'Social inclusion' is no substitute for education, says Claire Fox
School may have been out for summer, but there has been no shortage of debates about education. And in the flare-ups over grammar schools, punishing poor teaching and testing ever-younger pupils, Tony Blair and David Blunkett have come to sound like the guardians of high standards and academic excellence.
When one teachers' union called exams a form of child abuse, the riposte by the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), that pupils need to be objectively judged, felt like a breath of fresh air. And Blunkett has my sympathy when he accuses some of his critics of patronising hypocrisy: 'They believe it's right to read a bedtime story to their own child but think homework for other children is damaging.'
But does the government's rhetoric about the need to 'put a century of mediocrity behind us' mean that those concerned about low standards in education should rush down to Walworth Road and sign on for the mission? Unfortunately not.
However many league tables or literacy hours the government introduces, its overriding attitude towards education is based on the lowest possible expectations about what schoolchildren can achieve. These low horizons are summed up in the notion that education should be, above all, about 'social inclusion'.
Social inclusion is one of those New Labour buzz terms that crops up in the plethora of DfEE press releases and green papers. In a recent speech to the Confederation of British Industry, Blunkett launched 'a drive for inclusion' as a top priority. Originally, inclusion policies referred to involving those apparently marginalised by mainstream education - for example, disabled pupils. The term has now become much more broadly defined, to encompass all those who simply do not do well in the education system.
There is rarely a government initiative that doesn't have an 'educational' angle. Youth unemployment - get them back to college; over-40s unemployment - get them into lifelong learning; young single mothers - get them to do their GCSEs; voter apathy - make citizenship education compulsory; poverty trap - the answer lies in getting more qualifications; community fragmentation - use education to improve self-esteem.
The equation 'education = social inclusion' has a progressive enough ring to it. But if the principal goal of education is to 'include' people, the content of that education and the standards it sets cannot fail to suffer. The passion of government officials and teachers is not reserved for the quality of ideas assimilated in schools, but for how many pupils are socially included by gaining the latest spurious qualification. So when Blunkett states boldly that 'instead of patronising the children of families in challenging circumstances we will remove, one-by-one, the barriers that prevent them from achieving their potential', he is not talking, as radicals did in the past, about removing the social barriers denying people access to knowledge and ideas. He is talking about removing the educational 'barriers' which make judgements about ability and attainment.
Take the issue of qualifications. In socially inclusive Britain everybody must 'ave 'em. Rather than this leading to a debate about how best to teach the depth and rigour that this might require, New Labour simply changes the qualification regime to make sure everybody is included. Let's create GNVQs which you cannot fail, and give GNVQs to all the pupils who are 'excluded' from passing GCSEs and A-levels - because they are not educated well enough to pass. Then proclaim that these are equivalent to GCSEs and A-levels.
Or you could change the A-levels, so that more people are 'included' by passing. In September last year, when Baroness Blackstone announced her changes to A-levels, she claimed that traditional A-levels are too narrow and elitist, because they keep too many people out of university and particularly disadvantage people from working-class backgrounds. Obviously New Labour does not think that working-class pupils are up to passing A-levels without its help. The meritocratic impulse behind the objective assessment of knowledge is being replaced with government favours and patronage: which is now set to continue into higher education. In March the government announced that it will pay universities extra for each student recruited from lower socioeconomic groups (designated as such according to home postcodes). Forget educating the working class - bung the universities a few quid and ask them to take the socially excluded, regardless of educational achievement.
The notion that education should be about social inclusion has even crept into the curriculum, where the teaching of academic subjects is being crowded out by the teaching of social skills and right attitudes. The introduction of 'citizenship education' as a compulsory subject, for example, aims to deal with the increasingly low turnout at elections and young people's cynicism about politics. This undoubted democratic deficit is too large an issue to be filled up by lessons in democracy - and far too heavy a burden to place on schools. It is certainly not education. But if voter apathy equals social exclusion in New Labour-speak, social inclusion should be taught, indeed examined (what would happen if you failed your citizenship GCSE?). And no area of the curriculum will be unaffected. Citizenship lessons and cross-curriculum integration of citizenship will be an OFSTED-inspected core area from September.
When education is treated as a panacea for social ills, it is little wonder that teachers are demoralised. They are now expected to do what no politician has succeeded in doing: to inspire young people with the prospect of the polling station. More broadly, teachers are being encouraged to forget that they are in the knowledge business, and to act instead as social includers, a new branch of social workers. Consequently, many have lost their nerve in the battle for ideas. Scared of failing people, and being held responsible for social exclusion, teachers constantly cave in to their new role.
The sickly 'Teacher Oscars' ceremony held over the summer, allegedly to boost morale, was marked by a lack of teachers nominated for the depth of their subject knowledge, their scholarship or their ability to stretch pupils with intellectual rigour and pedagogy. Instead the speeches tended to concentrate on those who left nobody out, who cared most, and who made their pupils feel good about themselves. This is a hollow task. Rewarding pupils for being themselves rather than for what they achieve is not education - but it is the task of the socially inclusive teacher. And then the government starts soul-searching about why the brightest minds are avoiding the teaching profession...
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999