Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pure class

Yesterday in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee wrote,
The right spits venom at talk of class, except to sneer at middle-class leftists, but avoids hard facts: a working-class child is 15 times less likely to move upwards than a middle-class child is to stay put. This is no classless society, but a society whose politics conspire to deny it.
Right on cue,
Cambridge today will condemn attempts to force elite universities to recruit more pupils from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds.

In a robust attack on government “meddling”, Alison Richard, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, will say that universities are not “engines for promoting social justice”.
If they are not to embrace social justice, does that mean they prefer social injustice, or are they just indifferent to the fate of their country? I have no doubt that elite universities recruit some highly able students, but they also have the Hooray Henries for whom the social ambience is more important than academic achievement. Even if we started punting on the Humber, they wouldn't come to Hull. Educational inequality and achievement are not the only issues that matter to widening participation, this culture also excludes; the casual acceptance of privilege does not come naturally to those who have none.

Of course, the fact that elite universities recruit disproportionate numbers of students from public schools is purely down to the fact that there are public schools for them to recruit from. Though 'top' universities remain bastions of privilege, they are at the apex of a system of inequality, and in some ways I have a little sympathy with their resentment at the tokenism implicit in the actions of a government that is so unwilling to even talk about equality, let alone develop an egalitarian model of political economy. It is hard to see that getting a few more middle class kids from state schools into Oxbridge is going to change the world. However, any sympathy dissolves when I see their resistance to self-examination and determination to hide behind a myth of meritocracy, a pretence at classlessness and a belief that education is somehow socially neutral.

My work over the last twenty-five years has brought me into contact with many of those who had been initially excluded; fantastically talented, hard working, wonderful students. Good people all and some are still good friends. By holding fast to their elitist values, Universities are excluding the best for the sake of the mediocre. They don't know what they are missing. Mind you, some of the students I have known would shake them up a bit. And boy do they need it.


Will said...

yes -- I like Polly Toynbee -- I like her because it pisses off bloggertarians. And shit like that.

M said...

Polly Toynbee writes shite, that's what she gets paid to do, it pays for her big London house and her foreign villa etc...

As for creating equality in education, it's always been easier to try and lower the bar than it has to get more people to jump higher.

Meddling with university admissions to deliver social engineering policies (or whatever the approrpriate terms are for such crude Cultural Marxist influenced policies) is not actually going to create equality. The barriers to educational equality are class based, but they are cultural rather than a case of one class oppressng another.

As someone who grew up in a working class St Helens household I will be forever grateful that my parents saw eduaction as a huge priority for their children. What holds some kids back now (what held some of my contemporaries back) is the lack of importance their parents place on education; if they don't value education enough then they don't value their kids education enough, and it becomes cultural, whereby whole groups of people undervalue education.

The problem is how do you make parents from lower socio-economic groups value education highly enough? Once it's decided that it can't be done it becomes a question of how to shift the burden of those who don't on to those who do, and ultimately how to lower the bar.

The Plump said...

Polly Toynbee writes shite

Yep, Will is right, it clearly does :-)

A response to the more substantive issues raised in mjw's comment is going into a separate post.