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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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Malcolm McLean
April 7th, 2013
8:04 PM
The main finding of decades of educational research is that a school's results are affected by its intake. Individual heads can achieve great things with failing schools. However their techniques are too dependent on personality,and they're not easy to replicate. Just naively ramping up discipline by fussing a lot about uniform, for example, often won't achieve the desired objective. But whilst the answer isn't as easy as the article suggests, the diagnosis strikes me as right. There are too many excuses, too many easy options, too much writing off of high standards as impossible.

April 5th, 2013
8:04 AM
The 440 schools that have higher than average A*-C for FSM are quite clearly NOT the example of "taught well in a good school" that you are looking for. We have one of them as our local school, and I can say that it is the most cynical exponent of throwing all effort at the C/D border that you could possibly ever see. They also have an exceptionally low rate of higher ability pupils making expected progress. It can be very misleading to look at one measure without having the full picture.

April 3rd, 2013
12:04 AM
Deptford Green School has had £32M spent upon it yet is in special measures.

March 28th, 2013
8:03 PM
There are also terrible schools in wonderful buildings.

March 28th, 2013
6:03 PM
Same old anecdotal tittle-tattle without any objective data.

March 27th, 2013
12:03 PM
The Mossbourne example is misleading: the 6th form has it's own entry system, meaning progression from lower school is not automatic: many students come in from outside, many don't make it up from year 11. This renders the college's high achievement at A-Level an inadequate tool with which to interpret strategy at GCSE level, the purpose for which Mr Hunter uses it here. Mossbourne has also had a great deal of advantages not open to other schools in similar positions, most notably a Richard Rogers-designed, £25m building that makes its status as THE go-to exemplar of educational success in deprived areas sit rather uneasily in the face of (amongst other things) the cancellation of the 'Building Schools For The Future' programe, which affected 715 schools. I agree with the author that every effort should be made to overcome poverty as an educational determinant - but I'm just a little fed up of Mossbourne being held up as a utopian paradigm replicable with nothing more than a bit of resolve and elbow grease. I'm not sure Matthew Hunter goes quite that far, to be fair - but he's not a million miles away.

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