Tribal language

Words of division won’t put the UK together again, argues Malcolm Gillies

October 20, 2011

All can hang on a word. Sir Peter Scott’s key word in a recent Guardian article was “equal”. Quoting Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009), he contended that a growing “enthusiasm for inequality” is undermining not just the university system, but society itself. Yes, we are breaking down into tribes, whether university mission groups, political factions or corporate clubs. But, as The Spirit Level maintains, equal societies are ultimately more efficient and, let’s not forget, fairer. Ours is a sad age marked by the growing acceptance of inequality.

One driver of tribal behaviour is league tables. They seek to differentiate, not equalise, institutions, often by blowing up small differences into much bigger ones. The Sunday Times’ University Guide 2012 claims on its front cover to be “definitive”. To whom? To “prospective students”, the paper says, quoting Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University (up from sixth to third this year). And why? Because “it’s student satisfaction that moves the market”. This is the claimed “mood” of 2012. And that mood change explains The Sunday Times’ rejigging of its league table criteria and weightings to give much more emphasis to National Student Survey results.

In an essay earlier this year for The New Yorker, “The order of things: What college rankings really tell us”, Malcolm Gladwell’s key word was “quality”. He compared rating practices for cars and suicide statistics before looking at universities and the now-veteran US News & World Report’s annual “Best Colleges” guide. Gladwell focused on “implicit ideological choices” in criteria and weightings. And his conclusion was unsurprising: “Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking.”

Value for money featured in Gladwell’s final example - a topic that should elicit heightened interest as English institutions move towards a wider spread of tuition fees. Gladwell niftily demonstrated how you could insert the University of Alabama into the legal education league, even above Stanford University, if value for money were heavily weighted. Universities such as Alabama or Colorado would become winners because they offer “good education for a decent price”. Affordability may be coming our way, too, next year.

How might next year’s Sunday Times table go if the mood swings from the micro-slicing of student satisfaction to something more visceral: an age of austerity’s micro-slicing of value for money? And who would then be quoted on the front cover to justify the word “definitive”?

“Rich” is the word that sticks in my mind from another recent educational expose: Katharine Birbalsingh’s lecture of 5 October for the Sir John Cass’s Foundation, titled “Is the British education system broken?” Now, this annual lecture is normally a platform for the latest idea from one of the more pumped-up education ministers; Lord Adonis, Ed Balls and Michael Gove have all presented it in recent years. Even after Gove, however, Birbalsingh was a jolt, both in content and in style. But good on Cass for breaking the mould.

Since her appearance a year ago at the Conservative Party conference, Birbalsingh has been a lightning rod for the “it’s broken” crowd. Her final sentence at the Cass Lecture called on us to admit that educational breakage: “Then, and only then, can we begin to fix it.”

But what was Birbalsingh’s fixing formulation? Free schools, yes; traditional classrooms, yes; back-to-basics in mathematics, reading and science, yes; traditional curricula, yes; proper standards, yes; more hard skills, yes; teachers who actually teach, yes. The target of her ire was a largely undefined band of “progressives” who have betrayed the latest generation of school students and generated a fictitious record of “improvement”.

As ubiquitous blogs show, you either love Birbalsingh’s message - “she’s just calling it the way it really is” - or you hate it - “it’s an incoherent jumble of right-wing ranting”.

What caught my ear was her peroration, with its sustained use of the word “rich”: “The only way our poorest children can succeed is for them to receive the same quality of education as our richest. They need the privilege of a traditional education - the type of education that all of us in this room have been lucky enough to have had.”

But then she went further: “There is a quote that I love which sums up what I am saying: ‘The education that is best for the best is the education that is best for all.’?”

State education should reform to this “best” model, she argued: “If walled classrooms are good enough for Eton, then they should be good enough for us.” In fact, in the delivered version she said: “If we don’t change things, the only ones fit to govern the country will be Etonians.”

So, the rich are “the best”, and their education is “best for all”? No, post-Lehman Brothers, that won’t do. This is no formula for fixing a broken Britain. Rather, it could cause a nation already deeply fissured by class, race, religion and plutocratic excess to fall apart.

Back to Scott: we need a more equal society.

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