Nicky Morgan proposes a retrogressive, enforced segregation of pupils based on ability


 Every Child Matters, Labour’s flagship child protection and welfare policy, was scrapped in 2010, the day after the Coalition took office


As Social Darwinists, the Tories do like ranks, taxonomies, hierarchies, outgrouping and social segregation. Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, proposes to introduce compulsory “setting” according to pupil’s ability in secondary schools. Patrick Wintour reports in the Guardian that it’s expected Morgan will ask the education watchdog, Ofsted, to implement and enforce the measure, probably by making it a condition of receiving an “outstanding” rating. Ofsted is likely to be highly critical of the proposal.

I think this proposal tells us such a lot about Tory ideology. It would turn the clock back on inclusion 30 years, to a time when the idea of segregating children was acceptable, if this becomes policy. This is also an attack on the very principle of inclusion. The foundation of any progressive education policy must be settled on and work towards all schools being willing and able to include, value, support, care for and respect all children, in their diversity, including young people with complex needs that require additional support.

Diversity is a strength and a great learning resource – it shouldn’t ever be the basis for segregation and exclusion.

Schools may currently decide whether to put children into classes according to ability. The proposal to make it compulsory is likely to raise questions as to how the plan is to be enforced legally, since independent state academies were supposedly set up to be free of state control.

Setting according to ability for separate subjects is controversial since it helps those with high ability and tends to leave those with lower ability behind.

And with the Conservative’s emphasis on cutting funding, and their previous form, it’s unlikely that any meaningful support will be put in place for those children with “additional” educational needs.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Ofsted chief inspector, has been a firm supporter of setting, he said in 2012 that “bright teenagers fail to achieve top grades in some comprehensives because teachers insist on mixed-ability classes and concentrate on weaker students. Able children are being held back in some schools that do not tailor teaching, tasks and resources to stretch their best pupils.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “If Nicky Morgan is committed to closing the gap for disadvantaged children the last thing she should do is to divide children into ability sets and to use Ofsted to enforce this.

“This is educationally unjustifiable. The evidence is overwhelming that this practice holds back poor children, denying them access to an appropriately demanding curriculum. Any claim that Ofsted is independent of government ideology will be shot to pieces if the agency is required to enforce ministerial dogma.”

Research has indicated that overall, ability grouping benefits higher attaining pupils and is detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners. On average, ability grouping is not regarded to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups. Summer born pupils and students from ethnic minority backgrounds are also likely to be adversely affected by ability grouping.

The evidence is fairly consistent and has accumulated over at least 30 years of research. (I know of some studies that date back to the 1960’s.) Although there is some variation depending on methods and research design, conclusions on the impact of ability grouping are relatively consistent. It is therefore difficult to see this proposal as anything but an endorsement of discrimination, in light of consistent findings that those pupils labeled “less able” are being set up to fail.

Morgan fails to recognise that there’s an important distinction to be made: that a measure of “current attainment,” such as a recent curriculum test, is not the same as a measure of a child’s ability or of potential.

Furthermore, a strong body of historical research indicates that the allocation of children to bands and sets is often based upon inaccurate and prejudicial teacher assessments of pupils’ abilities and/or potential.

Working class pupils are disproportionately likely to be allocated to lower bands and sets for reasons unrelated to their educational abilities and potential. Furthermore, the consignment of some pupils to lower bands and sets is likely to affect their self-confidence and therefore to restrict their educational progress.

Social interaction theorists (from the 1960’s onwards) said that the processes of streaming, setting and banding involve the negative and positive labeling respectively of mainly working class pupils in the lower sets and mainly middle class pupils in the higher sets, which has adverse consequences for the educational prospects of the lower set pupils.

Hargreaves study – Deviance in Classrooms – of mainly white working class secondary modern school boys in the 1960s – demonstrated that low stream pupils were denied academic status within the school and that they therefore tried to regain status among their peers by rebelling, misbehaviour and unwillingness to work which led to the development of anti-school subcultures in lower streams. Paul Willis’s study, Learning to Labour, yielded similar conclusions.

Additional criticisms of setting, banding and streaming were made by Nell Keddie in Classroom Knowledge (1970) where she observed that an undifferentiated humanities course was delivered differently according to the sets of the students and that, for example, teachers chose not to teach the more complex, theoretical ideas to mainly working class, lower set students on the unfounded assumption that these students would not understand them.

In the 1950s almost all the schools in the UK were “streamed” – a process by which students are grouped by “ability” in the same class for all subjects. A survey of junior schools in the mid-1960s (Jackson, 1964) found that 96% of teachers taught to streamed ability groups. The same study also revealed the over-representation of working-class students in low streams and the tendency of schools to allocate teachers with less experience and fewer qualifications to such groups.

Students’ experiences of ability grouping have historically been disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. Low sets are correlated with low expectations and limited opportunities. It establishes self-fulfilling prophecies.

Labelling theory

“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.”  Hildegard Von Bingen

Self-fulfilling prophecy is the behavioural confirmation effect, in which behaviour, influenced by expectations causes those expectations to come true. People react, not only to the situations they are in, but also, and often primarily, to the way they perceive the situations and to the meanings they ascribe to their perceptions. Sociologists often use the Pygmalion effect, interchangeably with self-fulfilling prophecy, and the effect is most often cited with regard to educational under-attainment, social class and race.

“When teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways. How we believe the world is and what we honestly think it can become have powerful effects on how things will turn out.”  James Rhem, executive editor for the online National Teaching and Learning Forum.

In the context of race, gender and class, negative labeling is often associated with  socio-political control mechanisms and prejudice. Stereotypes and labels estrange us from our authentic possibilities. The attributions and labels that people exchange on a symbolic level, also have the function of instruction or injunction, this function may be denied, giving rise to one type of “mystification”, rather like hypnotic suggestion.

It is argued that working class pupils are disproportionately likely to be allocated to lower bands and sets for reasons unrelated to their educational abilities and potential and that the consignment of some pupils to lower bands and sets is likely to affect their self-esteem, self-concept, and therefore to restrict their educational progress. So working class young people are written off as incapable of achieving, by the setting up of a frame of reference in which their failings are noticed and their achievements discounted.

Numerous studies have concluded that teachers, who themselves originated mainly from middle-class backgrounds, have often failed to assess their pupils’ academic potential objectively and instead have been very likely to assess students’ academic potential in terms of such variables as their appearance, language, social skills and social class background rather than in terms of their real intellectual abilities, with a bias towards judging working class children as being on average less intelligent than middle class children. It followed that where streaming, setting or banding systems were in operation, working class students were more likely to be consigned to lower streams, sets or bands even when in reality they often had very good academic potential.

Setting establishes an educational elitism which is based largely on class distinctions and not abilities, those labeled negatively are unlikely to progress onto further and higher education. That’s such a blatant repression of potential and opportunities.

It’s strange, isn’t it, that those who value orders and classes are always at the top of both?

Of course I can’t, in good conscience, leave this topic without a Marxist analysis.

Louis Althusser argued that the main role of education in a capitalist society was the reproduction of an efficient and obedient work force. This is achieved through ideological state apparatus – such as schools – used to augment the reproduction of class relations using insidious ideological machinations controlled by the dominant ruling class in the context of a class struggle, to repress, exploit, extort and subjugate the ruled class.

Schools are used for transmitting ideology that capitalism is just and reasonable, schools, for example, encourage competition amongst pupils, school hierarchies of authority train future workers to become submissive to authority.

The Hidden Curriculum

Bowles and Gintis’s research Schooling in Capitalist America (1976) supported Althusser’s ideas that there is a close correspondence between the social relationships in the classroom and those in the workplace, through the hidden curriculum . As a means of social control, the hidden curriculum promotes the acceptance of a social “destiny” without promoting rational and reflective consideration.

The functions of the hidden curriculum include: the inculcation of values, political socialisation, training in obedience and docility, the perpetuation of traditional class structure-functions that may be characterised generally as social control.”  Bowles and Gintis argue schools introduce the long shadow of work because schools create a hard-working disciplined workforce for capitalist societies. This process is essential for social reproduction – the reproduction of a new generation of workers schooled (disciplined) into accepting their role in society.

This occurs because school mirrors the workplace through its hierarchical structures – teachers give orders and pupils obey. Schools are a microcosm of society, too. Pupils have little control over their work – a fact of life in the majority of jobs. Schools reward conformity, punctuality and obedience and are dismissive of independence, critical awareness and creativity – this also mirrors workplace expectations. The hidden curriculum is seen by Bowles and Gintis as instrumental in this process.

Schools reflect and justify social inequality – they legitimate the Conservative myth that everyone has an equal chance – those that work hard deserve the top jobs, these people deserve their superior rewards – this is the myth of meritocracy. It is in this way that inequality becomes normalised and justified. However Bowles and Gintis argue that rewards in education and occupation are based not on ability but on social background. The higher a person’s class or origin the more likely they are to attain higher qualifications and a career.

Besides family background and income differences, other determinants such as race and gender do contribute to differences in educational attainment. Bowles and Gintis conclude that the educational system is a gigantic myth-making machine which serves to create and perpetuate inequality, and by emphasising IQ as the basis for economic success, the educational system legitimises an authoritative, hierarchical, stratified and unequal social system, it manufactures the myth that those in powerful positions in society deserve their positions and financial “rewards”.

IQ testing is an intellectual cul-de-sac that does not reflect skill and talent

IQ testing is culturally specific. It tells us nothing more than how well people perform IQ tests. Traditional studies of “intelligence” based on IQ tests, which have drawn links between intellectual ability, race, gender and social class, have led to highly contentious claims that some groups of people are inherently less intelligent that other groups. But that betrays a thinking of intelligence as a fixed, innate ability, instead of something that develops as a process in a context.

Intelligence isn’t something we have, it’s something we learn to do. 

But this is the kind of government that would have children learning their times tables by rote, which is just so very century before last. This approach is based on a view that students are passive objects, rather than participating subjects, in the learning process. It seems that Conservatives are incapable of learning from historical policy failures. And the many sociological studies that were instrumental in formulating more effective education methods in the late 60s and 70s.

Rote learning is a way of bypassing critical thinking and understanding-based learning. And creativity. It’s founded on a “jugs and mugs principle” – an authoritarian-styled learning process, where teachers “fill” the pupil with facts and it’s not remotely about democratic engagement and participatory, dialogic learning. It turns students off, disengages them, excluding them from the learning process.

Children being ranked and labelled is extremely problematic – each of us is complex, with such varied, developing and ongoing talents, aptitudes and preferences, and it seems that any one number purporting to quantify our intelligence must be grossly misleading in every case, as well as providing nothing more than a snapshot of limited and specific task performance.

The right are obsessed with the taxonomic ranking of human beings based on superficial characteristics. They have no interest in the depth of “who” we are, but only the surface appearance of us – the “what” we are.

IQ testing originally evolved from the eugenics movement. The founding father of eugenics was  Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Over the course of Galton’s varied career, he not only codified the “science of eugenics” but also pioneered psychometry as a tool for measuring people’s “intelligence” and determining whether it would be best for them to breed or not. Galton coined the phrase nature versus nurture and identified the trend of regression towards the mean, though his original term for this was reversion towards mediocrity. So long as “unintelligent” people were allowed to reproduce freely, mankind could never rise above its “native mediocrity”. What a wretched, oppressive, repressive and right-wing view.

Charles Murray’s New Right treatise on the white, male elite supremicism

I read the The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life  (1994) by psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and American political scientist Charles Murray in the 90’s, and it filled me with utter despair. Funded by Conservatives in the States, the book was simply a neo-eugenic narrative masqueraded as “academic study”. Murray justified the status quo by claiming poor people, and especially ethnic minorities, were of lower intelligence than white middle class citizens, and that this was largely genetically determined.  

Bob Herbert, writing for The New York Times, described the book as: “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship.Others, including Noam Chomsky, have pulled this cheap right-wing pseudo-scientific catalogue of prejudices apart most thoroughly, ever since.

Challenging what he deemed to be “educational romanticism”, Murray, a darling of Thatcher and Cameron, wrote Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. His “four simple truths” are:

  • “Ability varies.”
  • “Half of the children are below average.”
  • “Too many people are going to college.”
  • “America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

In a paper published in 2005 titled Where Are the Female Einsteins?  Murray  the charmer stated, among other things: “no woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions”. 

Murray advocates educational exclusion and social oppression for the majority of pupils. He has been a “academic witness” before United States congressional and senate committees and a consultant to senior Republican government officials in the United States, and of course, Conservative officials in the United Kingdom.

From the ranking, banking model to a democratic, dialogic model

So, is there an alternative education model?

Yes. One I have worked with myself, (as a community worker and informal educator), and it’s based on liberation psychology. It’s far more about critical thinking, egalitarianism, creativity and inspiration than formalised teaching permits.

The genesis of liberation psychology began amongst a body of psychologists in Latin America in the 1970s. Ignacio Martín-Baró is credited as the founder of liberation psychology, and it was further developed by others. Of particular interest here is the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and one of the key concepts of liberation psychology is concientización: critical consciousness – a recognition of the intrinsic connectedness of the person’s experience and the sociopolitical structure. Freire believed education to be a political act that could not be divorced from pedagogy. Freire defined this as a main tenet of his critical “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

Teachers and students must become aware of the politics that surround education. The way students are taught and what they are taught serves a political agenda. Teachers themselves have political notions that they bring into the classroom.

Freire attacked what he called the “banking” concept of education, in which the student was viewed as a passive participant – empty accounts to be “filled” by the teacher. He notes that “it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.” 

Freire recognised that emphasis on individual characteristics are a result of social relations, and to view such individualistically de-emphasizes the role of social structure and  is responsible for the incorrect attribution of sociopolitical problems to the individual. Liberation psychology addresses this by re-orienting the focus from an individualistic to a social one. Using this framework, the behaviour of oppressed people is conceptualised not through intra-psychic processes, but as a result of an alienating environment.

Freire advocated authentic dialogue-based learning, where the role of the student shifts from object to active, critical subject. Freire heavily endorsed students’ ability to think critically about their education situation, this way of thinking allows them to recognise connections between their individual problems and experiences and the social contexts in which they are embedded.

Realising one’s consciousness is the first step of praxis, which is defined as the power and know-how to take action against oppression, whilst stressing the importance of liberating education. Praxis involves engaging in a cycle of theory, application, evaluation, reflection, and then referring back to theory. Social transformation is possible through praxis at the collective level.

In 1999, PAULO, a National Training Organisation named in honour of Freire, was established in the United Kingdom. This agency was approved by the New Labour Government to represent some 300,000 community-based education practitioners working across the UK (myself included). It was a platform also, perhaps surprisingly, for Blair’s re-democratising democracy programme, based on a dialogic democracy, and a recognition of the centrality of life politics.

PAULO was given formal responsibility for setting the occupational training standards for people working in this field, and was based on a revolutionary anarchist/Marxist model of critical education. Even outside of that political context, Freire’s collective works, and especially Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has huge value and merit as a direction for an approach to teaching which is based on self awareness, community awareness, political awareness, responsibility, critical thinking, creativity, dialogue and social solidarity, and not on manipulation and oppression.

The Tories, however, are unrelentingly authoritarian, and this is reflected in their notions of “education”, which are: “Raising standards (through “setting” and taking those segregated off record: the “disappeared”)… and restoring discipline – so our children can compete with the world’s best and enjoy a better future.”

So nothing at all there about developing human potential, personal development, social development or even the fundamental capacity for critical thinking.

A person who has not had opportunities to think critically about social and political reality, but simply accepts it is thereby simply participating in the world in a way that has been organised and designed for him/her by others.

If being human means exercising choice and freedom, then such uncritical, passive acceptance means being less than human.

But Tories prefer us that way. They don’t like to extend equal opportunities.

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Pictures courtesy of  Robert Livingstone


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15 thoughts on “Nicky Morgan proposes a retrogressive, enforced segregation of pupils based on ability

  1. What an excellent article/response to this usual hair-brained ideas of non-scientific (or perhaps evilly scientific) political figures. Move straight into the “A” stream…

    I would add that there have been studies that linked factors such as diet to educational achievement, in addition to all the factors you mention. Considering the sustained attack on those at the lower end of the income scale, the recent reports of the re-appearance of actual malnutrition-related health problems in children and the stressful home environments the summation of current government policies are directly responsible for, I would suggest that the overall effect would be more than simply a self-fulfilling expectation.

    It would be to guarantee that the divide is amplified and perpetuated.

    As a starting point for anyone who wishes to follow up on this dietary / socio-economic status effect:

    Click to access RCB03-06.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Piaget’s cognitive development theory focuses on development, rather than learning per se, so it does not address learning of information or specific behaviours. But it could be argued that rote learning times tables is part of a schema, and provides a building block for knowledge, I suppose.


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