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Proletarian issue 27 (December 2008)
Education update: segregated schools, SATs scrapped for 14-year-olds
Jasper calls for segregated schools

A recent Warwick University study reports that institutional racism in Britain’s education system is at least partly to blame for the difference in academic results between white and black children.

Predictably, leading bourgeois black nationalist Lee Jasper has responded by calling for the creation of all-black schools, saying: “it’s time the black community ran its own schools, devised a curriculum that suited the needs of our children, [and] employed teachers that look like the young people they are teaching”. (Cited in ‘Does segregation bring excellence?’, Guardian Online, 12 September)

No doubt his plan will be welcomed by black nationalists and white fascists alike.

Jasper cites the example of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the US, noting that many well-known US black people were educated at these institutions. However, as Lola Adesioye, writing in The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ column on 12 September, points out, the conditions that gave rise to the HBCUs in the US do not exist in Britain.

“HBCUs arose as a response to slavery and then found a continued need when, during segregation, states did not allow black students into white schools.”

Jasper, with his typically narrow bourgeois outlook, misses (or distorts) the point completely. Ghettoising black children away in segregated schools will not solve the pernicious issue of racism in education.

Rather than demanding that black children be schooled separately, we must step up our demands for racism to be eliminated from the education system (and indeed all other levels of society); we must demand that the government and the mainstream press end their relentless racist divide-and-rule campaign; and we must work together, black and white workers, to end this rotten capitalist system for once and for all.

Segregation is exactly what the bourgeoisie wants – it is the exact desired outcome of their tactics to divide and rule the working class. Progressive people must not be fooled by the likes of Jasper into becoming active agents in their own enslavement.

SATs scrapped for 14-year-olds

In October, the government unexpectedly announced that they were scrapping the controversial Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) for 14-year-olds.

The more optimistic commentators claim that this sudden U-turn has been made in response to public pressure; more likely is that, in the light of the marking fiasco this summer, the government suspects it won’t be able to attract any bidders for the 2009 SATs marking contract – a potentially very embarrassing situation.

Regardless of the motives, the abandoning of SATs for 14-year-olds is good news for pupils, teachers and parents.

The Labour government has been heavily pushing the assessment agenda, as exam result league tables play a crucial role in stimulating the market for schools.

Meanwhile, standards in education are suffering badly. More than ever, teachers are under pressure to ‘teach to the test‘ – schools that don’t meet the national standards come under threat of closure and receive reduced funding. As a result, children’s brains are being stuffed full of superficial and unrelated facts and figures that will help them pass a test; the broader aim of educating them is being ignored.

Children are not being taught to think critically, to reason, to make meaningful decisions, to make abstractions, to analyse, or to question. What’s more, their natural passion for learning is being extinguished.

The Guardian of 28 October reported on a recent study by Michael Shayer, professor of applied psychology at King’s College London, which tested 800 13- and 14-year-olds’ ability to think analytically and logically.

“He applied a test identical to one carried out on the same number of pupils of the same age in 1976. In one of the tests, pupils were asked to study a pendulum swinging on a string and investigate what caused it to change speed. Some 24% of the teenagers gained high marks in this in 1976, while 11% did today. In another test, pupils were asked to think about what made weights balance on a beam. Some 20% gained the top marks in this a generation ago, while just 5% of today’s teenagers managed this.” (‘Brightest pupils less able than 30 years ago, research shows’)

The test was not concerned with detailed scientific knowledge but with abstract concepts such as volume, density, quantity and weight. Professor Shayer said: “The pendulum test does not require any knowledge of science at all. It looks at how people can deal with complex information and sort it out for themselves.”

He added that teachers taught pupils only basic skills and not higher-level thinking because they “faced public pressure to improve scores for SATs”. This is consistent with a recent Ofsted report on the teaching of mathematics, which noted that teachers were increasingly drilling pupils to pass exams instead of encouraging them to understand crucial concepts.

Said the report: “It is of vital importance to shift from a narrow emphasis towards a focus on pupils’ mathematical understanding.” (‘Too much maths “taught to test”’, BBC News Online, 19 September)

In spite of all of this, the government claims that academic standards are going up. The basis for their claim? You guessed it: exam results are getting better.

The point, however, is that these exams do not measure intelligence or ability; they measure how well the test has been prepared for (not forgetting, of course, that around 90 percent of the deviation in grades can be attributed to socio-economic factors).

Indeed, Paul Dressel described exam grades as “an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgement by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite amount of material”. (‘Facts and Fancy in Assigning Grades’, 1957)

So is the government simply ill-informed and short-sighted in relation to questions of education?

No. The government knows what it is doing. It is churning out the type of people modern, decadent capitalism demands: a proportion of moderately bright middle-class kids who will ‘manage things’ without asking too many questions; a proportion of dull but diligent working-class kids who will be unthinking wage slaves; and a proportion of lumpen kids with no prospects and very little will to live who will largely be ignored by the state except inasmuch as they sustain the alcohol and drugs markets.

Developing reasoning skills, analysis, abstraction, critical thinking, the ability to question authority, cooperation, social responsibility: these are things that the moribund capitalist class has no interest in, but which the revolutionary working class has every interest in.

To the extent that it’s possible under capitalist society, communists must lead the effort to inculcate those skills and nurture those characteristics that will be so crucial in the tasks of smashing capitalism and building socialism.
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