The classic method for researching in classrooms is non-participant observation, the method used by OFSTED inspectors. However, there are other methods available to the researcher who wishes to conduct research on actual lessons within schools.
Classrooms are closed environments with very clear rules of behaviour and typically containing around 20-30 students, one teacher and maybe one learning assistant, and lessons usually lasting from 40 minutes to an hour.
The obvious choice of research method for using in a classroom is that of non-participant observation, where the researcher takes on the role of the OFSTED inspector.
The fact that there are so many students in one place, and potentially hundreds of micro-interactions in even just a 40-minute lesson gives the observational researcher plenty to focus on, so classrooms are perhaps some of the most data rich environments within education.
Arguably the most useful way of collecting observational data would be for the researcher to have an idea about what they are looking for in advance – possibly how many times teachers praise which pupils, or how many times disruptive behaviour takes place, and how the teacher responds, rather than trying to watch everything, which would be difficult.
And students will probably be used to OFSTED inspections, or other staff in the school dropping in to observe lessons occasionally, thus it should be relatively easy for a researcher to blend into the background and observe without being too obtrusive.
The fact that classrooms are usually organised in a standardised way (they tend to be similar sizes, with only a few possible variations on desk layouts) also means the researcher has a good basis for reliability – any differences he observes in teacher or student behaviour across classrooms or schools is probably because of the teachers or pupils themselves, not differences in the environments they are in (at least to an extent!).
There are, however, some limitations with researching in classrooms.
Gaining access could be a problem – not all teachers are going to be willing to have a researcher observing them. They may regard their classroom as their environment and think they have little to gain from an outsider observing them – although if a researcher is a teacher themselves, they could maybe offer some useful feedback about teaching strategies applied by teachers.
Teachers will probably act differently when observed – if you think back to OFSTED inspections, teachers usually ‘up their game’ and make sure to be more inclusive and encouraging, this is likely to happen when anyone observes.
Similarly, pupils may behave differently – they may be more reluctant to contribute because of a researcher being present, or disruptive students may act up even more.
Classrooms are very unique, controlled environments, with only two roles (teachers and students) and clear norms. Teachers and students alike will not be themselves in these highly unusual situations.
Finally, researchers wouldn’t be able to dig deeper and ask probing questions when part of a lesson, unless they took on the role of participant observer by becoming an learning assistant, but even then they would be limited to what they could ask if they didn’t want to disrupt the lesson flow.
It’s not all about direct non-participant observation
Researchers might choose a more participatory approach to researching in classrooms, by training to be a learning assistant or even a teacher, and doing much longer term, unstructured observational research with students.
This would enable them to get to really know the students within a lesson, and make it very easy to to ask deeper questions outside of lessons.
The problem with this would be that they would then be part of the educational establishment and students may not wish to open up to them precisely because of that reason.
A further option would be to put up cameras and observe from a distance, but this might come up against some resistance from both teachers and students, and it would be more difficult to ask follow up questions if reviewing the recordings some time after the actual lesson took place.
There are tens of thousands of schools in the United Kingdom, which means that observational research which focuses on just one, or a handful of schools will be unrepresentative. This is also a problem with any of the popular documentary programmes which focus on just one school – they are very interesting as they focus on the stories of the school, and some (but only some) of the pupils and teachers, but they are never going to be representative of all schools!
There are a lot of official statistics available on schools, much of it freely available on the DFES website – information on results, attendance, exclusions are all available, as are the latest OFSTED reports, so using a mixture of secondary qualitative and quantitative data may be a good choice for researchers given that schools are ‘data rich’ institutions.
A researcher could also use official statistics to easily select a sample of schools which represent all the regions in the UK, different OFSTED grades, and/ or different school types.
However, official statistics on education can be misleading – exam results may not reflect the underlying ethos of a school, or show us the difficulties a particular school faces, and schools can manipulate their data to an extent – for example, they can reduce their exclusion statistics by ‘off-rolling pupils’ – getting parents to agree to withdraw them before they exclude them.
Schools are potentially very convenient places to conduct research – because the law requires pupils to attend and teachers/ managers need to attend to keep their jobs, you can be reasonably certain that most people you want to research are going to be in attendance! You have a captive audience!
However, school gatekeepers (i.e. head teachers) may be reluctant to allow researchers into schools: they may see research as disruptive, fearing it may interfere with their duty to educate students.
Schools are also highly organised, ‘busy’ institutions – researchers may find it difficult to find the time to ask questions of pupils and teachers during the day, meaning interviews could be a problem, limiting the researcher to less representative observational research.
The researcher will also need to ensure they blend-in, otherwise they may be seen as an outsider by teachers and students alike, which would not be conducive to getting respondents to open up and provide valid information.
Based on available research evidence I would conclude that schools are not institutionally racist
One sociological explanation for differences in educational achievement by ethnicity is that schools are institutionally racist.
This means that the school system as a whole is racist, or that schools are organised in such a way that children from ethnic minority backgrounds are systematically disadvantaged in education compared to white children.
If schools are institutionally racist then we should find evidence of racism at all levels of school organisation – both in the way that head teachers run schools and the way in which teachers interact with pupils. We might also expect to find evidence of racism in government policies (or lack of them) and regulation.(OFSTED).
What might institutional racism in schools look like?
There are numerous places we might look to investigate whether schools are racist, for example:
The curriculum might be ethnocentric – the way some subjects are taught or the way the school year and holidays are organised may make children from some ethnic backgrounds not feel included.
We could look at school exclusion policies to see if the rules on behaviour and exclusion are biased against the cultural practices of students from particular ethnic backgrounds.
We might look at how effectively schools deal with issues of racism in school – do the victims get effective redress, or is racism just ignored?
We could look at teacher stereotypes and labelling, to see if teachers en-mass have different expectations of different ethnic groups and/ or treat pupils differently based on their ethnicity.
We can look at banding and streaming, to see if students from minority ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the lower sets.
Below I summarise some recent research evidence which may suggest that schools are institutionally racist…
A disproportionate number of GRT and Black Caribbean students are excluded from schools
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children are 5 times more likely to be excluded from school than white children, while Black Caribbean and Mixed White and Black Caribbean students are three times more likely than white children.
I’ve included the temporary exclusion rates below as you can see the difference (you can’t really see the difference with permanent exclusions because the percentages are too small to really show up).
Whether or not these particular ethnic minority students are being excluded because of institutional racism is open to interpretation, and is something that needs to be investigated further. There is certainly qualitative research evidence (see below) that both groups feel discriminated against in the school system.
Schools punish Black Caribbean Pupils for Hair Styles and ‘Kissing Teeth’
Campaign Group ‘No More Exclusions’ argue that schools with strict exclusion policies are unfairly punishing Black Caribbean pupils for having different cultural norms to pupils from other ethnic backgrounds.
They cite evidence of Caribbean girls having been temporarily excluded for having braids in their hair, while other students have been sanctioned for ‘kissing teeth’, a practice mostly associated with Black students.
Such exclusions are mainly being given out by Academies with strict ‘zero tolerance rules on student behaviour, but according to David Gilborn there is a problem of discrimination when black Caribbean students are being disproportionately sanctioned as a result.
In defense of this policy, Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School in London, which enforces very strict rules on behaviour, argues that we should expect the same standards of behaviour from all students, and that Black students know that ‘kissing teeth’ is rude, and so should be punished for it.
Source: The Independent (no date provided, just lots of adverts, but it must be from late 2019 as it links back to a previous article from October 2019. )
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children feel excluded from mainstream education
Professor Kalwant Bhopal has conducted research with GRT children and found that they don’t feel represented in the school curriculum: parents believed that their histories were not adequately represented, and were uncomfortable with sex education being done in school, as this was something usually done within the family in their culture. In short, it sounds as if they are experiencing the mainstream school curriculum as being ethnocentric.
Parents and pupils also claimed that they had experienced racism from both children and teachers within schools, however, when they reported incidents of racism this tended not to be taken seriously as they were white.
Source: Find out more details at this blog post here.
Racist Incidents In Schools Are Mainly Dealt with by Fixed Period Exclusions
According to a recent Guardian article (September 2019), Hate Crimes in schools rose 120% between the years 2015 and 2018. There were 1987 hate crimes recorded by the police in 2018, of which 70% were recorded as being racist. This means that approximately 1500 racist incidents occurred in schools which were deemed serious enough to warrant police involvement.
Schools handed out 4500 fixed term exclusions for racist abuse in 2017/18, but only 13 permanent exclusions.
If the under-reporting rate is similar for children as it is for adults and if most of these racist crimes aren’t ‘very serious’ then it seems that schools are doing a pretty good job at dealing with Racism, even if they are not always involving the police. This certainly seems to be backed up by the case study below…
Case Study 1: How One School Dealt with its problem of racism:
Some pupils do experience racist abuse from other pupils. One example is the case study of eight year old Nai’m, a boy who moved to from Bermuda to Britain with his mother in 2017, who was a victim of at least five racist incidents in a year. (article link from January 2020)/
His mother was contacted by the school when one student, apparently his friend, called him a ‘black midget’. Another pupil told Niam’h that his parents had told him he wasn’t allowed to talk to black or brown people. Niam’h plays football for his local professional club and says a lot of racist name calling occurs on the football field.
Besides Niam’h being a victim staff at the school where this incident happened (The Lawrence Community Trust Primary School) had also overheard racist comments from other students – such as ‘go back to your own country’ being directed at ethnic minority students and discussion about skin colour between students.
The school seems to have taken measures to address this problem with some of the racist attitudes being verbalized by some students by taking the following actions:
they seem to have excluded at least one student
they encouraged Niam’h to give a special assembly on Bermuda
They called in Anthony Walker Charity to deliver a presentation to students on Racism
Conclusion: Are schools ‘institutionally racist’?
The above is only a small selection of evidence, but based on what I’ve found I’ve got to conclude that they are not.
Big data enthusiasts argue that the greater data collection and analysis potential provided by e-learning platforms such as Khan Academy and Udacity provide much more immediate feedback to students about how they learn, and they thus predict a future in which schools and private data companies will work together in a new educational ecosystem…
This is a continuation of my summary of Meyer-Schonberger and Cukier’s in their (2017) ‘Big Data: The Essential Guide to Work, Life and Learning in the Age of Insight.
The advantages of e-learning platforms over traditional education
Khan Academy is well-known for its online videos, but just as important to its success is the software which collects data about how students learn, as well as what they are learning.
To date, Khan Academy has data on over a billion completed exercises, which includes information on not only what videos students watch and what tests scores they achieve, but also on the length and number of times they engage with each aspect of the course, and the time of day they did their work. This enables data analysts to deduce (probabilistically) how students learn most effectively, and to provide feedback as to how they might improve their learning.
The Kahn Academy is just one online learning platform, along with a whole range of MOOCs offered through Udacity, Coursera and edX, as well as SPOOCs (small, private online courses) which are collecting huge volumes of data on student learning. The volume of data is unprecedented in human history, and Cukier suggests that this could change the whole ecosystem of learning, incorporating third parties who do the data analysis and with the role of instructors (‘teachers’) changing providing advice on which learning pathways students should adopt.
At least some of the Khan Academy Data on learning is available to third parties to analyse for free, and information personal to students is presented to them in the form a dashboard, which allows for real-time feedback to take place.
Cukier contrasts the above, emerging ecosystem of online learning, to the present ‘backward’ way in which data is collected and managed in the current education system as backward (he actually uses the term ‘agrarian’ to describe the process) – in which students are subjected to a few SATs tests at predetermined stages, and this score is ‘born by them’ until the next test, which makes labelling by teachers more likely.
In addition to this, the school day and year are run in a 19th century style, pigeon holed into year groups, pre-determined classes, students exposed to the same material, and with digital devices often banned from classes. All of this means data cannot be harnessed and analysed.
Where does this leave existing institutions of learning?
Schools and universities are well poised to harvest huge amounts of data on students, simply because they have 1000s, or 10s of 1000s of students enrolled.
To date, however, these traditional education institutions have shown a very limited ability to collect, let alone analyse and use big data to better inform how students learn.
The coming change will affect universities first – these have mature students, and this audience is more than capable of digesting insights about how to learn more effectively… the big universities where fees are expensive and students don’t get much back in return are poised for disruption by innovators…
Some of the very top universities seem to have got the importance of BIg Data – MIT identified EdX as a crucial part of its forward strategy in 2013 for example, but some of the universities lower down the pecking order may find it difficult to compete.
The response of some forward looking schools is to embrace elearning – recognising the importance of getting and utilising more data on how students learn – Khan Academy is partnered with a number of schools, for example Peninsula Bridge, a summer school for middle schoolers from poor communities in the Bay area. – Cukier cites an example of one girl who managed to improve her maths due to this (again, evidence cited is almost non existent here!)
The chapter concludes with imaging a future in which schools are just part of a broader ecosystem of learning – which includes a much more prominent role for private companies and where data plays a more central role in learning.
There are number of factors which may contribute to schools’ inability to harness big data:
Time limitations – as Frank Furedi argues in ‘Wasted’, the function of schools have expanded so that they are now expected to do more than just educate kids – thus an ever larger proportion of schools’ budgets are taken up with other aspects of child development; combined with meddling by successive governments introducing new policies every few years, schools are caught in the trap of having to devote their resources to adapting to external stimuli rather than being able to innovate.
Financial limitations/ equality issues – correct me if I’m wrong, but any online course tailored to GCSEs or A-levels is going to cost money, and this might be prohibitively expensive!
The negative teacher experience of governance by ‘small data’ – there is a staggering amount of small data already collected and teachers are governed by this – it might actually be this experience of being governed by data that makes teachers reluctant to collect even more data – no one wants to be disempowered!
Child privacy rights – there is the not insignificant issue of letting big ICT education companies have access to our children’s learning data!
Most UK schools have introduced trousers for girls into their uniform codes in the last twenty years, but some continue to ban them and will send home any girl who turns up wearing trousers, at least according to Trousers for All, which campaigns to give girls the option to wear trousers as part of their school uniform.
Trousers for all notes that ‘The ban on trousers for girls covers the entire spectrum of schools: primary, secondary, public and private, faith and non-faith”.
While it might seem like a throwback to the 1970s, or even the 1870s, this really does go on today – take this 2016 Mumsnet discussion as an example:
Despite the above, there does seem to be widespread support (there certainly is on Mumsnet) for schools adopting uniform policies which either stipulate a ‘skirt ban’, so that that both boys and girls must wear trousers only, or that girls at least have a choice over whether they wear trousers or a skirt.
The following arguments have been put forward for allowing girls the freedom to wear trousers:
Firstly, it seems to be a pretty blatant breach of the government’s own 2010 equality act, and while it hasn’t been tested in court yet, it seems unlikely that if a parent mounted a legal challenge against a school banning their female child from wearing trousers, the school would lose – I mean, it’s been a workplace norm for 40 years now after all!
Secondly, forcing girls to wear dresses restricts their sense of freedom (Guardian Opinion Article (2017), and it does seem somewhat hypocritical that schools are expected to inspire in children a sense that ‘they are free to achieve anything they want’, except for wearing trousers in school for the next few years, if you’re a girl.
Thirdly, according to Becky Francis: “The stipulation that boys wear trousers while girls must wear skirts promotes messages that boys are active, while girls should be less active, decorative, and ‘demure’.” (Professor Becky Francis, Director of UCL Institute of Education).
Trousers for All takes this a step further, suggesting that… ‘Schools forcing girls to wear skirts is equivalent to states forcing females to wear a veil and to companies forcing females to wear high heels. All of these are expressions of sexism.’
What do you think: is it right for schools to ban girls from wearing trousers?
Deeper Analysis: will a gender neutral clothing policy end the ‘policing of girls’ bodies in schools’?
Laura Bates (of Everyday Sexism) makes the argument that whether we have a gender neutral clothing policy in schools or not, girls bodies are still going to be ‘policed’ in school more than boys, citing examples of girls being sent home for wearing skirts deemed to be too short (and distracting to boys and teachers), and even examples of girls who have been sent home for wearing trousers which were too tight.
New Labour were in power from 1997-2010, and during those years they certainly introduced an impressive range of new education policies – some of which were inspired by New Right principles and focused on enhancing marketization: increasing competition between schools and choice for parents, and others which were inspired by old social democratic principles, focusing more on improving equality of educational opportunity and helping the disadvantaged.
New Labour also introduced a range of new vocational education policies, but that will be dealt with in a future post.
New Labour polices inspired by the New Right
The New Right emphasized the importance of introducing free-market principles into education in order to make schools more competitive and give parents more choice – New Labour carried this on by keeping all of the main policies associated with marketization (league tables, OFSTED etc.) and by increasing the number of specialist schools; they also increased the role of the private sector in education through academies and PFI initiatives; and they increased expenditure on vocational, work-related training, which was in line with New Right ideas that education should prepare children for the world of work.
Specific details of how neoliberal ideas influenced New Labour education policy
Labour greatly expanded the role of specialist schools
State secondary schools can apply to become specialist schools in one or two of ten specialisms (e.g. maths, science, sports etc.). In order for their application to be successful, they need to raise £50 000 from private sector sponsors, which will be matched by the government. Specialist schools are allowed to select 10% of their students who show an aptitude in the schools specialist subjects (which relates to the seletive education topic, this is a form of selection by aptitude).
Specialist schools demonstrate New Labour’s rejection of the Old Labour idea of of the ‘one size fits all comprehensive school’. Specialist schools provided diversity and offered more parental choice, fitting in with the New Right’s marketization agenda. According to the then education secretary Estelle Morris ‘ Specialist schools and Colleges will have a key contribution to make in raising standards and delivering excellence in schools’. (Chitty 2002)
In 1997 New Labour inherited 196 specialist schols from the Conservatives. Then years later, there were over 2500 specialist schools, over 75% of all specialist schools.
Labor Increased the Number of Assessments and Targets schools were subjected to
New Labour largely welcomed the testing and assessment regime introduced by the Conservatives. They increased the number of targets schools had to reach, as well as the amount of information which schools had to publish in league tables.
New Labour continued to assess schools regularly using a range of ‘target indicators’ such as pupil achievement Key Stage Tests, GCSEs and A Levels, OFSTED inspections and also truancy and exclusion rates.
League Tables were changed so that schools had to publish data on ‘value added’ – the difference between the level of achievement students came into a school with (measured through SATs) and what they left with (ultimately still measured by GCSEs.
New Labour policies inspired by the Social Democratic View of education
The Social Democratic view of education emphasized improving equality of opportunity and tackling social disadvantage through state education. The main policies introduced to achieve these goals included Academies, Sure Start, Education Maintenance Allowance and also a general increase in state-expenditure on education.
Education Action Zones
Education Action Zones were set up to raise the attainment levels of students in low income, inner city areas. By 2003 there were 73 EAZs in England, funded by central government with additional funding from business. An action forum, made up of parents and representatives from local schools and businesses and from local and national government ran each zone.
Aan Ofsted report on EAZs praised some initiatives, such as homework and breakfast clubs. The report found some improvements in standards at Key Stage 1, but no change at Key Stage 3 or GCSE.
Excellence in Cities
The Excellence in Citiies programme gradually replaced EAZs, targetting local education authorities in deprived areas. The main initiatves of EiC were special programmes for gifted students, city learning centres with IT facilities, learning mentors and low-cost leasing for home computers.
Various reports evaluating the EiC programme produced mixed results: in general they indicated only limited success and the EiC programme was ended in 2006.
Sure Start Children’s Centres are responsible for delivering services for children under 5 and their families.
The core purpose of Sure Start Children’s Centres are to improve outcomes for young children (primarily aged 2-4) and their families, with a particular focus on the most disadvantaged families, in order to reduce inequalities in child development and school readiness.
Four core aims of Sure Start Centres included:
To provide high quality and affordable early years education and childcare.
To raise Parenting aspirations, self esteem and parenting skills.
To improve child and family health, primarily through providing education and information about local health services.
To acting as a hub for the local community, building social capital and cohesion.
In centres in the 30% most disadvantaged areas extra the centres provides childcare for a minimum of 10 hours a week, while in more affluent areas, support was limited to drop-in activity sessions for children, such as stay and play sessions.
By 2010, there were over 3300 Sure Start Centres.
A major evaluation of Sure Start programmes examined over 7,000 families in 150 Sure Start areas and found that while parents valued them, there was little measurable improvement in child development, with the exception of lower levels of childhood obesity.
The academies programme introduced by New Labour was primarily aimed at failing schools and by May 2010 there were 203 academies in England. New Labour thought that Academies could both raise standards and tackle inequality of educational opportunity simultaneously.
Traditionally school have been overseen by local councils who have managed admissions policies, term dates, pay for staff and other aspects of education in their areas, and they have provided a number of services to schools as well. In return, schools have given councils 10% of their funding. This ensured uniformity across a council area and meant the provision of education could be managed effectively.
Academies are schools which are no longer controlled by local councils and they get to keep 10% extra funding for their schools. More importantly, academies are completely independent from local councils and can set their own term dates, admissions policies; staff pay levels and much more. It is argued the extra freedom for schools gives allows them raise standards.
Academies are sponsored by an organisation which is responsible for overseeing the running of the schools. Sponsors could include businesses, charities and faith groups. For example, Lord Harris, the owner of “Carpet Right”, runs the Harris Academies which now operate 23 schools, including the Harris Academies in Purley, Crystal Palace and Merton. Commercial sponsors which take over schools must provide £2 million of additional finance.
A 2010 study by Stephen Machin (Machin and Vernoit 2010) found that academies that had been open for at least 2 years had 3% more students who achieved 5 GCSEs at grades A-C.
However, critics of academies say that the only reason they achieve better results is because they take fewer pupils with special needs or behavioral problems.
The Education Maintenance Allowance
Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was paid to students aged 16-19 who were from lower income families. Students received the funding if the attended all there lessons and achieved their performance targets. The funding was designed to help with the hidden costs of education and there was a progressive approach, with the least well of pupils receiving £30 a week and the better off pupils received £20 or £10.
Evaluation of New Labour’s Education Policies
In short, New Labour successfully raised standards in education, but they were much less successful in reducing inequality of educational opportunity – the ‘attainment gap’ between working class and middle class children remained stubbornly high under New Labour.
Focusing on the successes, it’s important not to understate the importance of this as an achievement – the number of students passing 5 good GCSEs (the early academies helped here), and progression onto Further (EMA helped here) and Higher Education increased steadily under New Labour.
Specialist schools were very successful in raising standards, however, this was largely because they selected a disproportionate amount of middle class pupils.
In terms of tackling social class inequalities, most of their policies failed (except for the early academies and the EMA) – EAZs, EiCs and Sure Start were appear to have ultimately been a waste of money in this regard.
Paul Trowler (2003) argued that Labour were unrealistic in their expectations of what education could achieve in terms of tackling social class inequality. As Trowler sees it, education alone cannot tackle deep-rooted social inequalities.
Haralmabos and Holborn (2013) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives
*The 1997-201 New Labour party/ government wanted to change the image and perspective of their party so that they could appeal to a wider type of voters. They wanted to appeal to the middle classes, who traditionally voted Conservative, as well as working classes, who had traditionally tended to vote Labour. So they renamed themselves ‘New’ Labour. This meant that some of their beliefs were in line with “New Right” views which are more commonly associated with the Conservative Party, and some continue with traditionally ‘Old’ Labour or Social Democratic views.
In this TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson argues that our current educational systems are still based on a industrial paradigm of education – education is increasingly standardised and about conformity, and kids, who are living in the most stimulating age in history, fail to see the point of going to school, which is about ‘finding the right answers to pass the tests’ rather than about stimulating divergent thinking.
One of our major solutions to the plague of distracted kids (alienated by a system the don’t identify with) is to medicate them to get them through school, whereas what really needs to change is the system itself – we need a paradigm shift, rather than mere reform.
Current Education systems are not fit for the future
Every country on earth is in the process of reforming its education system. There are two reasons for this:
The first is economic – countries are trying to figure out how to prepare children for work when we simply don’t know what work will look like in the future.
The second is cultural – countries are trying to figure out how to pass on their ‘cultural genes’ while at the same time having to respond to globalisation.
The problem with current processes of educational reform is that we are trying to tackle the future by doing what we did in the past and we are alienating millions of kids in the process, who simply can’t see the point of going to school.
When generation X when to school, we were motivated by a particular story: that if we worked hard and got good grades, we could get to college, get a degree and get a good job. Today’s children do not believe this, and they are right not to: getting a degree means you will probably get a better job, but is no longer guaranteed to get you a decent job!
The education system is rooted in an industrial paradigm
The problem with the current education system is that it was conceived in the cultural context of the Enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution. It emerged in the nineteenth century, which was the first time which compulsory public education, freely available to all and paid for by taxes was established.
The Modern education system was originally founded on an ‘us and them’ mentality as many thinkers in the 19th century seriously believed that ordinary street kids could not cope with it, and it is also founded on an Enlightenment concept of the mind – which favours a knowledge of the classics and deductive reasoning, what we might call ‘academic knowledge’.
The system thus divides people into ‘smart people’ (academics) and ‘non-smart people’ (non-academics) and while this has been great for some, most people have not benefited from this system, in fact Ken Robinson argues that the main effect is that it has caused chaos.
We medicate our kids to get them through education
Statistics on prescriptions for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) suggest that America is suffering from an ADHD epidemic – we are drugging our kids with Ritalin as a matter of routine. However, Robinson suggests that this cannot be an epidemic as the rates of prescription vary from West to East – they are much higher in the East of America, which suggests that this is a fictitious epidemic – it’s the system that’s choosing to medicate a ‘problem’ which is only a problem because the system has labelled it thus.
What’s really happening is that our kids are living through the most information rich age in history – they are bombarded with information from many sources through T.V. and the Internet – they are in a way, hyper-stimulated, and yet our response is to punish them for getting distracted from ‘boring stuff’ in school.
Robinson suggests that it is no coincidence that the incidents of prescriptions for ADHD corresponds closely to the rise in standardised testing.
The increasing use of drugs such as Ritalin to medicate kids means that we are effectively getting our kids through school by anaesthetising them.
The school system is run for the benefit of industry, and in many senses along industrial lines, mirroring a factory system of production in at least the following ways:
We still educate children by batches (‘as if the most important thing about them is the date of their manufacture’).
Increasingly education is about conformity, and you see is in the growth of standardised curricula and standardised testing. The current paradigm is mainly to do with standardisation, and we need to shift the paradigm and go in the other direction.
The education system kills creativity
There was a great study done recently on divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is an essential capacity for creative thinking – it is the ability to see lots of possible ways of interpreting and answering a question; to think laterally and to see many possible answers, not just one.
An example of this simply to give someone a paper clip and to get them to think of as many different uses for the paper clip as possible – someone whose good at this will be able to think of hundreds of uses for the paper clip by imagining that it can be all sorts of sizes and made out of all sorts of different materials.
Cites a Longitudinal study (taken from a book called ‘Break Point and Beyond) in which Kindergarten children were tested on their ability to think divergently, and 98% of them scored at ‘genius level’; the same children were retested at ages 8-10, but only 50% of them scored at genius level, and again at 13-15, where hardly any of them scored at genius level.
This study shows two things: firstly, we all have the inherent capacity for divergent thinking and secondly it deteriorates as children get older.
Now lots of things happen to these kids as they grow up, but the most important thing is that they have become educated – they’ve spent 10 years being told ‘that there’s one answer and it’s at the back, and don’t look and don’t copy’.
The problem we have is that the industrial-capitalist mode of education is deep in the gene-pool of the education system, it is an educational paradigm which will be hard to shift.
Shifting the Education Paradigm
We need to do the following to shift the industrial-capitalist education paradigm:
Firstly, destroy the myth that there is a divide between academic and non academic subjects, and between the abstract and the theoretical.
Secondly, recognize that most great learning takes place in groups – collaboration is the stuff of growth, rather than individualising people which separates them from their natural learning environment.
Finally, we need to change the habitual ways of thinking of those within the education system and the habitats which they occupy.
Relevance to A-Level Sociology
This can be used to criticise New Right approaches to education, as well as New Labour, The Coalition and the present Tory government – because all of them have kept in place the basic regime of testing introduced in 1988.
Robinson seems to be suggesting we have a more post-modern approach to education – freeing schools and teachers up so they can encourage more creativity in the classroom rather than being constrained by the tyranny of standardised testing.
An introduction to the key features of the UK education system, including details of the Department for Education, OFSTED, key stages, exams, the National Curriculum, and some straightforward definitions of the different types of school in the UK.
I wrote this post to give students studying A-level sociology a more focused intro the topic than the Wikipedia entry on education in the UK, which IMO is a bit too formal, and not focused enough on the things people actually want to know about!
This post mainly deals with education in England, I’ll update with a focus on Wales and Scotland as and when I can…
Education in the United Kingdom is overseen by the Department for Education (DfE), which oversees the delivery of education to almost 12 million pupils aged 5-18 in 21 000 state primary schools, 4100 state secondary schools, as well as hundreds of further education colleges, with a total budget of £84 billion in 2015-16.
The DfE works with a further 17 agencies or public bodies, the most well-known of which is probably OFSTED, which has the responsibility for inspecting schools on a regular basis.
Local government authorities (LEAs) are responsible for state-funded schools and colleges at a local level, but in recent years most LEA schools have converted to Academy status which means they are free from local education control and receive their funding directly from central government and do not have to follow the National Curriculum.
There are five stages of education
Early Years Foundation Stage (ages 3–5)
Primary education (ages 5 to 11)
Secondary education (ages 11 to 16)
Further education (ages 16 to 18)
Tertiary education (for ages 18+).
School Leaving Age
Full-time education is compulsory for all children aged 5 to 18, either at school or otherwise. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 are entitled to 600 hours per year of optional, state-funded, pre-school education. This can be provided in “playgroups”, nurseries, community childcare centres or nursery classes in schools.
Students can leave school at 16 but must then do one of the following until they are 18:
stay in full-time education, for example at a college
start an apprenticeship or traineeship
spend 20 hours or more a week working or volunteering, while in part-time education or training
The National Curriculum
The national curriculum is a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools so children learn the same things. It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject.
Academies and private schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum. Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, maths and science. They must also teach religious education.
Key Stages, and National Assessments/ Exams
The national curriculum is organized into blocks of years called ‘key stages’ (KS). At the end of each key stage, there are formal assessments of how children have progressed:
The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)
GCSEs are the main type of exam taken by pupils at the end of secondary education, aged 16, although they may be taken at any age. From 2017, GCSEs will be graded from 9 to 1 with 9 being the highest grade, replacing the old A* to G grading system)
BTECs can also be taken. The difference between BTECs and GCSEs is that the BTEC course is heavily coursework-based.
Most students will sit 8-10 GCSEs or BTEC equivalents.
There are a number of GCSEs available to students – English and Maths are both compulsory, but besides those students can choose from a range of science and humanities subjects, including sociology!
Achieving five or more A*–C grades, including English and Maths, is often a requirement for taking A-levels and BTEC Level 3 at a sixth form college or at a further education college after leaving secondary school.
Types of State-Funded School in England and Wales
The main types of state school include:
Local Education Authority Maintained schools
A local education authority maintained school is one in which the governing body (the head teacher, and governors) are responsible for the day to day running of the school, but the Local Education authority controls the following:
It owns the land and buildings, and is responsible for funding and the school.
It employs the staff and provides support services, for example, psychological services and special educational needs services.
It determines the admissions policies of the school
The pupils have to follow the national curriculum
(Voluntary aided) Faith Schools
Voluntary aided faith schools still follow the national curriculum, but they are free to teach what they want in terms of religious education. There are two important differences with regular LEA schools.
The land and buildings are usually owned by the religious organisation.
The religious organization, through the governing body, has more of a say in employing the staff and setting admissions criteria.
Academies receive their funding directly from the government, rather than through local authorities. In contrast to Local Education Authorities:
Funding goes directly to the governing body of the school from central government.
The governing body employs staff directly and can vary pay and conditions from staff member to staff member.
The governing body can select its own admissions criteria (in line with national guidelines)
The pupils do not have to follow the national curriculum
There are two types of academy: Converter academies – those deemed to be performing well that have converted to academy status; Sponsored academies – mostly underperforming schools changing to academy status and run by sponsors).
Free schools are essentially a type of academy, but ‘any willing provider’ can set up a free school, including groups of parents.
Grammar Schools are selective schools – they select pupils on the basis of academic ability, typically testing at the age of 10 or 11.
93% of schools in England are funded by state (ultimately paid for by the taxpayer), the remaining 7% are Independent, or private schools, funded privately by individuals, mainly by fees paid by the parents of the pupils who attend them.
Independent schools have more freedoms from government control than state schools.
Somewhat confusingly, some independent schools call themselves ‘grammar schools’ and ‘faith schools’.
This was a brief post designed to provide some introductory material on the education system of the United Kingdom, for students studying A-level sociology.
Official Statistics on schools, teachers and educational achievement provided by the United Kingdom government provide an overview of the education system. They are useful for providing an ‘introduction to the state of education in the U.K’, before embarking on the core content of any sociology of education course and providing a basis for comparing the U.K. education system to the education systems of other countries, which would be relevant to the module on global development.
I will also provide a brief discussion of the validity and representativeness of the official statistics below, tying this into research methods.
I only deal with state-schools in this post, I’ll do a separate post in future on private, or independent schools in comparison to state schools.
The Government spent 83.4 billion on education in 2015-16, or 4.4% of GDP, a decrease from 5.3% in 2011-12
The above chart, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (link below), clearly shows you the extent of the Tory funding cuts to education since 2010.
There are 32, 142 schools in the U.K.
For an overview of the different types of school please see this post: different types of school in England and Wales (forthcoming post).
The majority of schools in England and Wales are state funded, and there are 5 times as many primary schools as secondary schools.
There are 21000 primary schools
There are 4100 secondary schools
This means primary schools are lot smaller in scale in that each of them has, on average, fewer pupils in them, and should be more ‘locally based for most parents; while secondary schools are a lot larger, will have many more pupils in them, have more of an ‘education factory’ feel to them and be more widely dispersed, meaning children will have to travel further to them.
There are 5.5 million pupils in primary schools in the U.K. and 3.8 million secondary school pupils (figures for state maintained schools)
The number of pupils in secondary schools decreased by 2.4% between 2011 and 2015
The number of pupils in primary schools increased by 8.3% between 2011 to 2015.
This probably reflects demographic trends in the United Kingdom (although by all means do verify this); if this is the case, it means we might reasonably expect to see an increase in secondary school numbers over the next few years.
There are 122 000 pupils in special schools, and 15 000 in pupil referral units
The numbers of pupils in both special schools and pupil referral units are increasing: between 2012 and 2016:
the number of students in special schools increased by 17,000, or 21%,
the number of students in pupil referral units increased by 2600, or 16.2%
A total of 14.4% of pupils have Special Education Needs
but only 2.8% of them have an SEN statement with a further 11.6% receiving SEN support, mostly within mainstream maintained schools.
Between 2010 to 2015 the number of pupils with special educational needs fell from 21% to 15%
NB – if you read this in conjunction with the previous chart, then it suggests that special educational needs students are becoming increasingly segregated into special schools and/ or pupil referral units, rather than being dealt with in mainstream secondary schools.
Another thing to note about the chart above is that it’s highly unlikely that the number of statemented SEN children are increasing while there’s been a fairly sharp decrease in non-statemented SEN kids, this has got ‘change in labelling’ written all over it as an explanation (no pun intended).
In 2015 the proportion of 16-18 year olds in education and work-based learning was 81.6%
This is he highest level since consistent records began in 1994
At age 16 the participation rate was 94.1%
At age 17 it was 87.8%.
At age 18 it was 63.8% (but of course, most of the ‘missing’ 36.2% will be in paid-work!)
NEETS – The number of 16-24 year-olds Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) across the UK has fallen to around 15%
There were 1.3 million students studying towards their first degree in 2015/16, an 8% increase since 2010/11
In 2015 there were 456 900 full time equivalent teachers in England and Wales
The overall number of teachers has increased over the last five years, but this increase is mainly in primary teachers. The number of secondary school teachers has actually decreased.
13% of qualified teachers drop out after just one year of teaching, and 30% drop out after five years of teaching
The current number of qualified teachers aged under 60 (and not in receipt of a pension from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme) that have worked in state funded schools in England and were not employed as at December 2013 is 227 100
How useful are these education statistics?
Such statistics are a useful starting point if we wish to make cross-national comparisons between the U.K. education system and the rest of the world, which would be useful for students of global development, given that education plays a key role in development. Indeed if we wish to compare the relationship between education and development in several countries, statistical rather than qualitative comparisons may be the only way of doing so.
From an arrogant, modernisation theory perspective, these statistics provide an indication of the level of investment required in terms of expenditure and teachers, and the types of outcome that less developed countries should be aiming for.
Most of the education statistics above count as ‘hard statistics’, i.e. there’s little room for disagreement over the ‘social facts’ which they show – for example, it’s hard to argue with the stats on ‘number of schools’ and ‘number of qualified teachers’.
However, others are much softer, and have more validity problems, and can be criticised for being social constructions rather than reflecting underlying reality: the statistics on special educational needs clearly come under this category – there is simply no way the underlying numbers of students with ‘SEN’ have decline from 21 to 15% in 5 years while the number of certificated SEN kids have increased – what’s really happened is that the number of kids which schools categorise as having Special Education Needs has decreased in the last 5 years, probably because the Tory’s cut previously existing funding for this category of student in 2010 (ish).
Links to statistics on education in the United Kingdom:
Most of the statistical sets below are updated yearly, or more frequently.
Education and Training Statistics for the U.K. – published by the department for education. In this source you’ll find data on the number of schools, teachers, and teacher-pupil ratios as well as basic educational achievement data by Free School Meals, gender and ethnicity. Published annually in November.
School Workforce in England – covers teacher numbers and pupil-teacher ratios in primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. Published annually every June.
Special Education Needs in England – details of children with special education needs, by type of need, and broken down by school type and gender (statistics derived from the ‘schools census’).
Key statistics on education in America, and the key features of the American education system including primary, secondary and tertiary education, the national curriculum and the examinations system.
This is part of a new set of posts designed to help students assess how developed countries are in terms of some of the key indicators of development such as economics, inequality, education, health, gender equality, peacefulness and so on…
Kindergarten, Primary, and Secondary Education in America
Schooling is compulsory for all children in the United States, with every child being entitled to a minimum of 12 years publicly funded education. Some states add on an additional year of pre-primary ‘Kindergarten) education, and the school leaving age also varies from state to state: some states allow students to leave school between 14–17 with parental permission, other states require students to stay in school until age 18.
Children attend primary school from the ages of 6-11 where they are taught basic subjects, typically in a diverse, mixed ability class, with one teacher.
Children attend secondary school from the ages of 12-17, which is subdivided into junior high-school and senior high school. Here students are typically taught in different classes for different subjects and are allowed some degree of freedom to choose ‘elective subjects’.
While there is no overarching national curriculum, education in secondary school generally consists of 2–4 years of each of science, Mathematics, English, Social sciences, Physical education; some years of a foreign language and some form of art education, as well as the usual PSHE.
Many high schools provide ‘Honors classes’ for the more academically able during the 11th or 12th grade of high school and/ or offer the International Baccalaureate (IB).
The National (And Hidden) Curriculum
While there isn’t a national curriculum in America, there are some very detailed national common core standards in subject areas such as English and Maths – so why schools aren’t told what books they should actually get students to read, or how to teach maths, the standards dictate that they must spend a certain amount of time teaching these and other subjects…. When I say detailed, they really are – the standards on English stretch to over 60 pages.
In terms of the Hidden Curriculum – 50% of schools require their students to pledge allegiance as part of their daily routine, which I guess is an attempt to enforce a sense of national identity.
If you’re American I imagine this gives you a warm glowing feeling, if you’re not you’re probably fluctuating between an uncomfortable feeling of nausea and wondering WTF this has got to do with ‘liberty’. NB note the doting parents looking on, and that YouTube is full of this sort of thing.
Differential Educational Achievement in America
The education system clearly doesn’t work for everyone equally – around 3 million students between the ages of 16 and 24 drop out of high school each year, a rate of 6.6 percent as of 2012.
Unsurprisingly, there are considerable ethnic differences in educational achievement in America, as this data from 2009 suggests:
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