The great march toward equality

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Education in most countries within the boundaries of Western civilisation has identified similar problems. The solutions vary, depending on the environment. The much-quoted statistic of 12 per cent of blacks in the United States between the ages of 18 to 25 being in higher education but 30 per cent of the same group being in prison or on probation may be replicated in Scotland if colour is replaced by a portmanteau term: poverty.

The most enduring problem of all therefore is how to ensure equal educational opportunity for every child. The Education (Scotland) Act of 1945 stated that pupils should be educated according to age, ability and aptitude. When Circular 600 in 1965 advocated comprehensive education, the response from many teachers was that we already had this. The missing feature was "evaluation".

Evaluation surfaced in the United States through the Civil Rights Act and the "Great Society" reforms of Lyndon Johnson. The book Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966) by James Coleman, commissioned by the American government, created an evaluation movement which culminated here in the United Kingdom in the educational priority areas programme.

Councillors and MPs resented their patch being classified as deprived and there was a lack of focus. Was the problem one of poverty or of inequality? Was it a lack of income or status or power, or inequality of opportunity, which had to be rectified to ensure better results? Those who lived through the period will remember the great expectations of Headstart in the US and efforts at similar pre-school programmes here (and the subsequent disappointments). With our current vouchers for pre-school education it might be wise to decide in advance what we hope to achieve and how we should evaluate it.

James Coleman in the 1960s used a phrase still potent today: "an effort to understand". President George Bush stated in 1991, in America 2000: A National Education Strategy: "We must cultivate communities where children can learn, where the school is a living centre of a community where people care for each other and their futures." Coleman discussed how to achieve this in the policy perspectives series of the Office of Education Research and Improvement, in a booklet on parental involvement in education (1991). Here he introduces the concept of social capital. The starting point is the assertion that "the school is a constructed organisation designed to complement the family in child-rearing". The human capital is in higher standards of health and higher levels of education in the community. Social capital in the family is seen in the amount of time given and interest shown by the adults in the family to the child's learning.

The social capital in the community is seen in the trust which children have in adults in their community. This requires a stable social structure where parents associate with each another and support common standards of dress and behaviour for all pupils. There are dangers in that groups of parents may demand policies that are against the wishes of the majority.

The school has to work at creating a main community group with common norms. This is most easily done where there is choice of school and thus acceptance of a pupil by the school imposes certain standards which the school and its community require. In effect, parents can be fully involved in educational decisions but the community will enforce reasonable standards of behaviour for all pupils and parents.

Is it all simplistic and naive? Has community care worked in the Health Service? The biggest single problem facing many teachers is getting an atmosphere in the classroom that will allow effective learning to take place. It must not be left to the individual teacher to have a war of attrition with some pupils, causing all the rest to suffer. The concept has worked in many American states where armed guards patrolling school corridors have been stood down.

The march of a million black people in Washington on October 16 had one purpose: asserting that they would take responsibility for their own behaviour. We need not be as flamboyant but the principle is sound. Can the community attack the current four horsemen of the Apocalypse: ignorance, stupidity, greed and (the strongest one) apathy.

Yet a further report was published in the United States in October by the Carnegie Corporation. Great Transitions: Preparing Adolescents of a New Century, based on a 10-year study of 19 million young people in the 10 to 14 age-group. The report overwhelms the reader with statistics about neglected opportunities and advocates that defined communities should take responsibility for improvement. This is worth a try and may be unifying rather that polarising.

Ian Morris, a retired HMI, is an educational consultant. He has recently returned from a visit to the United States.

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