It has recently been brought to my attention that a Guardian piece I wrote over two years ago has resurfaced. Similar to when it was first published, there has been mixed responses to my writing, both in agreement and in opposition.

The idea that our education system is unfair has been supported by a recent CentreForum think-tank survey. It is important to consider the insidious use of data here to convince the humble consumer of fact that ‘our’ schools are failing ‘our’ kids’ – for ‘our’, read white. A discourse about how the use of data can be strategically used in the context of race and education is vital one; one that I am not going to attempt here. But, for reading on the subject please look no further than this piece by David Gillborn ‘The Monsterisation of Race Equality: How Hate Became Honourable’ in, The Runnymede School Report: Race, Education and Inequality in Contemporary Britain (2015).

The education system will continue to be unequal and unjust, as education is a microcosm of society.

The idea that knowledge and knowledge alone through the Common Core and Cultural Literacy approach is the only way to improve oneself through education is incorrect.

E. D. Hirsch’s idea of promoting a Common Core in US schools is now being replicated in many UK Academies and Free Schools. Hirsch argues for a curriculum based on a common core in which he (and two other white, middle-class male, university professors) identified 5,000 elements that every American student had to know to be “culturally literate”. He suggests that cultural literacy, “enables them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension” (E. D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, 1988). Indication of conservative education and corporate-controlled media symbiotically working to produce passive consumers?

Hirsch suggests that only by “freezing a culture” can essential content become standardised. Of course when you freeze a culture you only investigate a frozen moment in time. A freeze frame of only one point in history tells us that nothing can change, which of course is a deliberate strategy.

In a paper endorsed by the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA), Fenwick English analysed Hirsch’s work. He found that, “On his list of 575 famous persons, 247 were Americans and of those 75% were white males. Clearly, when culture is frozen so are the dominant and privileged social structures which define ‘literacy'”. With echoes of Bourdieu, the paper argues that, “Schools serve as the legitimisers of a form of cultural capital and preserve and retain the culture of the elites who are at the helm of social power.” 

As Paulo Freire (Literacy: Reading the Word & the World 1987 p. 36) proposed, cultural literacy should be an approach that encourages students to have, “a critical reading of reality” thus enabling students to have a reading of the world within words. This allows students to understand their world and where possible or needed, transform it. Reading the world (according to Mendoza) means to understand how human practices and social, political and economic systems influence and manipulate history, language, culture, and society to accentuate privilege for some and take away the humanity of many. The written word is a tool that can be used to explore and critically analyse the world. Therefore, the act of reading the word and the world can serve as an instrument to guide students to challenge existing structures of inequality and oppression.

Freire explains that, “To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognise its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 1970 p. 47)

The argument that people (like me) – who stimulate discussions on epistemology (the formation, definition, significance and limits of knowledge) – are saying that knowledge is not important and not necessary is a clear indication of some who are either unwilling or unskilled to have a real debate on this subject. Which of course is a deliberate strategy.

The idea of having more than one complex thought inside one’s head at any given time appears to be problematic for some. As Henry Giroux has written recently we live in a moment of time that annihilates thinking and where, “thought chases after an emotion that can obliterate it.”

Students who don’t ‘fit the bill’ or fall below the agreed measurement of having enough or the right level of ‘character’ or even, that don’t show enough ‘grit’ should not be asked and expected to fulfil the requirements to assimilate – through a defined cannon of knowledge – into a certain type of ‘successful’ person. Depending on what your definition of success is of course.

The notion that knowing the right stuff allows people to escape their ‘disadvantages’ (be it income, class, race or religion) is wrong. Kids (from a different class, race, ethnicity and religion from those generally in power) can learn all the stuff that they are told is important, but they will (unfortunately) fail. See Appendix.

But what about the individual ‘success stories’ of black and minority ethnic students or schools with above average numbers of free school meals students which outperform their affluent school counterparts? This is explained by the Faustian bargain that educators have taken to de-culturalise their pupils and convince them into believing that it is necessary to cast off their own inferior backgrounds, values and culture in order for them to become ‘successful’ and ‘achieve’ through knowing and accepting new and superior values, cultures and knowledge. This is a perfect example of Derrick Bell’s idea of ‘interest convergence’, where racial advances and successes (of students) are only encouraged and supported when they promote white self-interest (of schools/leaders).

We live in a time when politicians, with the assistance of the media, used fallacious data to represent improvement in certain groups and highlighted success stories to infer that the education system is indeed fair, equal and not in the slightest bit racist.

Students need to know, own and be allowed to feel proud of their knowledge in order for them to ‘win’. As my friend and colleague, Sadia Habib, has recently written,  “Students feel empowered by having their critical counter-narratives validated and valued. Where students hear others’ stories and tell their own, schools can become critical sites of opportunity for reflection, resistance and hopeful futures.” (Teaching & Learning Britishness. Encountering and negotiating discourses of identities and belongings through critical pedagogy, 2016)

Students also need to develop an understanding on what makes knowledge and who defines what knowledge is. Who determines what is the ‘best that has been said and done’? Who validates what is classed as high culture compared to low culture. Who evaluates what inferior knowledge is and what represents superior values? And when they’ve answered those questions, they need to start thinking about why.

Students should be afforded the privilege of knowing the truth uncontaminated by power. Classroom teachers and school leaders need to consider Gert Biesta’s idea of ‘demystifying’ what is hidden (often overtly) from the everyday views of those being oppressed, rather than indoctrinating students into a mould that society and schools have already defined for them. Only when we demistify knowledge will our students’ paths become clear. “Illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (James Baldwin, The Creative Process, 1962).

By subjecting students to a pre-determined, carefully selected and sometimes, tampered knowledge, we are not only instilling the idea that this knowledge is superior and more important than others (including and especially theirs) but also we are writing students out of history. Many have already been written out. By refusing to acknowledge and recognise that other knowledge exists, both supporting and contradictory, we are separating education from democracy and as soon as we do that our students become powerless. They have therefore been written out of democracy as well.

As Stuart Hall has insisted, “People have to invest something of themselves, something that they recognise is meaningful to them, or speaks to their condition and without that moment of recognition’ any effort to change the way people inhabit social relations of domination will fail.”

Through pedagogy we can start changing the way people see things. Insisting on a Common Core or an ‘elected’ Cultural Literacy is, as Henry Giroux explains a ‘repressive requirement’ that, “undermines the ability of teachers to be creative, engage with the communities in which they work and teach in order to make knowledge critical and transformative” 

We have a duty to catalyse our young people to become mobilised, where students are encouraged and helped to truly understand what is going on and reclaim back their essential cultural literacy. Students can then develop turning meaningful knowledge into transformational knowledge.

Appendix.

School: The 2009 Nuffield Review (Education For All: The Future of Education and Training For 14–19 Year Olds: Summary, Implications and Recommendations) concluded that the education system for 14–19-year-olds was tailored to serve the interests of richer students. The inequality of our education system is also described in a 2014 Sutton Trust report (Open Access: An Independent Evaluation) where the findings show that between the ages of 26 and 42 someone who attends an independent school will earn a total of £193,700 more than someone who attends a state school. Even when factors such as family background and early educational achievement are taken into account, the wage difference between state and independent schooling is at a staggering £57,653.

Race: In David Gilborn’s Racism and Education, Coincidence or Conspiracy? (2008), Gilborn has analysed official Department for Education DfE statistics and found that if inequalities of race trends continue, then the Black and White inequality of student achievement will be permanent. Based on a 10-year trend, “The soonest that Black students would hit 100 per cent, and finally close the gap, is 2054.” He goes onto to say, “the present incremental changes in attainment, accompanied by self-congratulatory ‘Gap Talk’, disguise a situation where pronounced racial inequalities of attainment are effectively locked-in as a permanent feature of the system”.

Class: Research in 2014 from the London School of Economics and Political Science (London School of Economics and Political Science, Black and Ethnic Minority Students Less Likely To Receive Offers From University Than White Students) suggests that young people from a lower social class backgrounds and ethnic minority groups are less likely to be offered a university place even with sufficient academic attainment.

Religion: And, if this wasn’t enough, it appears that no matter how academically successful you are, it really depends on your religion that may hold you back. Dr Nabil Khattab and Professor Ron Johnston found using data from the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey of more than half a million people, that Muslims were the most disadvantaged in terms of employment prospects out of 14 ethno-religious groupings in the UK. Muslim men were up to 76% less likely to have a job of any kind compared to white, male British Christians of the same age and with the same qualifications. And Muslim women were up to 65% less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts. See R. Dobson, British Muslims Face Worst Job Discrimination of Any Minority Group, According To Research, The Independent (30 November 2014).