The Education Spectrum

First published January 2012

What is often most noticeable about education debate is the extent to which people, who are apparently addressing the same issue, talk past each other without even comprehending the opposing view. I think that this is because there are two different debates going on simultaneously. It suits people to focus only on a debate where they feel they have a strong argument and ignore the debate where they have a weaker argument. I hope that what follows might help clarify what is actually disputed in a lot of discussion about education.

The first of the two debates is about the content of the curriculum. Opinions differ on the extent to which there is a recognised body of knowledge to be passed on to the next generation. Traditionalists believe that there is a body of knowledge (which we can call a tradition) composed of the best that has been thought and known. Accordingly, traditionalists will tend to describe the aims of education in terms of the academic above everything else. They will advocate: the employment of teachers with expertise in academic disciplines; the use of clearly identified subject areas, and methods of teaching, organisation and discipline that allow for teachers to directly pass on their expertise. Radicals will reject the existence of any particular tradition to be passed on, and will instead suggest that skills and dispositions are more important than knowledge and that learning is to be based on the interests or needs of the individual child, or the requirements of a future which is unlike the present where people will value different knowledge and skills to those which are valued now. They will doubt that present forms of organisation in schools are appropriate, particularly the role of knowledge and the position of discrete subjects in the curriculum, and the position of teachers and adults as authorities over children. They will favour teaching methods which avoid the need for teacher authority or subject expertise, seeking to maximise the amount of activity and autonomy on the part of children, and to allow for the acquisition of qualities other than the academic. This debate between traditionalists and radicals is reflected most clearly in the discussion of “standards” and behaviour, which breaks out on a fairly regular basis in the media.

The second debate is about entitlement to the curriculum. Opinions differ about who should be able to get particular types of education. Elitists believe that the full benefits of education can only be gained or appreciated by a minority. Educational institutions will be expected to differ in their aspirations, and those schools with the strongest academic aspirations will be expected to find students who are suited to academic achievement and the system will be judged to a very large extent on its provision for those most able students. Egalitarians will want all schools to provide the curriculum to all types of children. The benefits of education are for all and attempts to discriminate between children will be viewed with suspicion, as will attempts to create a hierarchy of schools. The traditional faultline in this debate is, in England, over selection at 11: the division of academic children into grammar schools and other children into secondary moderns which was the norm for two decades from the mid-1940s and still exists in some parts of the country. Similar arguments are also had about the place of private schools.

Now, obviously, in sketching out these two debates I have tended to simplify or exaggerate positions. Few people are complete traditionalists; almost everyone accepts that the curriculum can change to accept new disciplines and contemporary concerns. Few people are complete radicals; everyone identifies some knowledge that is useful to all, even if it’s just the ability to read and write. Most elitism is moderate enough to accept some form of academic provision for the masses, and often to accept routes into the elite by those who missed them the first time. Most egalitarianism stops at some age, usually 16, and I have never met anyone who advocated that everybody should study for PhDs. We are talking about two spectrums of opinion as opposed to two divisions into binary categories.

The important thing here is that we understand that these are two separate debates even though both are often considered to be debates between political left and right. Traditionalists and elitists hold what are often recognised as “right-wing” positions. Radicals and egalitarians are typically described as “left-wing” positions. However, traditionalism and elitism are not the same position at all, nor are radicalism and egalitarianism. A lot of reason for the poor quality of much education debate is due to attempts to conflate this into a single spectrum, where the two alternatives are the “right-right” position of combined elitism and traditionalism and the “left-left” position of egalitarianism and radicalism.

This can be seen more clearly if we put our two spectrums of debate on a pair of axes.

 Most of the volume in the education debate comes from the “progressive” top-left quadrant of the diagram (where we’d find the likes of Melissa Benn , Fiona Miller and Lord Hattersley) and the “conservative”  bottom right quadrant (where we’d find the likes of Melanie Phillips, Chris Woodhead and Lord Tebbit). It suits people who hold these two positions to act as if they are the only positions available and so most media debate seems to take place on the red-arrow above. Both camps know that there are limits to which they can gain public support for their positions. Grammar schools, if reintroduced, would not be popular with the vast majority of parents whose kids would not go to them. Trendy teaching methods are held with contempt by parents who actually want their kids to achieve academically. It is far easier, therefore, for educational conservatives to focus on standards and the educational progressives to focus on structures when having the debate anywhere the public can hear. It is in both their interests to maintain the debate along the red line, and to pretend that everyone is arguing from a position on that line. It suits both camps to pretend that everyone is either a left-wing supporter of child-centred education or a right-wing supporter of selection and no other position is possible.

Astute politicians have discovered the benefits of arguing for rigorous academic standards and comprehensive schooling (or at least no increase in selection), which places them somewhere low in the top right quadrant. This is the territory that Tony Blair and David Blunkett staked out in the mid-to-late-nineties. It is probably where the current government is, although one cannot be certain as it is unclear where the push for academies and free schools is meant to lead and the Tory backbenches seem keener on grammar schools than the coalition front benches. It is key political territory, because it is what most parents want for their children. They want their children to be entitled to a good academic education, without having to fight for a place among a privileged minority. It is also the territory with the strongest arguments in its favour, as it combines both a call for justice and a resistance to educational fads. It is opposition to both dumbing-down and to writing off a large section of the population.

The problem Labour has been having in recent years is an attraction to the left side of the diagram. When Ed Balls was in charge of the DCSF Labour was tending towards the “progressive” position, throwing out standards and subject knowledge in favour of groupwork, project work and the non-academic aims of Every Child Matters. More recently, claims that the EBacc is not an appropriate target for the majority combined with an emphasis on vocational education has made it look like Labour stands for the bottom left position, where academic aspirations are denigrated, but the alternative given is a vocational option that actually seems focussed on the least able. This is the worst possible position, because it is a middle class vision of what working class families should want, which ignores the concerns of middle class voters while nevertheless patronising working class voters. The party needs to recognise that parents from all backgrounds have aspirations for their children, and that this requires a whole-hearted advocacy of academic standards for all. It is simply not good enough to go into elections promising great opportunities for “other people’s children”. Labour needs a vision of aspiration in education that will mean something to all voters and the most important test of this will be a willingness for Labour politicians to argue that the things they want for their own children, are the things they want for everybody’s children.

oldandrew is a teacher and long-time Labour activist. He blogs about education at:

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