Review by Penny Rabiger

Associate, Centre for Race, Education and Decoloniality, Leeds Beckett University

10 Jun 2023, 5:00

Blog

The Conversation – with Penny Rabiger

The half term break is over, and as teachers head into the final shimmy to the end of the school year with hope for sunshine and rest, there’s been little in this week’s conversation to suggest our children’s longer-term prospects are anything like sunny.

The fairytale of meritocracy

The eternal question about the link between education and outcomes in later life has yielded some interesting thoughts, opinions and research findings lately. Dr Faiza Shaheen’s new book entitled Know Your Place uses examples, statistics and her own experiences to take a look at how society is built, the people it leaves behind, and how we might change things for the better.

In it, she says that social mobility is a ‘fairytale’, analysing factors including race, class, education, housing and income to reveal how Britain has become less mobile over generations. So much for meritocracy and education being the great leveller.

The fantasy of aspiration

As if timed to back up Dr Shaheen’s argument, The Higher Education  Policy Institute published new research last week on educational outcomes for students formerly eligible for Free School Meals (FSM). HEPI finds that in a higher education context, the picture regarding inequalities of outcome for FSM-eligible students is worryingly similar to that seen at prior levels of education.

The research shows that these students are less likely to progress from year to year or complete their qualification compared with their more affluent peers. Nor are they as likely to gain a ‘good’ honours or get into a graduate-level job or further study soon after they graduate. Most worrying, and echoing Dr Shaheen’s findings, there is no evidence to suggest that the situation is improving.

The myth of choice

Some proposed solutions to addressing this are found in an article on closing the so-called poverty attainment gap through addressing social divisions which see certain pupils clustered in schools with others like them along class lines.

One of the suggestions is that the variety of types of state schools is one of the driving forces of social segregation. Grammar schools supposedly select pupils by ability but this is clearly closely tied to socio-economic background. Faith schools select by religion, which is linked to ethnicity. Special, free, foundation, specialist, and community schools, as well as academies and university technical colleges can each end up with somewhat different pupil intakes, so driving segregation.

We can also see in the way that languages and creative arts are losing favour with GCSE and A-Level students in state schools that this marketisation of schools and subsequent narrowing of subjects on offer is driving students to more vocational pathways such as computing and business studies.

The nightmare of wellbeing

We know that child abuse, mental ill-health and general poor wellbeing of children is on the rise to epidemic proportions. So it was disappointing to learn of the government’s refusal to accept the recommendations made by the Child Sexual Abuse inquiry, which means that children will not get adequate abuse protection.

Most worryingly, the home secretary, Suella Braverman has defended the government’s rejection of a recommendation to ban the use of ‘pain compliance techniques’ on children, saying that officials could be ‘trained in the safe use’ of such tactics in custody. Carceral behaviour techniques and police in schools, rising exclusion and suspension rates, and issues like the adultification of Black children are all adding to the chances of children being left unprotected or put into dangerous situations, as they fall through the cracks of our overstretched schools, failing care system, NHS and adolescent mental health services.

For a glimmer of hope of a more child-centred approach this week, I had to look to Ireland. There, the Minister of Education announced a €5 million pilot scheme that will offer free counselling to children in all primary schools across seven counties. A second strand of this work will involve a cluster of schools coming together to focus on building capacity within schools more widely to support mental health and wellbeing. I live in hope that a Westminster government will eventually see sense.

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