So, 9% of boys leave primary school with a reading age of 7 or less – a whole 4 years at least behind where they “should” be. This is slightly worse than last year, but in fact this is really further evidence of a kind of plateau that’s now been reached. Sometimes a single fact seems to have the capacity to encapsulate a whole landscape of political and philosophical terrain. I think this is a case in point. Of course much will be made of the gender issues arising from this figure, but I’m not sure that’s the most significant aspect. We’ve known for ages that boys develop in lots of ways more slowly than girls, and early years academic attainment is perhaps the key marker. Anyway, I’m not going to speculate further on the gender lessons, if any, to be gleaned from this, but rather to explore a much broader, and I believe more fundamental, set of attitudes and responses to this simple fact. In other words, what do we think it means, about schools, about learning, about politics?
Prepare for some blunt speaking. I suspect that the majority of the public, on hearing about this 10%, conclude that it’s due to the simple fact that 10% of boys (and children generally) are substantially thicker than the rest. Most people believe that there is a thing called intelligence, and that some have got a lot more of it than others, and further that some simply don’t have enough. You won’t find many politicians who’d express it that way, but equally you don’t hear very many doing anything to disabuse the general public of this notion. On the other hand, from Carol Vorderman in particular and the vast majority of the media in general, with loads of articles about Mensa, little geniuses trotting off to Oxford at the age of 8 to study mathematics, the damning of comprehensive education as being a means to hold clever children back, all these dominant ideas feed this public perception. Some kids are very clever. And some are very thick. Politicians are happy to collude with it. All of them.
What differentiates the politicians are their attitudes to three “downstream” questions, which all accept the reality, and the inevitability, of a thing called intelligence, and that we each have our allotted place on the spectrum from thick to clever. The first question is, “What determines our place on the spectrum?” Here we have two broad answers: biology (genes and all that) or society (economics, class, schooling, parenting, and all that). The second question only applies to those who answered the first one with the latter choice. Biological determinists don’t need to worry about what can be done about it as it’s clear that nothing can be short of some kind of eugenics, and that thankfully is a rare political position, at least in public. But for the social determinists, the second question is, “What can be done about the thick ones?” Here again, two broad answers emerge. First are those that believe the causes must be addressed, whether they be economic, or parental deficit, or whatever, and that once the causes have done their work it’s a bit too late. Second are those that think that somehow the results can be mitigated even if the causes aren’t addressed. And the third question only applies, once again, to those with the latter answer to the second question. This third option goes something like, “What might mitigate the results most effectively – institutions or individuals?”
I realise that this is, well, a bit schematic, and of course it’s a simplification, but this simple series of questions does seem to be able to identify the main political positions on education that we observe. Think of it as a sort of taxonomic key such as you might find in a wild-flower identification hand book. The results are as follows:
Question 1: a) Biological determinists. Some people are genetically unfortunate, and hopefully they’ll die out. Don’t waste your time or money worrying about it. Extreme right-wingers, basically fascists.
Question 1: b) Social determinists leads to question 2: a) Radicals of left or right that want to address causes, and don’t think that much can be done about results. The radical right believe that a hands-off approach to causes will result in self-correction via the market, whilst the radical left want causes to be attacked directly by re-distribution, spending on anti-poverty programmes, and the like.
Question 2: b) Interveners not in causes, but in results leads to question 3: a) That institutions are the key. The “soft” left, basically the Labour Party, that want to spend more on schools, set them lots of targets, control their every move so as to justify the money spent. Which leaves question 3: b) the equally “soft” right which seems to believe that all we need are a few inspirational individuals that will transform the opportunities of their charges by simple dint of will, determination and flair. Please welcome Michael Gove, who said almost exactly this on Radio 4’s Today programme this very morning. And there you have it. Simples, eh?
Except that I don’t myself accept the premise that all of this is built on. I don’t believe in the thing called intelligence. Or at least, I don’t believe that if it exists, it is the be-all and end-all of human development and capacity. I’m in a minority, I know. But I’m used to that.