What is lacking

Jane Miller

  • Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms by Shirley Brice Heath
    Cambridge, 448 pp, £25.00, July 1983, ISBN 0 521 25334 9

Working-class children do less well at school than middle-class children, and exceptions must not be allowed to interfere with that truth. Notions of linguistic or cultural ‘deprivation’ imply lacks or absences in relation to other people and to what schools are and offer, and, by squeamishly skirting the connections between social class and children’s experiences, chances and expectations, schools have turned to forms of ‘topping-up’ and remediation, which derive from rudimentary and distorting views of the realities of culture and language in people’s lives. For years, studies of school failure looked at what certain children and their families lacked which made them impervious to schooling, unwilling or unable to profit from it. Then, during what can now seem like a golden age, between 1966 and 1976, teachers, researchers and even, occasionally, educational policymakers started to ask different questions. These were about the difference between school knowledge and everyday knowledge, about learning as well as pedagogy, and about forms of assessment and the curriculum. Teachers would need to become as sophisticated and sensitive about the culture of their pupils as they were about the culture represented by the school. People who have good jobs, money and power often attribute these things to the success of their education; they are able to persuade their children that the strange rituals of schooling, that material and activities dull or meaningless in themselves, pay off in the end. It takes more imagination for the black daughter of an unmarried hospital cleaner to believe in the advantages of learning the chemistry needed to get an O level than it does for the white son of a doctor.

Those questions were not utopian. Teachers knew then, as they know now, that schools cannot end or compensate for all the inequities of society. What did seem gloriously possible in those days, though, was that schools and teachers could change, get better. And many did. Teachers, of course, wanted all their pupils to do well in public examinations: but they knew that success there is regulated according to a fixed ‘curve’, which dictates that less than a quarter of the population may achieve useful amounts of O-level passes and less than a tenth do well enough to proceed to higher education. It seemed essential, therefore, that neither the curriculum nor assessment should be allowed to trap the majority, or their schools and teachers, into complacency and failure.

Changes in those years were linked to two kinds of understanding. The first came out of theoretical studies and case-studies by anthropologists, sociologists and linguists, who were moving from a concentration on universal features of cultures and languages to the crucial effects on individual development and socialisation of diversity and difference. The second emerged from work by psychologists and psycholinguists, who questioned Piaget’s structuralist account of child development and turned to the researches of the Russians, Vygotsky and Luria. This shift obliged teachers to go beyond debates about their own practice and the curriculum, and directed them towards a consideration of the learning strategies children already used when they came to school – strategies learned at home, which teachers would need to reinforce and extend, rather than subvert.

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