What are the implications for schools of the positive correlations that occur between aspects of educational attainment and social class?
Another way of saying that a major task of education is to train an elite (Mitchell, 1959, 142-144) is to say that most of education is about relative failure. It is for the mass about training in basic tasks and abilities, and also social stability regarding the nature of society, whilst allowing in a competitive society talents that do exist to be nutured, developed (Mitchell, 1959, 144) and therefore maximised according to the demands of that society. It is a combination of equal opportunity (Mitchell, 1959, 144) and yet predictable and necessary failure for everyone to achieve the highest educational outcomes. If everyone theoretically has the potential for high outcomes in academic achievement, then most people must become disappointed and undeveloped from a social and economic point of view and indeed systematic outcomes. Some of the questions here are what constitute high educational outcomes, but assuming that unequal genes do not distribute themselves into social class, what it is that some people can do to relatively succeed according to long standing definitions and what do many people do to relatively fail?
In one mixed ability lesson in the first school practice there was (by conversation and confirmation with the observing teacher afterwards) a fairly simple task for Year 9 students to follow. It was given in general, and once the work had begun the first student enquiry was the usual excuse for a general repetition of what to do. Then after several private repeats of the method of the task in hand I said to the whole class, "The government expects fifty percent of all students to go to university." The observing teacher instantly laughed aloud, and many students volunteered the prediction that they would not be in that fifty percent.
Supposing that this policy is maintained, which may be doubted with the fees and debt system, the question does arise why the government wants fifity per cent of students to go to university. Undergraduate university (and beyond) is, after all, the place where minds are developed in general to think in order that they might be trained later for vocational responsibility. This responsibility may be highly technical, may be intellectually based, or require confidence and risk taking based on informed choices.
In the past the United Kingdom had a mass society. This meant there was a relatively small elite and a base of professions. Academic success was a feeder for the elite and professions, being people of thinking, special skills and a controlled access to employment privileges (in other words the erection of barriers that raised the status of employment beyond the market necessity of the tasks being done). Beyond academic success was the mass of industrialised workers who did repetitive productive work of selfsame products. The postwar period also maintained mass consumption of these standard products. Academic success meant going through the grammar school. It may have included going to university, although many professional and clerical posts were available from leaving school.
The British educational system therefore had to cater for the mass and the elite, and at first the grammar, secondary and technical schools were the educational production lines of the professional elite in the first case and the industrial production to technical workers in the second and third case. In general there became two cases. Passing the eleven plus was the significant moment to pursue a path towards a lifelong profession. Otherwise the world of lifelong mass industrial and service supporting employment resulted. The comprehensive system then allowed more flexibility in the competition element in the educational process, so that academic talent could still surface later in life without preset labels and expectations. It was still about mass society.
In such a society, by and large, the elite saw to it to reproduce itself generationally. Again, generationally, the mass of lifelong workers reproduced itself. There was opportunity to make social leaps upwards (as well as downwards), but mainly the people who were the first generation to go to university were already in middle class families who had been in the professions when the professions took people from grammar schools and when they did not go to university.
Since the Thatcher revolution, much in the way of professional status has broken down. The competitive element has moved to the fore. At the same time, a technical revolution has led to the ability to produce at low cost highly individualised products. Beyond a fairly simple base, there is no longer a mass society of mass production and consumption, but choice. In any case, many of the recognised industrialised elements have moved to areas of cheaper labour across the globe. This has left the United Kingdom, as with other Western economies, but perhaps more than them, with a top elite as before, a series of professions organised more openly, a rise in the need for technical skill in sections of business, a large section of lower skilled service employment, and an underclass of people who are either unemployed, underemployed or drifting in and out of the black economy working when they can formally and informally to top up a life of recurring benefits. The Welfare state model of redistribution which used to suit a mass society and mass consumption has been replaced with a more South East Asian and United States model of near compulsory social inclusion on a supply side basis. In other words the mass of people have to accept a situation of moving between jobs, of low pay, and being forced into schemes of looking for work and piecemeal employment, giving them the option of course of disappearing from employment statistics. They may make a bridgehead across to a kind of employment of constant technical change, loss of work, finding new work with retraining, but this keeps changing and anyone can fall. Many professions have lost social status and protection, so that there is the constant threat of failure, and need to change. Somehow this flexible specialised economic and social world has to be related to long term goals of reproducing families and having long term debt, for example from later education and towards having somewhere to live.
Every secondary school child is aware that their secondary education is temporary, and they must relate the academic curriculum being taught to their future situation. It must be the case that as certain children learn the traditional subjects that they must ask questions about the subjects' relevance to their lives as they will likely proceed in the future.
In the mass postwar situation, the comfort of getting into a long term job and raising a new family meant that for the mass of people a basic skills low level educational achievement was basically acceptable to them. It was the professional and (to a lesser extent) commercial elite that strived to reproduce itself. Now it is because the chance of technical and lifelong education and training seem out of reach, because adult life offers underemployment and service employment, that again we have low achievement. Those who were unemployed in the mass welfare state have produced the first generations of the underclass in the new situation, and these are people who somehow get by. They do not achieve. Whilst, however, it can be more possible to be one of the few to achieve and have the chance to succeed, it is the very fact that this employment world is more harsh which puts more demands on the processionals from the past to make sure their children can continue in rewarding employment, even if it means constant retraining and changing, networking and moving between companies and privatised and semi-privatised government agencies. It becomes more imperative, as in the American model, to create and maintain the curriculum vitae and not fall into a murkier world of low employment opportunities and under employment.
From the macro picture comes the micro picture or the method by which this reproduction takes place. The key to this is the continuation of academic subjects and the nature of language in school.