If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the professionals you will come across in your formative years are women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the authority figures you come across in your formative years will be women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that your experience of women/girls during your formative years is that they are generally the high achieving and successful ones.
Unlike you. And your mates.
If you are a working class boy, there is also every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are proving less than successful in life. If you are a working class boy, there is every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are underemployed and undereducated. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that the places you are most likely to come across successful males – secondary school, celebrity culture and the professional services – seem so remote, sometimes even antagonistic, to your own everyday experiences as to be almost alien.
We paint in broad brush strokes, of course, but there is justification, if only to tease out the central point. The idea that women are systematically disadvantaged in society might well be true. For this reason, we might well deem it morally justified to address this, through our politics, through our legal system, through our education system, through our cultural norms and practices.
But by the frames of reference available to working class boys, this can so often seem only to contradict lived reality. And if we then sit them down and tell them that they are part of the privileged, the winners in society, such that their interests must at times be circumvented to help girls and women be more successful, to achieve, to succeed in life – what do we expect the reaction to be? To feel engaged in eradicating injustice, or to feel even more alienated? To feel empowered, or further disenfranchised? To feel magnanimous, or further slighted?
Working class boys have it pretty tough, though there is little political capital in making the improvement of their condition a priority. And if one has already accepted that gender must trump class, then there is little moral reason to do so either.
In the meantime, we have a generation and more of working-class boys becoming a sink subsection of society, developing into the kind of men that only confirms the worst suspicions of those who would so readily write them off. We must not deny moral agency here: oftentimes this is of their own making, engaged in a downward spiral, formed within a cultural landscape marked by precisely that transience and insecurity that shapes a view of life and living that schooling and learning is failing to counter. And which only further feeds into that feeling of alienation, that perpetually unsuccessful attempt at the art of living well.
The result? Disengaged, angry young men. Lots of them. It is no surprise that this is beginning to shape our politics.
The condition of working-class girls is an essential part of this story, though it is legitimate to question how effectively feminism has captured this reality. I am from a northern working-class family in which the women are hard, authoritative, confident – though their concerns seem a world away from the attentions of academics and professionals, that which characterises the principal cultural and political expressions of feminism. My point is not that we must therefore choose between the two, but allow as valid a space where other narratives might appear.
And one of those narratives might be the impact social changes – economic and cultural – have had on working-class boys and men. We might think these changes worthwhile, worthy, fully justified, but we must also take account of the experiences of those on the sharp-end of such progress. Maybe a working-class feminism would better capture an understanding of the needs of working-class boys too. Maybe it wouldn’t. I really don’t know.
But what is clear is that working-class boys are struggling. Economically, socially, culturally, they are fast becoming a dalit class. We cannot claim to be a society that seeks justice if we stand blindly by and allow it to happen. And if feminism is really the best vehicle we have for providing an account of the way gender interacts and impacts on one’s place in society, then maybe there are grounds for hope. Because this seems to be precisely what working-class boys need right now. Maybe, then, working-class boys need feminists too. I suppose the question is: would feminists be willing to address that need?
So you feel disenfranchised? Alienated? Like your party has been stolen from you? That you have no voice? That you are not welcome? Not valued? Feel that nobody is willing to listen, let alone talk about your concerns? That your political home has been taken over by those hostile to you? That your contribution to the history and indeed DNA of the party has been re-written? Ignored? Mocked? Despised? That without your help, and your support, the party would never have had the success it has? And yet your party now scorn people like you? Call you appalling names? Render your views outside the mainstream?
Sh*t, isn’t it?
But you did that too. Whilst you were in charge, you did the very same. And here’s the thing: given half the chance, you still would. Indeed, you still do. You’ve learned nothing. If the response to the referendum has shown us anything, it showed us that. You might wail now, but you are simply on the end of the same treatment you dished out to others for so long. You remain as convinced of your own superiority as are those that now displace you; if you hadn’t been, they would never have had chance to replace you. And every time you seek to grab the party back, to regain the levers of power, you do it whilst re-asserting the same. For those you disenfranchised, you are no better option. The worm has turned – you need those whom you made feel so unwelcome for so long; but they no longer need you. So many of them have somewhere else to go now. And the guilt and blame for that lies at your door as much as anyone.
The new politics isn’t left and right. The new politics, and a lot of the old politics, is defined by this:
But here’s the thing – if your politics is solely about clubbing together with those in the right-hand column against those in the left, then you’ve already lost. And this is what you’ve done. This is how you’ve defined yourself, measured yourself. Any appeals to common ground that cannot bridge this divide is no appeal to common ground at all. You wouldn’t even be willing to unpick the threads, to see what’s going on. Your only explanation is moral degeneracy or intellectual retardation or both. Bigots or blaggards, all of them. You smugly proclaim, eyebrows raised, that the Hard Left would sooner die in a ditch that compromise on their ideals. But so would you. Every bit as much. Indeed, this is exactly what you have done. Exactly what you are doing.
And yet, for all that, you are right. The country needs a Labour government. An actual Labour government. Which means we need you. Those who put themselves on the left need to come together. Which means you need those you despise. To find common ground, as the cliché goes. Though to be honest, for all you proclaim it, I’m not convinced you really believe those words. Or could deliver on it. Or would deliver it, even if you could.
And so we have a mess. Labour is dead. Long live Labour.
As it is the summer holidays for us teachers, I’ve managed to catch up on some reading, and in particular some of the excellent stuff being produced by various think-tanks and their associated academics. Not all, I should add, but enough to be able to severely pare down my favourites bar and those ‘Likes’ on Twitter that have been accumulating for some months now. Useful as this has been (it really has), a few things kept cropping up that lead me to think about what I think would help shape new perspectives in education policy discussion. There is always risk here – it can certainly come across as telling cleverer folk than oneself how to suck eggs – but it is not intended that way; more that I wonder if policy discussion can sometimes become a bit singular in its approaches, and might occasionally need a gentle reminder to consider others. Anyway, here they are, in no particular order.
- Talk more about students and less about teachers. Ultimately, it is the children who are underachieving. Or indeed, being successful. Too often we overplay the significance of the teacher in this. Teachers are of course important, vital even, and I can be as boisterous as any in reasserting that fact. However, the move toward technocracy and the rise of the celebrity teacher is injurious. Not only has excess focus on the teacher created a perverse accountability scheme which makes teachers responsible for things well outside of their control, it has also served to downplay and sometimes outright ignore those wider issues – primarily social and/or economic – that inhibit educational success. The chest-beating idealism of the those who will insist every child can be dragged into academic success if only our teachers were better provides a useful political narrative, but it ignores one important caveat – it’s rubbish. More than anything else, the educational achievement of parents is the key signifier. Throw in stability of home life and poverty, and you have a mix that serves to limit educational success more than any other factor. Of course some can overcome this, and do – bell-curve distribution is a bit like that. But most don’t. Our focus, then, must take into account that contextual detail. This might help us approach the question of educational underachievement from a more profitable perspective – the root of educational underachievement in the North, for example, is not simply that all northern teachers are rubbish. If that explanation is the best we have to go to, then that disadvantage will remain for a long time to come.
- Avoid the ‘Outstanding Teacher’ fallacy, which is to think that to simply have more Outstanding Teachers is sufficient, and that it is possible to simply have more Outstanding Teachers, enough indeed to turn around a whole system. It is very easy to say and delivers nice padding for speeches, but it is not where our principal challenge lies. Truth is, there is no special breed of people called ‘Outstanding Teachers’ and, even if there were, there wouldn’t be anywhere near enough of them to solve our system-wide problems. Life is messier than that, and outstanding practice (and otherwise) is a sliding scale which we all move up and down, the more/less so dependent on the school context, quality of leadership and myriad other factors. Transforming and transformative education is of course driven by recruiting and keeping good teachers – but what we really need is to think of how we best empower and enable the ‘ordinary teachers’, that being what the vast majority of those toiling away in the education system are (I blogged on this here). We might use a footballing analogy here: a manager might long for that one special player who can produce that ‘moment of magic’, but he is unlikely to then demand 11 of them. And even if that ideal were possible, it wouldn’t be scale-able across a whole system – instead we must create an environment where all can perform; for every Mahrez, there are a handful of Danny Simpsons and Robert Huths whom we also need to perform. Long-term sustainability and whole-system improvement demands that we instead focus our efforts how to create the conditions for that success, rather than over-concentrating on unearthing diamonds (many of whom might leave the profession anyway).
- The Intangibles. Not easy, of course, because they are, well, intangible. However, bracketing this out of our conversations about schools and school improvement is to declare our analyses spiritually impoverished, neglectful of the beauty and soul that comprises an excellent education. In other words, it is to declare our analyses insufficient. Sometimes, then, we need to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and recognise the importance of those things which cannot be easily measured. In schools this can be a huge variety of factors, some of them hyperlocal, others more systemic, but all of which nonetheless need parsing. A small example: rural and provincial schools often have serious difficulty in providing their students with access to high culture. This is important. This has an impact. And yet it too rarely features in discussion about raising standards. It should do. It has to.
- Tempting as it might be, don’t build a case around data from Ofsted. The validity of their gradings is little trusted in the profession, not least because it too often contradicts our own experiences of the reality on the ground (we all know a school whose intake locks in the highest Ofsted grades, but whose practice and behaviour we know to be less impressive than the allegedly poor school down the road). In addition, anomalies are copious – note the confusing discrepancy between primaries and secondaries in the North-East, for example, an inconsistency that ought to lead one to wonder whether our accountability systems are quite the objective process they claim themselves to be (a point of order Sir Michael Wilshaw chose to acknowledge but not pursue in his speech on northern education). Indeed, Ofsted’s incoming director has shown herself open to abolishing the Outstanding grade, both for reasons of reliability (testing has suggested both ‘Outstanding’ and ‘Inadequate’ grading has the whiff of the arbitrary) and because of the impact it has on the system, including a concern that there is a system-bias against disadvantaged schools in grading. Thus, proceeding from statistics about how many Outstanding schools there in London compared to the North-West is likely to fall flat.