Monday, 4 August 2008

Caring, sharing inequality

As Socrates told us, "A rabble is no more an army than a heap of building materials is a house"* and with Labour's great and good continuing their impersonation of a complete pile of bricks, what better time for the Tories to hit the nation hard with some serious and well-thought-out policies, the better to draw a sharp contrast with their rivals and paint themselves once again as the natural party of government.

Cometh the hour, cometh Michael Gove. And what dragon will he slay for us today, to prove the might of the Tory Round Table? One of the biggies, perhaps - the credit crunch, or energy prices? Hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Besides, it's awfully technical and quite difficult. How about a bit of green? No? The shine is wearing off a bit, I'll admit. Besides, there are other, more insidious threats to a happy and prosperous Britain. Put simply, we're not getting enough love.
Each of us is defined, and enriched, by our relationship to others. It's the strength of our relationships, the warmth of our friendships, the time we have with our partners, parents and children, the respect we're given in the workplace and by our peers, the achievements we forge collaboratively and collectively, which generate real happiness and fulfilment. We are fully ourselves because others believe in us.
Yes reader, you complete me.

But this circle of affirmation stuff, tugging as it does on the ol' bile-duct strings, isn't really the point. The point is this: Labour are demanding and controlling and patronising and uncaring - like Daddy when you came home at half-term:
The Labour conception of society is a thin, and impoverished, one in which there appear to be only two primary centres of decision-making, the central state organises and the individual is expected to respond appropriately. The quality of the relationships we enjoy[...] are all neglected.
The Conservatives are warm and lovely and want you to feel good, just like Mummy does:
People don't want government and authority to be like BP. They want a relationship which allows them to feel loyalty, to have their emotions stirred, sometimes to anger when authority fails them, but more often to pride at what has been achieved collaboratively by a collective of which they feel a meaningful part.
Of course, before you can be truly happy with Mummy, you're going to have get rid of Daddy first. And we all know what that means, children.

Once we've got past this frankly bizarre attempt to channel our Oedipal urges into political action, we're going to have start talking about actual policies. To do him credit, Gove manfully avoids giving any actual detail about his policies - who, how much, when - but his argument runs something like this:

1) Centralised education policy is failing kids because teachers and headteachers are too concerned about performing well in league tables to really engage with pupils and parents in a community-based, localised way
2) This problem is much worse for schools in poor areas: poor kids are demonstrably doing worse in school than rich kids
2a) We know the scope and size of this problem and can therefore come up with policies to solve it because we... looked it up in the league tables
3) The problem is not funding, or discriminatory admission policies, or lack of parental interest in education. The problem is that schools are not accountable
4a) Therefore, we will let parents send their kids (and State cash) to whatever the hell school they want
4b) Therefore, we will let almost anybody open a school, with almost any "ethos" and then sell themselves to parents
4c) Therefore, we'll pay schools extra to take poor kids
5) Result: schools reform themselves from dirt-poor inner city pseudo-jails to gleaming palaces of learning; parents pick and choose from an exciting smorgasbrod of educational styles; poor pupils are lifted out of drudgery and encouraged to shine, shine like a star, shining so bright like the star that they are.

Come on! What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot. The big problem that Gove is overlooking is that one of the major factors in kids' performance at school is the interest their parents take in education:
Research also establishes that parental involvement has a significant effect on children’s achievement and adjustment even after all other factors (such as social class, maternal education and poverty) have been take out of the equation between children’s aptitudes and their achievement. Differences in parental involvement have a much bigger impact on achievement than differences associated with the effects of school in the primary age range. Parental involvement continues to have a significant effect through the age range although the impact for older children becomes more evident in staying on rates and educational aspirations than as measured achievement.

9.2.2 of this .pdf

So, what might we expect to happen under Gove's scheme of fully-empowered parents and market-driven schools? For simplicity, let's divide all parents into two groups: Active & Involved on one hand, and 'Meh' on the other.

The A&I group will thrive. Keen to see their kids do well, they'll shop around for a school with good results, visit a short-list to meet teachers, pick one with an ethos that will help little Jeremy blossom.

Mehs aren't up for that sort of hard work. They'll pick the first school offered, or the nearest. Or if they care a bit, they'll judge schools superficially, without doing any real digging.

So what happens? Positive feedback kicks in, is what. Schools a little better than average attract good parents who push their kids on: the kids get good results, the school looks good, becomes more attractive to good parents and up and up we go. Meanwhile, schools a little worse than average drive away A&Is and attract a higher share of Mehs. Mehs don't care about their kids' learning, so their kids don't do as well as they might. But Mehs aren't going to change schools, so over time we get a higher proportion of Mehs, progressively worse results, more Mehs, yadda yadda, yadda.

So if you're born to Meh parents, you end up in a school with pupils of Meh parents, and any interest and aptitude you had gets drained/beaten out of you. That's not exactly equality of opportunity: now throw in the fact that a good way to predict parental involvement is to look at parents' educational attainment and socio-economic background.

Examining the nature and impact of these forms of parental involvement has consistently revealed that the degree of parental involvement is:
  • strongly related to family social class: the higher the class the more the involvement
  • strongly related to the level of mothers’ education: the higher the level of maternal educational qualification the greater the extent of involvement
9.2.1, ibid
So the new community-focused, inequality-busting Tory plans look set fair to trap poor kids in sinkhole schools. But hang on a minute! Poor kids come with all this extra moolah, remember? That's the incentive for schools to take them on and give them a damn good education.

Well no. It's certainly an incentive to take the kids on; it's not an incentive to educate them well. Let's say you've taken advantage of the somewhat looser restrictions on who can operate a school, and that you're incentivised by the prospect of attracting a bunch of taxpayer's cash. You've got two strategies: target A&Is by paying top salaries to teachers, kitting out your school with networked computers, top-notch science labs, soundproofed music rooms etc. Do a good job, and you'll attract a lot of keen parents. Keep up the investment and the hard work, and you'll do pretty well, although competition for these pushy parents will be fierce. So fierce, in fact, that you'll want to think twice before taking on any "risky" kids. Sure, they might turn out alright, and their parents seem very keen - but a bigger "range of backgrounds" could scare off A&Is and lose you a handful of nice, safe pupils - bankers who'd keep your average up.

Alternatively, target Mehs. Two advantages here: their kids are worth more and they don't give a crap. Invest a bit in a nice glossy brochure, do a bit of selling. Don't waste money hiring talented, enthusiastic or experienced teachers - the parents probably wouldn't even notice, and it won't make much difference anyway. Maximise your class-sizes, never do anything extra-curricular and as long as the little buggers don't actually riot and burn your school down, you're golden.

Gove's proposals are not going to reduce inequality. They're going to exacerbate it. Astonishingly enough, the end result of a Tory policy is: the well-to-do will do well; the poor, poorly. What's genuinely funny about this is that Gove, in this same speech, excoriates Labour for precisely this failure of policy:
The determination to push ahead with the closure of small GP practices and their replacement by polyclinics [... is] also engineered in such a way as to benefit most those who need help least - the fit active and working - while the closure of community based GP surgeries puts the greatest strain on those who need the NHS most

*Source: Rome Total War. Who said gaming wasn't educational?

1 comment:

Tom said...

What proportion of parents do you think are "meh"?
Should the system be designed to deal with the inadequacies of this particular proportion?
To what extent does the current system deal with this problem?
If choice is something only the rich can afford does giving the poor choice automatically increase equality
Would a market system and the concomitant efficiencies bought about by the freer flow of information not improve services to all consumers? (the current "meh" car would appear to be the ford focus, by all accounts an excellent machine)
Isn't there potential that the choice at the top end, leading to greater educational attainment due to the better matching of pupil to learning environment and therefore more directed at the needs of society (through the information provided by a market system) would feed wealth back into the system at all levels through the increased likelihood of innovation within the economy?