Cultivating high achievers: Mossbourne Academy’s academic ethos has helped it rank in the top 1 per cent of schools nationwide at GCSE
"However specious in theory the project might be of giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness."
Davies Giddy MP, 1807
"The academic, subject-based curriculum is a middle-class creation . . . whose effect, if not intention, has been to make it difficult for many children not from a middle-class background to adjust to a highly academic school culture."
Professor John White, 2007
Although two centuries and the political spectrum divide these two quotations, they are united in an important sense: both deny the ability of poor children to benefit from an academic education. The first quotation comes from a Tory MP speaking against the 1807 Parochial Schools bill. The second comes from a man at the heart of today's education establishment, an emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London. His is a different sort of bigotry, one that comes with the gentle inflection of liberal sympathy, but is no less socially damaging. "The soft bigotry of low expectations" is a phrase many, including the Education Secretary Michael Gove, have used to describe such thinking.
In February, Gove gave a speech to the Social Market Foundation which will be remembered as one of the definitive accounts of his mission. Introducing a new, more academic National Curriculum, Gove confronted the idea that such schooling is not suitable for all pupils. He described a pair of exceptional London state schools, and said such schools demonstrated that "children from every background are as capable of success — as able to grasp for the glittering prizes — as children from the wealthiest backgrounds, if they are given access to the sort of education which the rich have always felt they should enjoy by right."
The idea that all pupils should receive an academic education may sound like an incontrovertible platitude. In fact, it is a declaration of war on the received wisdom of state education. To understand the significance of this war, one has to know something of the intellectual history of British schooling. "The soft bigotry of low expectations" has its origins in what can be seen as a "sociological" view of education. In 1970, the radical sociologist Basil Bernstein wrote an essay for the now defunct magazine New Society entitled "Education cannot compensate for society". He argued that social and economic factors have such an overwhelmingly strong effect on children's upbringing that schools are powerless to overcome their socially predetermined chance of success. The title of his essay became something of an adage in schools; one professor at the Institute of Education observed, "We are all, in some respects, Bernsteinians now."
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