Education and the crab bucket
Stupidity is not the greatest barrier to achievement
Discworld author Terry Pratchett said that those who want to get on are held back by others who try to keep things as they are, like crabs hanging on to each other as one is hoisted out of the catcher’s bucket.
This is true in school. Those who know they will never be top of the class will find ways to prop up their self-respect, either by disruptive behaviour or by forming a cosy clique of failures.
Within this they may accept a leader. In a class I taught, it became clear that one individual was gathering a group about him and making underperformance a cool thing. How to prove it, and what to do?
A senior colleague told me about sociograms (see here for an example.). So I gave everyone a slip on which they were to write two names: one, the person they would like to sit next to in the classroom, and the other, which person they would nominate for form captain (boys for a boy, girls for a girl.) Obviously, this would test for empathy and respect.
Then I drew a diagram based on the results. The subgroup of underachievers became plain, with the suspected leader right at the centre. The clincher was that I wrote next to each person’s name their grades for effort (yes, you can tell, roughly) and attainment. This showed that the poorer the student, the more closely they linked themselves to the Leader, who was the poorest of all.
When I showed this to my colleague, he discussed it with school management and they decided to remove this negative influence; but instead of shifting him to a less able group, they moved him up to a class of higher achievers who were success-oriented and not minded to buy into his mission to spread failure.
Mixed-ability schooling may sound socially just and non-discriminatory, but has this tendency to form clustered resistance to maximising potential. If the teacher aims material and tasks at the middle, there will also be more able pupils who can do the work with little effort and leave themselves time to mix with Joe Cool the Charming (or excitingly Rebellious) Failure, who has developed his social skills instead.
This particular school was a ‘comprehensive’ but the classes were not. Pupils would be regularly assessed to decide which of three broad bands of ability they fell into, and within that, which sets they should go into for Maths and English. This encouraged the more able to compete with each other, and reduced the demoralisation of others by sparing them close working with the upper element. It wasn’t perfect - children would still know what band and set they were in - but better than a pedestrian educational mishmosh. There are worse things than ‘I know my place.’
An exceptional teacher might possibly handle a very wide spread of ability in one class, but by definition such people are in short supply; I think it was Brecht who said that you can’t have an army exclusively composed of heroes.
Key to a successful school is discipline - and this is where management earns its corn. Teachers will vary in their pedagogical skill, but students need to know that if they take on one they are taking on the whole establishment.
Unfortunately, for some time they have been able to do that last; I left teaching in 1989 and when I returned ten years later I was astonished at the rudeness and sense of entitlement of young people in schools; it may have had something to do with the Children Act of 1989:
“Central to this was the idea that children’s wishes and feelings must be taken into account when making decisions that affect them. Traditionally, parents were seen to have rights over their children, but the Act reversed this stating that children had free standing right.”
I have been looking online for a speech by someone at a political conference who said children were roaming the corridors ‘drunk with power’; very oddly, neither Google nor Bing has helped me find it.
But I can give an example of what happens as a result of this empowerment. A friend went from the disciplinarian school where I used to work, to another in the south-east where the management instructed the staff, as a standing order, not to confront students. During a surprise visit by Ofsted the inspectors saw the children running in from breaktime yelling and with fists raised, expecting teachers simply to let them past without comment. The management was ordered to a meeting and fired that day, and the school closed.
The adults need to be in charge.
This is where Katharine Birbalsingh comes in. In 2010 she addressed the Conservative Party conference on how a culture of excuses, of low aspirations and expectations has failed economically poor children, and how the Left’s well-meaning condescension has kept them down; her realisation led her to the ‘shame’ of voting Conservative for the first time in her life.
She was sacked for blowing this whistle.
But she fought back, setting up a ‘free school’ - the Michaela Community School - in a disadvantaged and multicultural part of London. This school is based on a culture of rigid discipline and no excuses.
‘Right-winger’ (i.e. a moderate conservative as perceived by middle-class ‘revolutionaires’) Peter Hitchens fears that ‘progressives’ will seek to bring her down, rather than let her demonstrate that decades of fashionable soft-handed nonsense in education has failed. I do so hope he’s wrong.
Would it not be ironic to see the lower classes benefit from so-called ‘right-wing’ interventions when the Left’s policies have so clearly worked against their interests? If that seems an unfair characterisation, remember Anthony Crosland’s infamous statement when (Labour) Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1965:
“If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every f*cking grammar school in England. And Wales, and Northern Ireland.”