Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Special School

Far too much hedging of bets here (well, it is The Guardian). The sheer corporate grossness of the city academies - the fact that essentially, the state pays a business, occasionally with self-righteous sally army tendencies, to use a school as a mode of advertising - shouldn't obscure a more difficult question. The rhetoric of choice has been attacked as a neoliberal alibi, which it is. But where it works is by hijacking a particular leftish critique of the huge statist bureaucracy etc, proposing 'choice' and 'diversity' as against the sausage factory we all know and love. I spent a depressing half hour arguing with an old school friend recently, who is now 'Director of Learning' in a West London Academy. He'd benefitted, like me, from a 'bog standard' (as New Labour like to put it) comprehensive, a glassy 60s thing designed by one L. Berger, the city architect.

Due to Southampton's dearth of Secondary schools it had a huge cross-section of people: Punjabi kids from St Marys, unterkinder from the local Flower Estate (like myself) and loads of middle-class folk with leftish parents. Meeting, and befriending the latter changed my life (not to put too fine a point on it). And here was one of them, justifying a system that would have ensured that I would never have met him, on the grounds that it would have been good for me. 'You can't have some robotic system where everyone in the country does the same lessons at the same time.' That's the choice: special schools for the edification of the business ego, or a system of educational Fordism.

The tragedy is that the left has no outlet to construct anything different. In the 30s, in the grip of an equally grim antisocial consensus, there were little incursions, social condensers and Peckham Experiments that suggested that there were other choices, alternatives. Now that the 'new ideas' and the fancy architecture are on the other side (no matter how botched the city academies have been in practice, as per the overwhelming evidence), how can we fight back without hearing the cry of 'reactionary!' from those dragging us back to the 19th century?


Blogger dave said...

Perhaps what's needed is a reclamation of the architecture of sociality, relying on a social setting for learning rather than an architectural one.
Which begs the question, psychogeographically: what's the nature of human interaction with/in space? Is culture reliant entirely upon the nature of space? By which means can we reclaim the social sphere without relying on the architecture provided by either Capital or State?

Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

9:36 pm  
Blogger Dominic said...

City Academies (along with the entire mechanism of "choice" in education) provide the social segregation function of grammar schools without an "academic" selection mechanism to inject a bit of artificial class mobility - really the worst of all possible worlds.

One interesting thing about the 11+ system is that it did occasionally reject the children of middle class parents; I'm convinced that a lot of the rather hysterical Grauniad language about "branding children as failures" refers back to the trauma of this demotion, the intense fear of middle class parents that their own children might lose out.

Personally I'd have a diverse system (various specialisations, of both curriculum and pedagogical approach) but control selection entirely by lottery - you'd have to make the best of whatever you were allocated...

12:06 pm  
Blogger Dominic said...

Maybe allow for optional transfers where you'd be able to swap anonymously with someone else who wanted to be where you were. Again, controlled by lottery in the case that more people wanted to transfer to a particular school than wanted to transfer out of it.

12:10 pm  
Blogger Dominic said...

Oh, I'd also do Oxbridge selection by lottery (over a certain threshold of A-level grades, say). I also quite like the idea that every state school gets a fixed number of Oxbridge places to hand out (relative to its total number of sixth-form pupils). The reasoning is that this would result in middle class parents trying to game the system to get their children into schools with *worse* overall academic results (and hence fewer Oxbridge candidates vying for the available places)...

12:36 pm  
Blogger Dominic said...

I like especially the idea that every Oxbridge student would then be forced to acknowledge the role of blind luck in their being admitted; this would hopefully remove the anxiety that many of them seem to have that they were somehow admitted by mistake (and the unimpeachable sense of entitlement held by the rest). It would also remove the usual grounds for complaint when some brilliant student or other failed to get in - no more "sneering don" stories...

12:43 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

Couple of things -
It's interesting that the pupils for this 'capitalist boot camp' are precisely those children excluded from the lifestyle that it venerates, and it will be interesting to see what develops. What form of hatred will academies be subjected to from those who passed through them?

It's probably naive, but are business & religion the only investors in academies? Will there be art academies, for example? Would Tate or Guggenheim invest in such things? Would this be as horrific a situation?

Oh, and (adopts Zizek voice) is not being called 'reactionary' by someone (sniff) dragging you back to the 19th century not the perfect example of what is (sniff) state of left today, paradoxical condition known as 'hauntology'?

p.s - Foster 'too gray': priceless...

1:03 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Thanks for the suggestions...the lottery thing is a nice idea, perhaps mainly out of schadenfreude if nothing else (as when it happened in Brighton) I am tempted though by the 'a comprehensive should be comprehensive line, partly for reasons not dissimilar to the dreaded Grauniad arguments: ie, that someone 12 years of age is not in a fit position to decide in what way to specialise themselves. Christ, if I had done at that age I would have ended up working in science, now an area of which I know virtually naught...

I look forward to the academy resentment of future generations. In answer to your query: well, short of the Daily Mail I don't know, but the Tate school must happen eventually.

1:01 pm  
Blogger Dominic said...

Part of the point of the lottery/transfer system is that individual pupils aren't responsible for choosing a specialization; they're assigned one, and the option to transfer to another is conditional on others wanting to make a transfer in the opposite direction (so it's in everybody's interests for there to be a real parity between the different options).

My underlying assumption is that a degree of institutional specialization is a good thing, but this isn't because individual pupils are supposed to have specialized needs (they might very well have, but individual specialization is not the same as institutional specialization - what tends to mediate between the two, in traditional complaints about a "one size fits all" system, is a crypto-racist caste theory). The point is rather that there are all sorts of significant pedagogical issues on which it is impossible to have it both ways, and both ways should be tried. (Should a school be small, large, or medium-sized? Should it divide pupils into sets for certain subjects, or should every classroom always contain a mix of ability levels? Is it possible to ensure a mix of ability levels if pupils are allowed to choose whether or not to study certain subjects, or will self-selecting groups emerge as a result of less able students opting out of classes they find difficult? What subjects should be compulsory, and to what level?). I suspect that there are several distinct families of "correct" answers to these questions.

11:03 pm  
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