Monday, 25 April 2011

Top of the class

Mary Anne Seighart’s article in the Independent - “Cameron's betrayal of the middle class” - pushes the boundaries of neoliberal individualism far beyond the pale.

Sieghart forwards the argument that the middle classes are being educationally marginalized by modern society. She links this to 'working-class' problems such as immigration using the same ill-informed, narrow-minded reporting one would expect to find in such fear-propelling tabloids as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. The Independent's decision to publish such an article allows the frail arguments to be challenged.

Firstly, Seighart’s views on education stem from the most elitist position possible. There is no questioning of the inequality that seeps from every pore of the education system as explained in my blog post last year.

Seighart argues that a small minority of university places may soon be taken by pupils from poorer backgrounds as “admissions officers will have to take into account the average GCSE and A-level results of the candidate's school”. This will, in her opinion, lead to a situation where “the better a school does in the league tables, the lower its chances of getting its pupils into a good university.” The assertion that the poorer the school attended by a pupil the greater chance they have of accessing higher education flies in the face of any understanding of Britain’s education system. The system rigged in many ways to favor those with more power and influence. Private, faith and grammar schools are much better at endowing pupils with a better education and thus a better future. Seighart seems to ignore the fact that a child born in a poor area is far too often left with no option but to attend a poor school with poor behaviour records and poor teachers, resulting in poor grades and a poor future.

The ‘choice’ of a better education and way of life is halted for these children on the day they are born. Yet Seighart ignores this horrendous gap in equality by worrying about positive discrimination. Surely though, dealing with real discrimination - rather than its weaker positive form - is the key to a better system? And if this poor system is now levying ever so slightly in favour of an incredibly small minority of pupils - discriminated against from birth - then it seems a relatively minor infringement to rage against.

Seighart however takes this rage one step further and espouses that “for every poor student who wins a place, a middle-class student will fail to. For parents whose chief goal for their children has always been to get them into a high-ranking university, this will be seen as catastrophic.” There is no doubt that a smidgen of parents who have funded their child's education may find their efforts thwarted, but this again only highlights the flaws of a system that allows this unhealthy tactic to prevail.

Parents are given far too much say in the quality and whereabouts of their child’s education and, because we live in an unequal society, this creates an unequal system. Those with the most power benefit. Children are born not into a democratic but a feudal education system. Yet again though, Seighart seems unaware or incapable of peering into the vast abyss of this inequality. She is more concerned about those who have more and may lose out, rather than those have have nothing and lose all the time.

The only system failure Seighart attacks are the league tables. She states “Perverse incentives driven by league tables are what have got us into this mess….and neglect the brighter ones who are going to pass anyway.” Again she forgets to state the case of pupils at the bottom of the pile. In this case neglected for not being bright enough to attain 5 A-C grades and thus left on the scrap heap alongside many of the 1 million youth unemployed. They leave schools without skills straight into unemployment. It also escapes Seighart’s notice that it is the competition created by the league table system, to allow middle-class parents greater choice, which is the problem. This paradox is all the more potent as it seems to have only gained her notice as middle-class children now face the smallest chink in their weighted educational armory. There is no mention of the problems facing poorer children.

In order to try and gain support for this apparent loss of middle-class liberty Seighart argues that “An Oxford professor was moaning to me the other day that many of the brightest Oxbridge rejects will go off to American universities.” The brain drain argument is one of the oldest anti-tax, anti-social change arguments and it seems in recent years to be back in vogue trying to spread fear about equality to those who have most to lose by its appearance.

To make matters worse, Seighart doesn’t stop at trying to spread fear among the wealthier members of society. She then tries to transform middle-class irritation at the meekest attempt at educational equality into societal bigotry and hatred of the oldest kind; hatred of immigration and foreigners.

She claims “Nothing makes people angrier than losing their position in the world to someone they feel deserves it less. We've seen the wrath of the white working classes over losing their jobs and their council flats to immigrants.” Here Seighart fails to understand how working-class ‘wrath’ over unemployment and council flats is actually a symptom of neoliberal capitalist policies, so cleverly disguised by the right to create racial bigotry and ideas of ‘indigenous’ superiority. Add that in with the assertion that Britain is somehow a meritocratcic society in which the ‘deserving’ prosper and presumably the undeserving fail and one cannot help but be staggered by the writer’s inability to view a modern Britain in which “The wealthiest 1 per cent owned approximately a fifth of the UK's marketable wealth in 2003. In contrast, half the population shared only 7 per cent of total wealth.

This dogma is then carried into racist fervor with the statement that “Barking and Dagenham will never again be white working-class suburbs where neighbours have known each other all their lives. Maybe that's inevitable, but it still hurts.” How the colour of someone’s skin can hurt or what’s to be done about a lack of jobs, housing and education is not explained. It highlights how, in order to justify any form of inequality, sweeping and unacceptable comments of the most racial nature have to be made.

These opinions seem to stem from Seighart's real fear. The fear of a loss of her middle-class power: “What it comes down to is that we're all in favor of upward mobility, but nobody likes its obverse.” It seems to Seighart that social mobility is a one way street, bottom to top, with those at the bottom trying hard to achieve more while those at the top remain unchallenged. For too many years this attitude has prevailed in the British media with a lack of support for full employment, higher wages and higher income taxation.

Our education system – one of the UK’s oldest public institutions – is under attack from an increasingly ferocious right-wing government. Sieghart – by resorting to xenophobia of the most epic proportions – confirms that neoliberalism and conservatism can only lead to greater inequality.

1 comment:

Tom @ Eyes on Power said...

Completely agree. This is the problem with papers like the Independent and the Guardian. They (along with the right-wing broadsheets) are staffed by middle class journalists with middle class values. Many of them simply can't engage on the level of poorer people but, in the case of the more centrist, 'liberal' ones, feel their liberal values and high levels of education make them fit to pass judgement on a system that they themselves are major beneficiaries of.

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