Reform of the Education system essay – 2500 words PGCE

If you were able to reform the education system in Britain, what form would it take? Use the ideas and theories of philosophers, sociologists and psychologists to support your answer.

The question is more difficult and complex then it may at first seem. Reforming the education system relies on a multiple and varied context of philosophical assumptions, sociological analysis, psychological research, political and ideological contestation and pragmatic and practical implementation. Bearing this in mind, the answer will be inevitably partial but will attempt to address the underlying concerns assumed by the question. After a brief introduction outlining some of the issues of stake it will be necessary to provide a summary overview of the education system in Britain, focusing on key reforms, in order to place the answer into a relevant historical context. This includes developments such as The Education Reform Act of 1870, The Butler Education Act of 1944 and more recent Conservative, Labour and Coalition policy documents, which inherit historical conflicts. Drawing on this research, key debates emerge. These include issues of religion versus secularism, education as commodity versus education as process, the reinforcing versus the challenging of social inequalities, funding, diversity and the role of the state. The next section of the essay will focus primarily on questions of inequality and the ‘marketisation’ of the knowledge economy. It will draw on the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argues that education acts as a way of reinforcing existing social inequalities, as well as considering philosophical underpinnings through the Marxist-Lacanian work of Louis Althusser. It will be argued that Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital is vital to challenging and re-addressing notions of inequality in the education system, but that this can be redefined in a more positive way, as suggested by educational theorists such as Sue Clegg (2011). It will be argued that in order to challenge the neoliberal reduction of education to market value, post-structuralist conceptions of the self in process must be employed in order to consider education as an ongoing process of transformation. This argument draws on Foucault and the philosopher Jacques Ranciere. Finally, it focuses on initiatives already occurring at grassroots level where self-organised educational models are challenging institutional norms and the ingrained assumptions of the neoliberal model.

Barrows and Woods (2006, p.11), in their discussion of the philosophy of education, argue that “the first and one of the most important tasks for those who wish to understand and contribute to sound educational policy and practice is to analyse the concept of education; to give an account of the idea; to determine what precisely counts as being well-educated”. Questions of reforming the education system, in other words, must taken into account larger philosophical, sociological and psychological questions of what ‘education’ consists of, what it aims to do and what its place in society should be. Bartlett and Burton (2007, p.11) expand on these ideas to raise the issues of what we mean by education, and why it is seen to be important. It can be considered as a process or as a product, for example, as something to be consumed or as an ongoing interaction. Does it have to be intentional or could it happen in other ways? They go on to propose an overarching definition of education as about gaining “a wider understanding of the world” (p.12). Added to these concerns could also be issues over which power interests are at stake in education. An ideological dimension demands an analysis of which interests are being served in the form, content and definition of education. These will have changed over time, being constantly negotiated, debated and adapted, and will change further in the future as the education system constantly shifts and changes in the wake of competing forces. In order to address the question of reform it is necessary first of all to outline how the education system in Britain has changed throughout history, showing how its practices are contingent, dependent on a variety of actors and social forces and always in a state of tension. Bartlett and Burton (2007, p.62) locate the beginnings of the modern educational system around 1870, specifically with the Education Reform Act of 1870. Before this period, education was rudimentary, most children worked to earn a living although there were institutions such as ‘drill schools’ to improve literacy and numeracy skills necessary for specific work. Changes in the 1870s saw the need for more workers due to the Industrial Revolution. Processes of mass urbanisation, industrial technological development and social change led to a demand for more literate workers. At the same time, changes to the voting system meant that more people needed to be educated to a level to understand what and who they were voting for (Bartlett and Burton, 2007, p.62). This period, then, saw the beginnings of elementary schooling. It also saw challenges over interests in education. There was a class conflict for example as the upper classes feared than an increasingly educated working class mass would organize revolution. There was also conflict between the Church and secular organisations over the role of education. Should it, for example, educate children in the tenets of Christianity, or should it focus on secular subjects, skills and knowledge (Bartlett and Burton, 2007, p.62). As can be seen from a brief historical overview, there have always been tensions over the role of education, which become played out at the level of the day to day delivery of the education system itself. The early 20th Century saw more changes, including the establishing of secondary schools and of Local Education Authorities. Education was seen as important in improving quality of life. (Bartlett and Burton, 2007, p.65). On one hand, social reformers saw it as a potentially radical mechanism for challenging class inequalities in society. On the other hand, however, deep-rooted inequalities remained entrenched in the system. Girls studied ‘housewifery’, for example, illustrating the ideological enforcement of gender roles inherent to educational practice. The Fisher Education Act of 1918 made secondary education compulsory to the age of fourteen, although the system was still split along class lines with working-class children rarely staying on beyond fourteen (Bartlett and Burton, 2007, p.65). This periods also saw the origins of a split between academic and vocational learning, although it was the Butler Education Act of 1944, which is defined by Bartlett and Burton as “the defining moment in the history of modern education” (p.66). Drawing on the philosophy of Plato’s Republic that different people are cut out for different roles in life (cited in Bartlett and Burton, 2007, p.66), a tripartite split emerged between grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. Secondary education was proposed as a right for all, but came to take on different forms for different people. As Stephen Ball (2008, p.68) has argued, this tripartite division has been criticised since its inception. Ball goes on to discuss how ht “neoliberal outlook” (p.77) became increasingly important since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the development of Conservative educational assumptions into more recent New Labour and now Coalition Government policies. He defines this neoliberal outlook as being based upon “the twin pillars of individual liberty (the freedom to choose) and market freedom (the discipline of competition)” (p.77). New Labour education policy can be seen as inheriting the legacies of these diverse histories. On one hand, it advocates increasing access to education, a system whereby more and more people are educated. On the other hand, it also ties education strongly to discourses of globalisation arguing that is vital for economic competitiveness in a global market, and that competition between institutions is important. Contemporary Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition policy focuses on concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ (DfE, 2010), characterising previous policy in terms of perceived bureaucracy and offering more possibility for individual interpretation.

This historical overview has been necessary in order to reveal some of the fundamental philosophical, sociological and psychological assumptions at stake in education. There is an issue of class interests, for example. Should education allow for the possibility of the redistribution of cultural capital and thus challenge existing social equalities or does it simply reinforce equalities already existing in society. The work of Bourdieu (1984), for example, argues the latter, that the education system is an important site of reproducing social inequality through its naturalised institutional form. It is also possible, however, to criticise this view (Lane, 2000; Davis, 2010, p.10) arguing that there is potential for education to challenge class divisions and distinctions within society. There is also an issue of the opposition between religion and secularism. This was key at the origins of the modern education system and has re-emerged more recently in relation not only to religious discourses but also to debates over cultural diversity. Should education, for example, allow for faith schools, which respect the cultures of migrant communities, or should it enforce a secular education system in which difference and diversity is channeled into a more integrated model? Do gender inequalities still exist and how are these played out at the level of educational outcomes? How should higher education be funded with regard to the contribution made by students, Government and other interests? Should the private sector have more of a role in educational provision? And should ‘free schools’ be a viable alternative to Government-organised models of National Curriculum. These are the key concerns for contemporary education, emerging from a historical context, which must be addressed in a model for reforming the education system. A reference point for addressing these issues and starting to address a holistic concept of reform can come from focusing initially on the first point. Bourdieu provides a vital reference point for a sociological analysis of education. His sociological theory, as outlined by Kaseem et al. (2006, p.176) “aims to develop an understanding of how forms of division, domination and exclusion are historically based and maintained”. He does this through a focus not only on forms of economic capital (material wealth) and social capital (networks) but also on cultural capital – a type of naturalised sense of entitlement that creates distinctions between different groups in society. Much has been written within educational sociology on the relation between cultural capital and educational attitudes. Thomas, Thomas and Quinn’s (2007) study, for example, argues that access to Higher Education is affected fundamentally not by skills, knowledge and grades or by financial issues but by senses of ‘family know-how’ which are passed on by generations who have been to university before and so are familiar with the implicit codes and conventions involved in application procedures. Such studies suggest that any reform of the educational system which attempts to address inequality must tackle not only existing social equalities or identity politics based on, for example, the under-representation of particular ethnic groups within education, but must also focus on more ingrained social attitudes through a thorough re-engagement with Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital. This would demand not simply an application of Bourdieu’s theories to the education system but an understanding of how studies such as that by Thomas, Thomas and Quinn could be used to rebalance cultural capital demands through redefining concepts of ‘equality’ and ‘access’. While Bourdieu’s analysis suggests the replaying of cultural imbalance, others have attempted a more radical reformist approach to his work. Sue Clegg (2011), for example reformulates Bourdieu’s concepts in order to suggest amore critical concept of cultural capital, which could be used within strategies of reform. Rather than focus on on ‘lack’ of cultural capital, she suggests redefinitions which enable other forms of capital (community links etc..) to be taken into account (p.93). Her analysis is also useful in challenging the role of education as about “personal economic advantage” (p.93). This is an inevitable effect of the marketisation of Higher Education instigated by Thatcherite policy and continued throughout the New Labour years. If students are paying a lot of money for education that it is inevitable than they will see it as a commodifiable product, expecting economic returns on their investment. An alternative to this would be to reframe education in terms of a re-structuring of self, what Clegg (2011, p.94) describes as “the articulation of possible future selves”, therefore emphaissing the value of it as process rather than commodofiable piece of information data for a global market. Such debates draw upon a whole range of philosophical assumptions and problems. They demand an engagement, for example, with post-structuralis notions of the self such as those defined by Foucault (Storey, 1996, p.101), where the self and identity are not fixed but are always in a process of change in relation to surrounding discourses of power. Education provides an important framework for such change, rather than a pre-packaged piece of information to be bought and sold. Bourdieu’s theory relies on an Althusserian (1971) concept of ‘interpellation’ where the education subject (student) is called or hailed into a specific way of thinking and being, and a particular position within a stratified system from within the institutionalised networks of power of which they are part . Education in this way functions as what Althusser defines as an Ideological State Apparatus, providing a framework for the re-affirming of state positions. Althusser’s assumptions, can, however be criticised. They are restrictive and determining for example, suggesting a monolithic conception of power where little to no agency is given to the individual subject to restrict such institutionalisation and normalisation. The model has been criticised, for example, by the philosopher Jacques Ranciere, Ranciere is critical of Bourdieu for the way that his model does not inspire the possibility of change in the education system (Davis, p.10) he instead proposes a different model of education, “while the mobile and composite character of Ranceiere’s narrative makes it difficult to extract a single position on pedagogy…[he tends] to reject reform in favour of a partial or wholesale rejection of institutional education” (Davis, 2010, p.33). It is such rejection that it being brought into consideration through recent developments. While the Coalition policy suggests the possibility of ‘Free Schools’, alternative movements provide their own alternative (Free, 2011) where such assumptions are brought into critical question. It is within the network of this emerging development of self-organised educational practice that the market-driven assumptions underpinning educational theory can gradually become challenged and reform can begin to emerge. A return to Bourdieu and his critique through those such as Ranciere allows for the consideration of a type of reform which draws attention to the fundamental assumptions in the education system and takes its critiques into account. While it is not within the scope of this essay to outline a full new manifesto for education it has suggested problems and directions for reform, where the increasing definition of education as a commodity enabling the individual’s economic advantage can be undermined and challenged.


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