The Education Spectrum

January 9, 2012

A version of this post has already appeared at http://www.labourteachers.org.uk/2012/01/09/the-education-spectrum/

What is often most noticeable about education debate is the extent to which people, who are apparently addressing the same issue, talk past each other without even comprehending the opposing view. I think that this is because there are two different debates going on simultaneously. It suits people to focus only on a debate where they feel they have a strong argument and ignore the debate where they have a weaker argument. I hope that what follows might help clarify what is actually disputed in a lot of discussion about education.

The first of the two debates is about the content of the curriculum. Opinions differ on the extent to which there is a recognised body of knowledge to be passed on to the next generation. Traditionalists believe that there is a body of knowledge (which we can call a tradition) composed of the best that has been thought and known. Accordingly, traditionalists will tend to describe the aims of education in terms of the academic above everything else. They will advocate: the employment of teachers with expertise in academic disciplines; the use of clearly identified subject areas, and methods of teaching, organisation and discipline that allow for teachers to directly pass on their expertise. Radicals will reject the existence of any particular tradition to be passed on, and will instead suggest that skills and dispositions are more important than knowledge and that learning is to be based on the interests or needs of the individual child, or the requirements of a future which is unlike the present where people will value different knowledge and skills to those which are valued now. They will doubt that present forms of organisation in schools are appropriate, particularly the role of knowledge and the position of discrete subjects in the curriculum, and the position of teachers and adults as authorities over children. They will favour teaching methods which avoid the need for teacher authority or subject expertise, seeking to maximise the amount of activity and autonomy on the part of children, and to allow for the acquisition of qualities other than the academic. This debate between traditionalists and radicals is reflected most clearly in the discussion of “standards” and behaviour, which breaks out on a fairly regular basis in the media.

The second debate is about entitlement to the curriculum. Opinions differ about who should be able to get particular types of education. Elitists believe that the full benefits of education can only be gained or appreciated by a minority. Educational institutions will be expected to differ in their aspirations, and those schools with the strongest academic aspirations will be expected to find students who are suited to academic achievement and the system will be judged to a very large extent on its provision for those most able students. Egalitarians will want all schools to provide the curriculum to all types of children. The benefits of education are for all and attempts to discriminate between children will be viewed with suspicion, as will attempts to create a hierarchy of schools. The traditional faultline in this debate is, in England, over selection at 11: the division of academic children into grammar schools and other children into secondary moderns which was the norm for two decades from the mid-1940s and still exists in some parts of the country. Similar arguments are also had about the place of private schools.

Now, obviously, in sketching out these two debates I have tended to simplify or exaggerate positions. Few people are complete traditionalists; almost everyone accepts that the curriculum can change to accept new disciplines and contemporary concerns. Few people are complete radicals; everyone identifies some knowledge that is useful to all, even if it’s just the ability to read and write. Most elitism is moderate enough to accept some form of academic provision for the masses, and often to accept routes into the elite by those who missed them the first time. Most egalitarianism stops at some age, usually 16, and I have never met anyone who advocated that everybody should study for PhDs. We are talking about two spectrums of opinion as opposed to two divisions into binary categories.

The important thing here is that we understand that these are two separate debates even though both are often considered to be debates between political left and right. Traditionalists and elitists hold what are often recognised as “right-wing” positions. Radicals and egalitarians are typically described as “left-wing” positions. However, traditionalism and elitism are not the same position at all, nor are radicalism and egalitarianism. A lot of reason for the poor quality of much education debate is due to attempts to conflate this into a single spectrum, where the two alternatives are the “right-right” position of combined elitism and traditionalism and the “left-left” position of egalitarianism and radicalism.

This can be seen more clearly if we put our two spectrums of debate on a pair of axes.

Most of the volume in the education debate comes from the “progressive” top-left quadrant of the diagram (where we’d find the likes of Melissa Benn , Fiona Miller and Lord Hattersley) and the “conservative”  bottom right quadrant (where we’d find the likes of Melanie Phillips, Chris Woodhead and Lord Tebbit). It suits people who hold these two positions to act as if they are the only positions available and so most media debate seems to take place on the red-arrow above. Both camps know that there are limits to which they can gain public support for their positions. Grammar schools, if reintroduced, would not be popular with the vast majority of parents whose kids would not go to them. Trendy teaching methods are held with contempt by parents who actually want their kids to achieve academically. It is far easier, therefore, for educational conservatives to focus on standards and the educational progressives to focus on structures when having the debate anywhere the public can hear. It is in both their interests to maintain the debate along the red line, and to pretend that everyone is arguing from a position on that line. It suits both camps to pretend that everyone is either a left-wing supporter of child-centred education or a right-wing supporter of selection and no other position is possible.

Astute politicians have discovered the benefits of arguing for rigorous academic standards and comprehensive schooling (or at least no increase in selection), which places them somewhere low in the top right quadrant. This is the territory that Tony Blair and David Blunkett staked out in the mid-to-late-nineties. It is probably where the current government is, although one cannot be certain as it is unclear where the push for academies and free schools is meant to lead and the Tory backbenches seem keener on grammar schools than the coalition front benches. It is key political territory, because it is what most parents want for their children. They want their children to be entitled to a good academic education, without having to fight for a place among a privileged minority. It is also the territory with the strongest arguments in its favour, as it combines both a call for justice and a resistance to educational fads. It is opposition to both dumbing-down and to writing off a large section of the population.


  1. Mostly I agree with your analysis, but I’m not sure that Blair & co really were in the top right quadrant – except perhaps rhetorically. In practice, they presided over the proliferation of vocational courses (elitist rather than egalitarian) at the expense of the academic curriculum. The proof can be seen in last year’s Ebacc performance.

    Gove is certainly in the top right quadrant. But if Gove’s experiment fails – what then?

    I suspect that we might see the emergence of what might be termed “de-selective education.”

    You rightly judge that Grammar schools would be unpopular because most children would be excluded from them. But what if schools were able to take the top 80% of the ability range and eschew the bottom 20% (who would be packed off to remedial units – under another name, of course)?

    That might well command the support of the majority.

    Imagine how much better schools with setting/streaming would do in performance tables without their bottom stream/sets.

    Imagine how much faster mixed ability classes would go without the slowest 20%.

    Imagine how much less stressful it would be for teachers to have to operate within a narrower range of differentiation…… and think of the behavioural benefits too.

    It could catch on.

    Indeed, it seems inevitable that this will be the way things go if the Coalition’s ‘egalitarian traditionalism’ doesn’t work.

    Which is why I’m puzzled why so many of my friends on the Left want Gove, academies and free schools to fail.

  2. I deliberately said “Tony Blair and David Blunkett” rather than “New Labour” or just “Blair” or anything else. This was the position they held Labour in from 1994-2001. After Blunkett moved from education it was just a mess and you could place the government almost anywhere on the grid, before it finally settled down in the progressive quadrant under Brown and Balls.

  3. @richard – our 80/20 split idea is an interesting one – but what happens to that 20%? You seem to sweep them away (talking only of teachers dealing with the 80%) But isn’t what you’re really arguing for recognition that students of different ability need to be educated in different ways – I can think of teachers who would be equally relieved to have the time and space to support the behaviour and development of that bright-but-destructive class clown and other lower-set dwellers you are so keen to ‘pack off’
    Of course everything would be lovely if we only had lovely children to teach – and although teachers have a right not to be repeatedly threatened, etc an education system that just ignores the children it can’t easily deal with isn’t going to be an answer.

    As you can probably tell, I’m firmly positioned in the top left quadrant (using my ruler to flick rubbers across the way at Gove :D)

  4. […] just read an excellent post here by Andrew Old which clarifies a frequent misconception in debates about […]

  5. […] my last post, I referred to a great post by Andrew Old where he uses a quadrant to clarify a common misconception in educational […]

  6. In Australia, there seems to be another axis to the debate which is around resources and freedom of choice. If the government defines education it has to supply the resources to implement the policy. If “schools” are given the “freedom” to define education they can allocate “resources” according to their “special” needs.
    The level of school funding is set to go down because of government debt . Education is an enormous cost and there is great potential for cutting budgets. It would be politically unpopular to do this.
    If the departments of education cut the budget on courses, staffing, buildings, books or technology they would face criticism for the cuts in important educational programs.
    If the school principal is given a reduced budget to spend they can make independent choices based on their school’s priorities. Any program can be cut and justified as the choice of the school. There is no direct political responsibility for any cuts to educational programs.
    The resources are not just money but the supply of teachers. Old teachers are set to retire in huge numbers and there are not enough new teachers to replace them. The new teachers are often untrained in the subjects they teach. An independent principal can make staff appointments and course changes based on their special knowledge of their school.
    Mandatory school programs lead to more resources. Freedom in school programs lead to less resources. “Freedom is poverty, slavery is wealth.”

    • The possibility of autonomy as an alternative axis was discussed here:


      My own instinct is not to view it as independent of the other axes, as, while it cannot be read off of the other axes directly, I do think a belief in autonomy of schools often reflects one’s attitude to the status quo, which will reflect views that correspond to the other axes.

      Of course I could be projecting here, I just know that I had no strong views about autonomy when David Blunkett’s National Strategies were insisting on whole class, interactive teaching, but that I suddenly wanted freedom to do my own thing when Ed Balls’ was overseeing the enforcement of the Every Child Matters agenda.

  7. Nice article…but I think we can completely dispense with any notion of a Left-Right divide and I think that beyond parents and teachers and all the rest there has been a consistent “realist strain” ie. employers and top universities who always remained aloof from such debates and simply kept creaming off the best academic candidates and will always continue to do so. Unfortunately, the demand for “cream” , even in the most buoyant of economic climates never reached such a volume that, at a push, it couldn’t be wholly satisfied by the private sector.

    Obviously, they’re happy enough to take some from the state sector if it is of the required quality. In fact, in PR terms, this makes enormous sense and possibly even assuages the consciences of some of the elite; giving them a warm, fuzzy egalitarian glow, no doubt…and the odd knighthood and peerage to boot. However, the state sector is still, viewed in these terms, a veritable basket case, hampered, at every turn by the vestiges of discredited liberal ideologies whose poison has entered every fibre of its being.

    Vocational education has become a transferred epithet. It certainly provides vocations, but not for the intended recipients. It’s a sop to the radical element. I constantly hear about every child needing the opportunity to succeed, but what I see instead is every child being handed an opportunity for consolation, having failed abjectly by any realistic standard. I work in what is, to put it bluntly, a typical fucked-up institution catering to 2nd and 3rd generations of the perpetually workless. We can scrape, in a good year 30% 5A*-C-ie English, Maths and three BTECs. The latter aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on and they won’t make them soft enough to enable them to be put to the appropriate use.

    Every year I see 40-50 kids trooping out hopefully into the world basking in the confidence we’ve instilled that their academic ‘achievements’ offer them a golden ticket. I then sit back and watch as they’re predictably kicked out of college, locked up, impregnated or rendered insensible by Diamond White and smack. We instil no rigour, no disciple, no independence, no resilience, no nothing. We spoon feed them Maths and English and hand them BTECs on a plate. Somehow, even kids with 0% attendance manage the BTECs. We nearly screwed up last year by awarding one to a kid who’d moved school in year 9.

    Last year we hit 40%. Now we can hardly move for educational “big-hitters” swanning around telling us how wonderful we are; how we’ve “transformed their life chances” etc. It’s bloody sickening. They’re good kids. They’re good people. We lie to them and give them false hope. Sometimes I don’t feel I work in education, sometimes I feel I’m part of a political PR scam; selling a big lie to children and parents who deserve better.

    There needs to be rigour and academic excellence for all who are remotely capable. I’m sure I’ve said it before on here: I blame deluded liberals and those on the left who bought into their utopian bullshit. The left should be demanding proper education for working class kids. When it comes to education, I’m happy to side with the Tory right. I want discipline and excellence…fairy tales and platitudes can be left behind in year 3.

  8. […] I have even less time for it in education debate where attempts to apply left/right labels to the spectrum of educational opinion are used to conceal a much richer variety of positions. For these reasons I rarely blog about my […]

  9. […] have argued before that the usual left/right distinctions can be meaningless in education. Instead of a left/right […]

  10. […] have argued before that the usual left/right distinctions can be meaningless in education. Instead of a left/right […]

  11. […] had talked in my blog on The Education Spectrum last year about how education debate which could take place in at least two dimensions, was often […]

  12. Reblogged this on Phonic Books.

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