Friday, 6 December 2013

School; another aspect of the hidden curriculum

In the last few years, there has been increasing concern about the supposed lack of social mobility in this country. Poor, black and working class children just don’t seem to get as far as Oxbridge and professions such as medicine and law are still dominated by privately educated, middle class types. I’m very interested in this phenomenon and have been looking closely at some of the more unexpected causes of this failure for children to move from one social class to another. School plays a great role in this problem, but not always in a straightforward and obvious way. Let’s look at an apparently trivial incident which I witnessed today; one that casts light upon this whole business.

Here is an English lesson; one in which a class of nine year-olds are being taught the difference between fact and opinion. The way that this is being done is by acting out an imaginary scene from a trial. This takes the form of a dialogue in the court  between an impartial judge and an obviously prejudiced policeman, who says things about the defendant such as, ‘Well, he looks guilty to me!’.  The teacher wants two children to play the parts of the judge and the policeman. First, she wants somebody to be the judge. She says, ‘Now remember, judges speak very posh, because they mostly went to private schools, so you’ll have to speak like this…’ She then gives a grotesque and exaggerated impression of an upper class voice. Let’s look at what these working class children are being taught here.

The first lesson is that there is not the least hope of their ever becoming judges. They know that they are certainly not posh and of course none of them go to a private school. Here is one possible ambition disposed of immediately. What else are they learning? They learn that being posh and well educated is something that they should mock. The teacher is sneering at the way posh people talk. The message that these children take form this is that clearly enunciated, standard English is somehow ridiculous and that people who  speak it are different from them.  At one time, ordinary working class children like this were taught at school to aspire to better themselves and to aim high. These days, they learn that ‘posh’ people like judges are somehow a different species. In the 1950s at schools in East London, children were taught that they could rise, if they wished. They  were encouraged to think beyond their day to day lives. Some of those pupils did indeed rise and go on to become professors, judges, doctors and so on. There is not the remotest chance of this sort of thing happening when children are being inculcated with class enmity, as is very common in working class schools today.

There is another pernicious effect of this sort of attitude.  There has been concern that some schools become popular with the middle classes and that they then monopolise them, to the exclusion of others; who then end up at so-called ‘sink schools’.  Here is what happens sometimes when middle class parents send their children to a very working class school of the type that I have been writing about lately. Because the pupils have been encouraged to hate anything at all ‘posh’, they extend this feeling towards those who speak correct and grammatical English. Well spoken children are viewed with great suspicion. If they also have an interest in books and want to work hard, they are soon mocked and shunned. They then become very miserable and their parent often remove them from the school and send them to one with a less hostile atmosphere.

There is a good deal more to be said on this topic, but that is all that I have time for tonight. Readers might like to reflect that exclusivity is not only the province of the middle or upper classes and that in some schools, pupils are actively encouraged to dislike and mistrust those of a different social standing from themselves. This is hardly a good thing from the point of social mobility.


  1. Would appear from you little story Simon, that you could have benefited from this lesson.

    Think you need to learn the difference between fact and opinion!

  2. Your views are obviously biased and subjective, here's a novel idea.

    How about trying to look at things from an objective point of view?

  3. May I suggest you make as part of your reading the Milburn report!

  4. Very sad, Simon. It's a long time since I set foot in a school, and I'd hoped that they had improved since I did, so I'm disappointed to read what you've been writing about your experiences.

  5. "At one time, ordinary working class children like this were taught at school to aspire to better themselves and to aim high. These days, they learn that ‘posh’ people like judges are somehow a different species."

    What's happened since the 1950s to kill aspiration? I'd love to hear your take on that.

    I agree with Anonymous . . . this is very sad, especially since the teacher may not even realise the message she's sending her pupils.