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Is school helpful in the development of a child

Is school helpful in the development of a child

Education in Britain as changed greatly since World War II, mainly due to the 1944 Education Act, which made secondary education free and compulsory until the age of 15 years. The views taken of education and its importance in national, economic and political terms have varied a great deal since then with each new government: there have been many good intentions but too few initiatives taken to achieve the ideal system. Unfortunately this means that, unless you are white, male, middle class and non-handicapped, the institution of the school may not be very helpful to your development, and your days at school may be remembered as a time of prejudice, frustration and lost opportunities.

The immediate post-war period in Britain constituted a new way of thinking about public and private life. There were many promises heralding a better life for everyone, including the provision of free, compulsory secondary education: public education came to be seen as a 'bastion of national recovery' (T.E.S., Gosden, 1983). Pupils were regarded as having different types of skills, and comprehensivisation was not yet a goal; instead three types of school were suggested: grammar, technical and secondary modern (Finch, 1984), with grammar schools continuing to be seen as superior and biased towards middle-class boys. The 1959 Crowther Report recommended raising the school leaving age to 16 years, the introduction of comprehensive school and a new exam below GCE level; however, these moves towards equal opportunities were not completed until the 1970s. Similarly, the 1983 Newsom Report argued that pupils of below average ability should receive a greater share of resources, and recommended improved teacher training. These two reports suggested that not only had the system failed to achieve equal opportunities, but that it did not genuinely want to do so.

From the 1960s onwards, education was seen more and more in the context of economics (Dale, 1989); an instrument of national interest rather than personal fulfilment. It was during this period that the question of racial and ethnic minority groups entered the debate for the first time, due to increasing immigration. However, it was taken for granted that these children needed to become like the white population as quickly as possible, and so little genuine progress was made (Finch, 1984). Despite the lack of enthusiasm from Conservative Governments, comprehensivisation accelerated in the 1970s, so that by 1974, 62% of secondary pupils were in comprehensive schools. Mrs.Thatcher, as, Education Secretary, did little to slow down the erosion of education as an instrument of social improvement; her first action was to remove free school milk for children over seven and her ideas indicated a departure from the principles of 1944: a strong emphasis on standards, and a fear of the power of teachers.

Education became more and more under central (and parental) control in the 1980s; the 1980 Education Act made it no longer the duty of LEAs to provide free school meals, and introduced parental scrutiny and choice. The second half the 1980s saw a restructuring, and the unashamed acknowledgement that the market was the new cornerstone of education (Dale, 1989). Key aims were now to keep output constant and affordable, to remove LEAs as a source of education policy making, and to replace effectiveness with efficiency. Parents became consumers, and pupils the viable product to be produced and then exploited in the name of national interest. The 1988 Education Act is a set of 'compromises and interventions' (Ball, 1990): it sets out the National Curriculum (fine in principle, but unfair in practice), more power to school governers, and the possibility of 'opting out' of LEA control by individual schools. Despite the good intentions of the 1940s, and the many worthwhile recommendations made in the (largely ignored) reports, education in the 1990s is still not a system of equal opportunities concerned with personal fulfilment - the pupil is seen as an undifferentiated asset to the economy; or if not an asset, then the child is to be virtually excluded from the system in order not to damage the cogs of the educational machine.

In an ideal situation, a young person will learn many and varied things through school, which will aid his/her development so that his/her full potential may be achieved. By the time a young person leaves school, at whatever stage suits his/her abilities and aspirations, he/she should be self-confident, satisfied and fulfilled. The child should have a store of knowledge, life-skills, the motivation for further development, and exam success which truly reflects his/her capabilities. Whilst at school, the pupil should have had the opportunity to form friendships with peers, and relationships with staff which provide a positive image of the world and the people in it, as well as being introduced to new ideas and activities. However, this is very much an ideal; for a great many young people, this description of school life would be totally alien to their experience, due to the prejudice inherent in the institution.

These negative experiences of school tend to be suffered by pupils from minority groups. Particularly hard hit are pupils from West Indian and other black backgrounds, for whom the evidence of under-achievement is prolific; see the UEA studies of 1966 and 1968 (Eggleston, Dunn and Aryali, 1986). Black children tend to be perceived by teachers not as individuals with differing abilities, but as an homogeneous group of automatically low ability, and as undisciplined troublemakers. Unfortunately, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as pupils live up to the expectations of the teachers. The Rampton Report (1981) found significant underachievement in West Indians; similar figures were found by the Swann Report (1985), which testified to the existence of racism and prejudice in schools. Of course, such pre-assessment affect exam entries: 25% of Affro-Carribean boys were entered for 'O' levels, compared with 53.4% of white boys (Eggleston et al, 1986) - this is despite findings of equal, or superior intelligence: Bagley (1975) found children of middle-class African origin performed better on a Stanford Binet IQ test than similar white children. If a black pupil is female or has special needs, his/her chances of succeeding or even slimmer.

It is not only girls of ethnic minorities who are prevented from achieving their full potential - so too are middle class, white girls in 'good' schools. Even today, the dominant, albeit unconscious, ideology is to regulate cultural norms of gender behaviour (Walker and Barton, 1983); these norms are carried into school by both staff and pupils. Girls are not expected to do as well, are not brought up to be assertive, and so tend to underachieve, and blame themselves for it (Light and Dwek, 1987). Teachers praise different qualities in boys and girls - girls are rewarded for being 'obedient, tidy and conscientious' rather than 'lively, independent and energetic' (Arnot, 1981). Until very recently, girls' choices in the curriculum were limited, either explicitly or implicitly, and they were encouraged not to choose scientific or technical subjects: Deem (1978) states that girls' exam successes cluster around arts subjects, which are of limited value for entry into jobs, and lead to different routes in further education. Exams themselves and other measures of achievement are biased against girls: for example, multiple choice tests are much more suited to 'male' logic than 'female' verbal abilities. Problems such as these make it important that steps are taken to change prejudiced expectations and the ways in which pupils are assessed; this would include educating teachers to understand their biases, and helping girls to alter their expectations so that they can achieve what is really within their interests and capabilities.

Another area in which young people are not given the chance to fully develop their potential is that of Special Educational Needs (SEN), defined by the 1988 Education Act as a 'learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made'. The definition obviously requires some comparison with a 'norm', although this norm is not specified and different education authorities have different averages. Although the move now is away from labelling, since the Warnock Report (1983) many SEN pupils are still educated in separate units or in special schools, which can cause isolation and become a self-fulfilling prophecy (Lewis and Vuillamy, 1981). Unfortunately, it is implicit in current attitudes that problems are psychological rather than social, and pupils are rated in categories such as 'expressive language' and 'current intellectual functioning' - which can sometimes say more about teacher attitudes than they do about the pupils. Barton and Tomlinson (1981) ask, 'at which point does caring become controlling?'.

The Educational Psychologist (EP) who statements a pupil as SEN has a great effect on the life of that child and his/her family; many EPs still believe in intelligence tests, which have been shown to be unfair. There is, as yet, only provision in the National Curriculum for children with special needs to be 'disapplied' - will they simply be classified as failures, or will schools refuse to take them as they will lower the school's average examination marks? Local financial management (1988 Reform Act) means that many authorities will not have the money to spend on Eps, so many children with such needs will go undetected and unprovided for. In order for special needs pupils to develop fully, it will be necessary to improve professional training, and alter perceptions of SEN children, so that their abilities, rather than their disabilities, form the basis of their education.

The function of British schooling has evidently changed quite considerably since 1945, and in many ways this has been an improvement for the majority of pupils. However, there is a significant group covering ethnic minorities, girls and SEN pupils who have largely missed out so far. If Britain is to make the most of its resources, it is essential that attitudes change so that the potential which is presently ignored, may be tapped and fulfilled.

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