The construction of student worth in policy enactments – past and present

Meg Maguirepost by MEG MAGUIRE
Professor of Sociology of Education, King’s College London

In the long-standing policies that have centred on grouping children, selecting some for ‘special treatment’ either because they have ‘learning difficulties’ or because they are ‘high ability’ or some such rhetoric of inclusion/exclusion, there is a pattern of continuity, albeit one that shifts its form and some of its practices. Let me start with some examples of these policy workings from the past to illustrate these practices. Jackson and Marsden’s study of eighty-eight working class children demonstrated powerfully ‘how savagely and sadly a school system can become a tenacious self-fulfilling prophecy, cutting talent down in the search for the chosen few’. They wrote of the ‘vicious circle here, for when the children found themselves graded as C the parents felt ashamed, felt it was for all ‘of no use’ and communicated this feeling to sons and daughters’. But this was not a new experience; these differentiating practices have been and still deeply part of English education, produced in different forms, since the inception of state education. For example, Brian Simon writing of the 1930s told of how schools utilised mechanisms to select those with academic capacity, ‘to pick them out early, help them along, differentiate their teaching from that of the ‘rest’ in preparation for the move into a differentiated sphere of schooling simultaneously designating those ‘others’ as ‘socially inferior children’.

Policy is a compromise between the past, present and future as ‘new principles and innovations are merged and conflated with older rationales and previous practices’. Two studies of young people ‘choosing’ in the post-compulsory education and training market demonstrated that some young people at the end of compulsory secondary schooling had internalized a view of themselves as ‘lacking’ in some ways. Having experienced less success at doing school and being less able to construct themselves as ‘good learners’ meant that the young people in these studies experienced formal schooling as a time and place that spoke to their shortcomings, rather than anything more positive. Less successful young people may leave school with damaged learner identities and carry with themselves, messages of their own reduced worth and a perception that it was ‘for all “of no use”’.

Well, sitting in lessons every day and listening to teachers telling you what to do, that isn’t really enjoyable is it?… And finding the work hard isn’t enjoyable either is it? And teachers that don’t help you, don’t make it enjoyable do it? So, I don’t get much out of this school, do I? (Debra – student with ‘learning difficulties’)

In a recent study based in four secondary schools that explored how policies were being enacted (or not), not unexpectedly, all the schools were concentrating on raising student attainment. Teachers were sometimes uncomfortable with having to ‘measure and compare’ their students ‘and attempt to find a balance between the interests of the students and the interests of ‘the school’. However, as a consequence of the pressure to perform, students were ‘objectified as talented, borderline, underachieving, irredeemable etc.’ Students were being ‘branded’ as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ learners in relation to their perceived capacity to attain, a judgment that had outcomes in terms of the resources and support that was given to different categories of students.

I think a lot of the time you got sorted into a lower set or something and it was like ‘oh that’s me done, I’m never going to be smart enough kind of situation’…   they see it as people giving up on them more that anything. (John, working class white student).

In a time when education policy seems more and more to do with separation, segregation and selection then the social justice costs are considerable indeed. Policy (and practice) is still trapped in a binary of less and more worthy students – a discourse that is legitimated and perhaps internalized through a panoply of test data, levels, standards and other mechanisms of measurement. In Jackson and Marsden’s study, working class parents did not contest these processes of segregation and differentiation of their children ‘for them it was an absolute judgment by the experts in the field’. If we want a socially just education for all our children, then we must find a way to counter, once and for all, these regressive and destructive policies and practices of waste and some of these ‘judgments of experts’ as well.

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3 thoughts on “The construction of student worth in policy enactments – past and present”

  1. I was never told I wouldn’t succeed, but it was implied in many ways. The look of derision from some teachers was the worst, it said “why bother”. It was as if they believed intelligence was fixed and linear. This meant a disabled learner could never hit a high note (as they couldn’t master basic skills first). I’m glad I proved so many wrong, however while wanting to think things had changed, I hear that many are still facing similar prejudice today – 30yrs on.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts -I think these sorts of ‘implications’ can be poisonous and so hard to eradicate. 30 years on and still with us!

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