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‘Sir’ is a state school English teacher in a big city in the UK. Prior to this he worked with children with a variety of Special Educational Needs, particularly those with behavioural and social problems. His teaching has been rated as ´Outstanding´ by Ofsted which means he once did a great job for 50 minutes. Save for a light dusting of fiction in order to protect the innocent (and indeed the guilty) anything recounted here is absolutely true. Otherwise, there will be some exciting political debate where everything Sir thinks is also absolutely true. Twitter: @seekingsir

2 July 2012

Sacred Cows...

Toby Young's Spectator piece (here) has - perhaps, being a polemicist by trade, just as he intended - caused quite a furore.

Toby argues thus: 'inclusion' (the practice of trying, as far as possible, to educate all children, regardless of educational need, in mainstream education) is a 'ghastly, politically correct word' which, when put into practice, is seriously damaging British education. It is, he contends, leading to a situation where any exam that isn't accessible to 'a functionally illiterate troglodyte with the mental age of six' will be deemed elitist and hence will be shunned by the comprehensive system in favour of easier, more accessible exams. This inclusive desire thus lowers standards for all and fails to adequately develop those pupils fortunate enough to inhabit the upper echelons of the intelligence spectrum.

In support of Gove and his recent proposal to re-introduce O-Levels as a second, upper tier of the state system's assessment process, he argues that he is 'living proof' that this two tier system works, even for those relegated to the lower tier. This, he claims, is on account of his own experiences at school where he was largely excluded from sitting O-Levels as he wasn’t deemed bright enough; he sat the easier ‘GCEs’. Instead of knocking his academic confidence into an abyss from which there was no return, this early educational failure motivated him to repeat his exams and, he implies, helped pave the way for him to attend Oxford University, where he graduated with a First Class Honours degree. As such, he claims, two tier system = good; one tier ‘inclusive’ system = bad.

First, Toby, a brief note on the nature of your argument -

Attempting to argue, on the basis of purely anecdotal evidence from your own life, that a two tier education system ‘works’ is more than a little silly. Just because it supposedly ‘worked’ for you, Toby, doesn’t mean it worked for others. It becomes sillier when it is clear that, in this article at least, you have been somewhat economical with the truth. Indeed, your childhood situation was – as you are (one would hope, for obvious reasons) well aware – somewhat atypical: your father was a life-long Labour Peer (Baron Young of Dartington) and well respected sociologist whilst your mother was a BBC radio producer and writer. You can hardly be considered representative of the majority of children that the state education system serves. Perhaps it has not occurred to you that a huge amount of your confidence and success can be put down to the environment in which you were raised and the aspirational company that your family kept? Most people do not have a Lord for a father, nor such a wonderfully intelligent and talented mother (if you’re reading this, mum, I’m one of the lucky ones…!). For every child with parents able and willing to nurture their child through the educational disappointment that you describe, there are others with parents who will think that their child is ‘in the stupid class’ and, sadly, treat them as such; other children, irrespective of parental support, struggle enormously with the initial failure and, as many graduates of the secondary modern era attest, may never quite recover (such as Peter, perhaps).

Moreover, by your own admission, you were accepted by Oxford on the basis of pure luck* – your admission letter was sent in error and your A-Level grades certainly didn’t warrant your inclusion at such an establishment. This is not to belittle any of your achievements, which are significant and doubtless required a lot of hard work. Nor is it intended as any sort of inverted snobbery. Rather, it is to make the sensible assumption that deeper factors (or in one case blind luck) can account for your successes far more readily than you being denied the opportunity to sit O-Levels. Indeed, the fact that you graduated from Oxford with a First ironically and unintentionally highlights the inherent perils of schools attempting to so rigidly quantify their pupils’ intelligence at such a young age – if future first-class Oxbridge graduates are not considered bright enough for O-Levels, who will be…?

You should also be aware that, in a sense, a two tier system already exists within the current comprehensive system. At GCSE level, pupils can sit the ‘higher’ (up to A*) or ‘foundation’ (top grade a C) papers. In fact, in most schools there is even a third tier of sorts. For pupils with the greatest academic difficulties, there are the Functional Skills Maths and English tests at Levels 1 and 2; these are designed to enable pupils who may not be able to achieve a C grade in GCSEs to demonstrate that they have enough literacy and numeracy skills to enter areas of employment in which such skills are required. Given that you have set up your own school and currently reside as chair of its board of governors, these are things that it is not unreasonable to expect you to know, but your article appears to imply otherwise.

Having said all of that, despite its inadequacies, it is not Mr. Young’s argument which I take most umbrage at – although at some point I shall do my best to return the subject of inclusion, 'ghastly' though it is - it is the cartoon-esque language of the polemicist that he uses to construct it.

So I shall end this latest ramble thus:

I really, sincerely, wish that intelligent people would avoid such painful (and presumably intentional) glibness and faux reactionary political point-scoring nonsense when writing about education. If you are an ‘educational commentator’ of some sort and wish to raise concerns about knee-jerk opposition to two-tier education, behavioural issues, liberal loonies in the staffroom or whatever else you see fit to, please do. But please, if nothing else, treat issues relating to education with the thoughtfulness and intelligence that the subject deserves; it is, after all, somewhat important. Future efforts to avoid resorting to lazy hyperbole and contrived rhetoric will be most humbly appreciated.

* There are less favourable interpretations of Toby's 'luck' out there.  I shall leave you to find them for yourself, should you so wish.


  1. I have to say your argument that the ability to cope positively with failure is a talent only possessed by those from privileged backgrounds reminds me of this passage from G.K.Chesterton:

    "I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say: “It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance.” It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule. It is like listening to somebody at an evening party apologising for entering without evening dress, and explaining that he had recently been intoxicated, had a personal habit of taking off his clothes in the street, and had, moreover, only just changed from prison uniform. At any moment, one feels, the host might say that really, if it was as bad as that, he need not come in at all. So it is when the ordinary Socialist, with a beaming face, proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences, cannot be really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say, “Very well, then, we won’t trust them,” and bang the door in his face. On the basis of Mr. [Robert] Blatchford’s view of heredity and environment, the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air? If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves, why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter is fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia."

  2. Your first sentence is categorically not my argument. It is this:

    There are lots of kids who do not possess supportive parents and who are highly unlikely to cope as well as Young did with significant educational knock backs (rich or poor). As such, to use his very unique personal experience in isolation with no wider supporting evidence to make sweeping propositions to reform an entire system which affects millions of children is a bit silly.

    This would be silly anyway but is made more so by the fact that Young's background is so atypical making it fairly disingenuous to use his own experience as a child to call for nationwide shifts in educational practice.

    It is eminently reasonable to posit that Toby's background probably helped him in life and to the success that he currently enjoys; is is fatuous for him to argue that he has achieved what he has because he failed at school. Plenty of others will have (under)achieved similarly yet do not end up with a first class degree from Oxford (especially with only two Bs and a C at A-Level, which he conveniently neglected to mention). Indeed, the raw logic of Young's argument is that lots of kids should be put in 'tier two' education, fail first time, re-sit and hey-presto they'll all be off to great uni's graduating with Firsts... This, after all, is why he claims to be 'living proof' that the two tier system works. Erm... Really...?

    It's a lazy argument premised on Young's highly unique experience which very clearly will not hold for the majority of kids.

    I then suggest that Young should, for someone in his position, be more aware of the existing tier system at ground level, given that he set up his own school.

    Finally, I make the point that I am really bored of lengthy, hyperbolic rhetoric (I mean, the wheelchair ramp stuff..!? Seriously!?)which is all very fun for the polemicist but adds precious little to real educational debate.

    To quote a giant piece of Chesterton's anti-Socialism at me is, to be honest, exactly the kind of laziness and political point-scoring that I was talking about - it doesn't address anything I've actually said; it's all agenda and little genuine, reflective thought (the left, for the record, are as guilty as the right in this respect).

    I am not a socialist just so's you know. I also suspect that Toby runs quite a good school - I just wish that there were a bit more thoughtfulness to what he writes.

  3. The remarkably large, or seemingly so, numbers who have acquired a first in PPE over the years at our venerable institutions lead one to suspect that if you knew the right people it was available! I apologise to those who came from what might be considered genuinely normal background and worked hard. Nevertheless the list of honourees from any shade of the political spectrum makes for frightening reading, They are not the people from whom you should by insurance or a used car.

  4. Battleground, I am in complete agreement with Sir. He is not claiming that the ability to cope with failure is only possessed by those from a privileged background; he is simply effectively demonstrating that Toby Young's argument cannot sensibly be used to promote the two tier system. I think it is fair to say that it is you, not Sir, that is pursuing an ideological agenda.