Saturday, 18 June 2011

Social mobility, the Olympic Games, and justice in schools

'Where's my cake!'
Fair's fair- beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.

Let's say I bring a cake to the party- I'm like that- and we decide to split it between all ten of us (obviously it's not much of a party, unless Dita Von Teese, Tom Jones and Gandhi are involved). What would be a fair way of dividing it up? Ignore, for the minute, the cack-handed crumb-bath that would normally ensue when a civilian attempts to cut a cake into anything other than four pieces (and even that's a struggle for some- in my previous career running restaurants, I saw innumerable birthday confections sliced up lengthways. I fuss you not).

The obvious answer is cutting it into ten equal pieces- that's fair, right? Everyone gets the same amount, and justice is served, like gazpacho, cold.

But hang about- what if one of the party members (let's say...A C Grayling has dropped in) hates cake. Can't stand the stuff. Would it be fair to give him something he doesn't want? Furthermore, what if another guest is fasting for Pentecost, or Hallowe'en or something? He doesn't need it at all. Meanwhile, you discover that another of your guests is starving (Imogen Thomas?)- shouldn't he get a bigger piece? And what about you- you made the bloody thing. Don't you at least deserve to lick the spoon? And- oh dear- it's someone's birthday...

Unfair possessor of a Triple-Y chromosome.
Fair's fair- that much is certain; but beyond that, it's anyone';s guess. There are so many ways of discussing distributive justice (the given name of the concept) that it becomes obvious that justice- getting what you deserve- is a will o' the wisp, a phantom, a late night taxi.

I've been thinking about justice lately, mainly because of the Olympic scandal that's been rocking out of every media portal the last few weeks; apparently it has become compulsory for every news report on 2012 to be padded out with several minutes of hatchet-faced misanthropes desperate to have a good moan at the camera. 'I never got a ticket,' they say. 'And I'm British!' or something. I mean, it's a valid factual point to make- many people failed to receive the tickets they desired- but it's a fairly thin scandal to dwell on.

The latest one was on the news last night; the Stratford Olympic committee had, in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the locals, invited hundreds of residents and knitting bees onto the newly- minted lawns of the Olympic village, for tea and biscuits. Even the weather was on its best behaviour. The aim was to show them how egalitarian the whole affair was- even if they couldn't attend an event, the Olympic zone itself was open to all, and people could soak up the atmospehre. Were they pleased? Not a bit of it.

'We didn't get any tickets,' said another identical, bitter would be Olympian, her life dream of attending the Men's canoe slalom shattered, torn from her paws as soon as it came into view. 'It's a scandal.' And another complimentary scone vanished into the moist, dark, velvet interior of her mono-toothed mouth.

Well, a scandal? Watergate it isn't. Her complaint, echoed in part by many others, was that as a local resident she should have been allocated priority tickets. Oh, and free ones, I might add. Which is interesting- distributive justice as defined by proximity. There's a Gregg's The Baker not two hundred yards from me; perhaps I deserve a bag of Yum-Yums due to the fact that I can see them from my window, the selfish bastard? Our oppressed heroine, I might add hadn't applied for any tickets either. But she was pretty sure she deserved them.

Olympic bike: wouldn't last long in Stratford.
I pity the Olympic Committee (and believe me, it'll be a few trips round the Milky Way before I say that again about Seb Coe and Princess Anne); I'm not sure how they were supposed to play it in order to satisfy the hitherto unknown public passion for distributive justice in matters Olympic. People who have never before even considered attending a women's Pentathlon at their local sports field are spitting feathers about their God-Given right to watch one next year. Thomas Paine, I imagine, is weeping somewhere, and spinning like Robin Cousins.

Damned whether you do or don't: the tickets were issued on a lottery system- all bids were taken, limits set, tickets priced in bands, and then an enormous game of virtual roulette took place, matching desire to destiny in as random a manner as possible. Now forgive me, but that sounds bloody fair to me. Financial barriers to justice were reduced by keeping prices low for all but the seats on the frickin' track itself.  A system of collecting all the bids before allocation meant that it wasn't a first-come-first severed situation. Computer allocation ensured that name, rank and connections were dispelled as contributory factors. And still, many did not receive. Well, boo-hoo-hoo; isn't life dreadful? I imagine the orphans of Haiti are saying prayers for us as we speak, thanking their lucky stars that all they have to cope with is despair, penury and natural disaster, rather than the privation of disappointment in matters athletic.

Justice is a funny thing. It's an intrinsic of social justice, a concept so rarely out of the papers and the speeches of Masters of the Universe that I suspect that it'll be dating one of the sinister, pneumatic homunculi from TOWEI soon, and launching an injunction to prevent details of its extra marital affairs tickling the Tweetosphere. Social justice is an interesting idea- that distribution extends far beyond mere financial considerations- although that of course is an intrinsic part of the equation- but also referring to the distribution of opportunity, privilege, honour, access, and a million other aspects of a life lived in the company of others.

This idea drenches modern thinking on education- and quite right too; Plato's idea of the Gold, Silver and Bronze man, born to different stations, and bound for different destinies, is rightly reviled as a jailer's manifesto. Of course, this is how life still works out, but I can hesitantly claim confidence in saying that it shouldn't be anyone's idea of Utopia. We intuitively appreciate the concept that merit should be intrinsic to advancement in life, and schools should seek to support this, at least in a structural way. I am wary of positive discrimination for the simple reason that replacing one injustice for another doesn't appeal, and is usually perpetrated out of a misplaced sense of cultural guilt. Besides, such policies are also usually created by people who will be perfectly unaffected by their outcomes- in other words, let the injustice be shuffled around the board a little, and hope that will serve.

Lady Justice after the re-branding.
It certainly won't. The aim of any policy aimed at social justice should be the increase of the sum total of that justice, not the redistribution of injustice to other squares on the board. Social mobility works both ways, of course, and one often ignored factor in the equation is that when one counter moves up the table a space, another counter often moves down. That's why I'm broadly against schemes that offer preferential entrance at University level for Free School Meal candidates- penalising the children of the affluent may satisfy some misplaced sense of entitlement, but it's as vicious and unfair as any other discrimination. It cuts, you see, both ways. We cannot claim justice only for one segment of the public demographic, and deny it to another. That dichotomy cuts into the heart of the deontological nature of the concept itself. Justice is universalised, or it is not justice, however much we sympathise with the outcome.

Many attempts at improving social justice in education are well meant but equally fruitless. Exhibit A: preferring therapeutic behaviour management techniques for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The idea, now perfectly common in many schools, that we should avoid giving clear boundaries to pupils from economically impoverished families. The argument goes that these pupils should be taught emotional intelligence through the medium of therapy, discussion, pointless, heart breaking chats and continuous appeasement, rather than establishing rules, rewards and sanctions in a clear and dignified process that actually values the person's status as an autonomous human being.

Another enemy of social justice: target grades, as provided by organisations such as the Fisher Family Trust and other, equally diabolic Factories of Satanism. Why? Because every time I look a the target data for a pupil and see an F, I think to myself, 'How utterly pointless.' What a lousy, cruel non-aspiration for any student. You know what my targets for all my students are? An A. That's not to say I expect that they will all get there. Nor do I berate them if they don't get it. But what I won't do is expect them to scrape by. I refuse to communicate the low aspirations that society has for these pupils. They already have low enough aspirations for themselves, often communicated and reinforced by their families, their cultures, their peer groups, or whatever. I refuse to collaborate in their oppression.

Instead, I expect the best from them. I expect them to aim for an A. I expect them to hand their homework in on time; to turn up on time, every day possible, and have equipment. I expect manners. They can expect pretty much the same from me. That way, I don't treat them as helpless victims of circumstance. I don't treat them as if they were shackled to their caste. And I certainly don't expect them to be anything less than their fullest potential. This is, of course a recipe for perpetual disappointment; but it also provides the ingredients for the occasional six-star firework, exceeding even my own expectations.

I learned a lesson a long time ago: one of my boys in the bottom set scraped a C at GCSE short course. Out of sympathy for his resilience (the class was pandemonium- I had just started teaching, and was as effective as a soluble prophylactic), I allowed him onto the R.S. A level. He got a U for the first year, of course. Again, I was moved by compassion, but insisted that in order to proceed, he resit all papers. At the final A2 exam he scored an A. Life permits an X-factor; not some silly vaudeville talent, but an unknown element of change, resilience, excellence and awe. Call it the Shavian life force, call it a gap in Universal Causation, call it free will, call it a soul. But it resists prediction; it thrives on encouragement, and effort, and willpower. It is fuelled by faith, and optimism. Like love, it is the great current that propels evolution, and civilisation and wonder.

But it can be burdened and bound, buried and distracted from its own purpose. We can teach the children that we expect them to get an F. We can applaud them when they do so, or nearly do so, or do anything at all that they choose. We can embed in them, not a sense that anything is possible, but that anything is acceptable. And then we should resign, not fit for purpose.

Fair is a small word that, mined for a moment, gives birth to a hydra of meaning. But it doesn't mean anything; it must mean something, or it means nothing at all. And fair means giving the children who need it most, the most boundaries and direction; giving them aspirations where none existed before. It means rules guided by love, and faith tempered with self-restraint.

I didn't get the tickets I bid for, incidentally. It's a bleedin' scandal.


  1. Dear Tom

    I do really enjoy your posts. However I do take issue with the idea that there is a dichotomy between therapy and boundaries. I have some experience of working with disturbed children. A failure to provide them appropriate boundaries is, in my view, perhaps the greatest disservice you can offer. Moreover, no therapist worth her salt will work with a client without clearly agreed boundaries. Sometimes the boundaries need to be prioritised differently for disturbed children but there must be boundaries, routines, positive expectations, sanctions and a realistic belief in the possibilities of free will. Many of the problems you describe result from teachers trying to work therapeutically without appropriate training, experience or boundaries.

    Kenneth Lastimer

  2. Hi Kenneth, thank you for your lucid point, well made. In the interests of brevity, blog posts sometimes skip glibly over ideas that deserve expansion.

    I'm certainly not against therapy in general- my surname is Bennett, not Cruise- but I think that the cack-handed way it gets transplanted into schools has made it a dirty word in this town. Therapy in mainstream schools often boils down to the idea that 'everything can be talked out', like it was an answer for the complexities of social interactions. I think that for children with genuine extreme-spectrum personality disorders, genuine therapy may well be very useful.

    Unfortunately as you know there is a huge tension between identifying a collection of symptoms, and identifying it as an existent condition. In short, I know that we medicalise (and pathologise) personality traits that are perfectly within normal tolerances. This hideous ontological mistake results in the children being treated as though they 'had' a condition that was somehow extrinsic to their personalities, and therefore not their fault. Hence; no boundaries and the idea that they are helpless victims of some genetic and societal conspiracy.

    But I absolutely take your point that in good EBD therapy interventions there will be- HAS to be- boundaries. As with any child, the aim should be perhaps to create realistic boundaries, then as they are achieved, move them closer and closer to mainstream expectations, so that they become habituated to behaviours that will allow them to operate effectively within society. But this is a program that doesn't work well in the mainstream environment, where tolerating enormous variations in acceptable behaviours only has the effect of destroying the collective paradigm of mainstream behaviour targets.