happening around what we teach in the classroom here. The debates around decolonisation, representation and canon are complex and there are people with far more informed perspectives on those issues than me. However, I am concerned that in our drive to improve the quality of education students receive in the classroom, it’s too easy to forget the wider curriculum our students receive. We have made great strides in pedagogy, through the application of research; more diverse voices are contributing to the construction of our canon and I’m convinced that we are slowly settling into a healthy balance between the need for students to accumulate knowledge and the development of a critical attitude towards it. I don’t, however, think those initiatives alone will result in the just society education could and should provide.
Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital (1977) has been debated, both in educational philosophy and in professional practice for a number of years, along with the suggestion that within a society there is a dominant culture, and that culture will determine what is valued and passed on to the next generation. Not possessing cultural capital has been identified as one of the factors which prevents students from outside the dominant social group from achieving their educational potential. In this model, it’s not how much you know or can do that matters, it’s whether you know and can do the right things. If you are lucky enough to be born into the right context, you will be surrounded by this dominant culture from birth and have a huge head start on those who weren’t.
This is where, I believe, Bernstein was right.
Education, in a system with limited time and resources, along with a list of competing purposes cannot hope to completely make up for the advantage that some students are born into.
We might debate whether it is the role of education to reset the balance of cultures in our society and provide a more level playing field. We might hope that by working to democratise knowledge that we could undercut some of the cultural bias that exists. I don’t want to stray too far off-topic an into the debate on critical pedagogy here, but I would argue that much like school is only a part of a child’s world, education only has direct influence over a portion of a person’s life and there are other social forces that exert much greater pressure.
So, if education has limited power to influence what society deems to be valuable knowledge, and a sharp focus on what is happening in the classroom is producing only social mobility and not social justice, then what is to be done?
For me, the solution lies not within our classroom walls but out in the world. Particularly now, as we begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it is more important than ever to democratise not just access to knowledge in our schools but to improve access to cultural experiences in communities too. I am not suggesting that we simply impose white, middle-class culture on everyone but instead, work towards allowing everyone to access and contribute to the cultural sphere.
That’s far too big a project for education to take on alone, and Government needs to take a lead in funding and organising other community based initiatives, but we can work to break down some of the barriers and perceptions among our own students that certain types of culture are ‘not for them’. As we return to school, we should look beyond just ‘catching up’ academically and be aim to create opportunities for them to go to the theatre, read widely, take part in spoken word events, visit zoos, get out into the countryside, play sport and engage in all of the experiences that being born into the dominant culture affords. If our students decide these experiences are not for them, that’s fine! We should not judge. It isn’t our individual preferences that matter but the opportunities we are given to find out what our preferences are – after all, I know plenty of wealthy, white, middle-class people who can’t stand opera!
Schools have a big task ahead of them in the coming months and years, helping a generation build on their experience of successive lockdowns. While the work we do in our subjects will be important and knowledge will remain the most liberating thing a school can provide, I hope to see the number of schools offering programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh Award, the Arts Award and Sports Leadership Awards grow and grow, broadening our young people’s horizons and helping them to see that wherever they come from, whoever they are, they have the right to access and contribute to our culture.
Bernstein, B. (1970) Education cannot compensate for society. New Society, 15(387), p. 344-47.
Biesta, G. (2009) ‘Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education’, Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp. 33–46. doi: 10.1007/s11092-008-9064-9.
Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by R. Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511812507.