The UK coalition government has recently proposed two specific changes to education. The first is the formal testing of all children at the age of five; the second is the proposal that all 11 year-old pupils be ranked academically against their peers. Both proposals have invited hostility, with opponents suggesting that such policies work to undermine the confidence of less able pupils and place too much emphasis on test taking. Nevertheless, the argument is that in order to ‘raise the bar’ educators should be made aware of those children who perhaps need help towards reaching (and hopefully exceeding) minimum standards in core academic abilities and those children who need stretching and challenging in order to fulfil their true potential.
All of this does make a certain amount of sense, unless, of course, rankings are used in order to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ in a manner reminiscent of the old 11 plus days, where children were tested at the age of 11 (the final year of primary education) in order to stream them through the academically demanding Grammar School system or scupper their chances of an academic future by filtering them into the local Secondary Moderns. Ability at 11 would dictate the future career trajectory of both groups, streaming the Grammar School pupils towards university and the others towards less intellectually demanding, manual labour or trades.
While evidence supporting the Grammar School system has been marred by controversy (something proponents of the system seem to overlook), many areas of the United Kingdom chose to retain the bi-partite structure. Although I wasn’t a child of the Grammar School generation, I was unfortunate enough to be living in an area of the country where the Grammar School system had been retained so, at the age of 11, I was required to sit an exam that would have a major impact (at least for a short time) on how I was viewed academically. This was the early 1980’s, before the era of the Tiger Mother, personal tutor and the countless publications on the shelves of WH Smith promising to help your child pass everything from the 11 plus to the Oxford entrance exam.
Needless to say, I failed. I was a ‘failure’.
What sticks in my mind is that during the last few weeks of my primary education the atmosphere at the school changed. Both my best friends were offered places at the Grammar School and had joined with other ‘successful’ children to form a clique based on their perceived intellectual superiority. Us ‘failures’ almost seemed to conform to societal expectations and took to swearing at and picking fights with the ‘Grammar School puffs’. Looking back, this change must have been swift when taking into the account the time between finding out which school we were going to and the end of the summer term.
Many years later I would be reminded of this brief period of social unrest (there is no other word for it) while reading about the simple, yet highly effective field experiment conducted in the 1960’s by an American elementary school teacher named Jane Elliott. Elliott divided her class into those children with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. She then went on to inform the children that those with blue eyes were superior to their brown-eyed classmates and had the blue-eyed children wrap brown cloth collars around their ‘inferior’ classmates neck so that they were easily identifiable. The two groups of children were prevented from playing with each other, eating together or even drinking from the same water fountain. The change in the children’s behaviour was startlingly rapid. The brown-eyed children became withdrawn and sometimes aggressive towards the blue-eyes, while the blue-eyes would tease and bully children who had, only a few hours earlier, been the best of friends. The following day the tables were turned; Elliott told the class that she had made a mistake and it was, in fact, the brown-eyes who were superior. Rather than learn from their own experiences, the brown-eyes chose to exact their revenge on the blue-eyes and the cycle began again.
When children are labelled, they have a tendency to fall head first into everything that label represents.
Although Elliott’s pseudo-experiment took place against a backdrop of racial segregation, it still informs us about the power of stereotypes and how easily we can be coerced into turning our friends into our enemies. I recall that it was one particular boy at my primary school who suggested that all the Grammar School pupils should sit together, eat together and play together because they were in some way superior to the rest of us. The system had made us feel like failures, even though I doubt this was ever the systems intention. In the end it worked out well and my two years at the Secondary Modern were perhaps the happiest of my entire time at school – I also learned more there than I would at either of the state comprehensive schools that were to follow.
Do children fail because they feel like failures?
Do they fail because society has branded them as failures?
Do the labels we apply to children assist in the formation of the child’s perception of themselves as learners (so-called academic self concept)?
Statistically middle-class white children do better academically than their working-class counterparts, even when the working-class children are deemed to be more academically able. Of course this is a rather crude judgement that ignores the multitude of individual differences between and within groups. Certain groups appear more prone to underachievement than others, so girls tend to do better than boys in most subject areas. Nevertheless, girls’ levels of achievement aren’t uniform – they rise and fall. Furthermore, middle-class girls do better than working-class girls, especially in English. In fact, despite the anxiety over male underachievement, social class appears to play a much greater role in academic underachievement than gender. The problem we then face as educators is whether these patterns of underachievement are to do with the learners themselves or the attitudes of a middle-class profession to what is perceived as realistic in the education of working-class children.
Do we, as educators, view working-class children as less able, not because of their intellect, but because of their background?
If we can confidently place our hand on our heart and say that we treat ALL children the same, then that’s great. If we can’t then we don’t deserve the honour of being teachers because we are the problem and not the solution.
Being aware of the destructive labels we use is part of a greater solution, along with the cultivation of a growth mindset in ourselves before we attempt to encourage it in others. The Grammar School system sold us a fixed-mindset, the belief that academic ability is in some way tied to a simplistic view of innate intelligence. In the process, the Grammar School system promoted and sustained class inequality.
The current system still does this to a point – but it is often schools that sustain it.