Dreamfields is the tip of a very chilling iceberg: Diane Reay

Posted by Chris Hart - Monday, 16 Oct 2017


Factories for Learning is a powerful indictment of a contemporary educational system that holds up the myth of meritocracy whilst subjecting black and white children to an education that disrespects and demeans them. Dreamfields, the Academy school where Christy Kulz’s research was conducted reminded me of schools for the working classes set up at the beginning of state education for all, whose primary mission was to control and pacify rather than to educate and stimulate. Christy’s book allows us to understand a complex intricate genealogy of class exclusions that threads its way from the nineteenth century to the present. When we engage with the powerful narratives in Factories for Learning we can see this legacy of nineteenth and early twentieth century penal institutions, workhouses and poor homes not just in Dreamfields’ Learning Support Unit, which some students actually described as ‘a prison’, but within the mainstream school itself, particularly in the lowest sets. As one parent commented about the school ‘the comparison with the military and breaking your spirit come too easily to the forefront’. This is no bright new future but a throwback to the days of Adam Smith when the purpose of education was to stamp out any critical questioning among the working classes – to make them docile. Underpinning the ‘structures liberate’ philosophy of the school is a profound racism and classism. Dreamland’s fundamental assumption is that black and white working class young people’s lives are chaotic. They lack backbone which has to be drilled into them. They lack structure and the ability to organize their own lives because they are coming from backgrounds that are seen to be inferior socially and culturally. They literally cannot be trusted with agency, instead Academies like Dreamlands attempt to turn working class young people into automatons – high performing automatons but automatons nonetheless.

We also see in the book the full power of schooling on contemporary class exclusions and the invidious consequences of the development over the last 30 years of increasing systems of audit, assessment, and setting and streaming in schools. This all-consuming focus on testing and measuring has served to re-emphasise and valorise ability as measured on test scores as the ‘be-all and end-all’ of education. (Just as an aside this is now happening in higher education as academics are positioned as objects rather than subjects in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) exercises.) But a further consequence is the power of categories of ability to be used for class identity and identification. The working classes have always been excluded from high status education, and in particular any form of elite education, but the book reveals invidious processes of excluding within the same school building as working-class students are more surveilled and disciplined, more targeted by the audit culture, receive a narrower curriculum, and have higher degrees of regulation than their more middle-class counterparts. The book provides a very vivid insight into how different education is for the Black working class child to that of her white middle class peers even when they attend the same school. While white middle class parents talked of their children being able to manipulate the rules and regulations, a black working class mother confessed ‘I feel like I’ve tortured my own child and put her through hell just to get an education’.

What was particularly shocking was the daily diet of conformity, compliance, and deference to authority that students were being fed but even more shocking was that, for the most part, they accepted and submitted to the indoctrination they were subjected to. In the face of all that acquiescence I want to be provocative. We have had Thatcher’s children, Blair’s babies, are these young people Cameron’s clones? Most sound like classic aspirant, mostly unquestioning self-disciplining neoliberal subjects. And what I found especially chilling was the students’ discourse on preparation for the labour market. They were recognizing and accepting that the discipline and control exercised over them in Dreamfields was good preparation for a labour market that they acknowledge will be long hours of hard work, a culture of professional obedience, regulation, and surveillance. No wonder our political elite want more and more academies if they are so successful at anaesthetizing young people to unjust power and control. One unwelcome lesson we learn from Factories for Learning is just how entrenched the neoliberal consensus has become.

We can see how the tentacles of neoliberalism have a stranglehold everywhere not just among an elite who are benefiting hugely but among those whom it damages and demeans. In relation to this I was reading an article in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago which reported how NHS Trust managerial staff were forced to chant ‘We can do this, we can, we can’ as a sign of their commitment to improving their hospitals’ poor A & E performance. This is the mindless mantra approach to inequalities. Students at Dreamfields are being fed fake mantras just like my grandmother a hundred years ago had to stand up in her board school and recite chunks of the bible and sing endless hymns about the rich man in his castle and the poor man at the gate. So these young people are being brainwashed into the belief that they can transform their own lives if they are self-disciplined enough, obey all the rules, and strive long hours everyday instead of any acknowledgement of the very unequal distribution of resources – economic, cultural and social between different social classes. The orthodoxy is that unequal resources have no bearing as long as working class young people buckle down and work hard. We have been here many times before. Compliance and conformity just prop up an unjust status quo. In the book I have just published on education and the working classes called Miseducation: inequality, education and the working classes, I write about what has changed and what has remained the same since Jackson and Marsden wrote Education and the Working Class in the 1960s, and there are painful glimpses of where working class conformity and compliance take us in their account of the unquestioning, rigid socially mobile adults in their study. They wrote:

There is something infinitely pathetic in these former working-class children who lost their roots young, and now with their rigid middle class accent preserve ‘the stability of all our institutions temporal and spiritual by avariciously reading the lives of ‘Top People’, or covet the private schools, and glancing back at the society from which they came see no more there than the ‘dim’ or the ‘specimens’ (page 241)

Dreamfields is the tip of a very chilling iceberg.

But the draconian regime that Christy writes about in Dreamfields is not just for students; teachers also spoke of working impossibly long hours. One teacher even bragged that he happily works 12 hours a day, asserting that making a difference motivates him to work longer and harder. Another teacher talks about never taking a break and eating her lunch standing up on duty. Although, teachers declared how worthwhile the work was it doesn’t sound like much fun from what this teacher said:

Every moment of every day is taken up with some sort of duty. You are constantly reminded of this all the time – we are permanently on duty. If you’re not in a lesson we are expected to patrol. You couldn’t let a kid go past with his tie down or his shirt untucked without saying something, because if you get seen doing that then maybe you’d be in trouble for letting it go past. And it goes all the way up to everything; every moment is a duty.

Far from structures liberating they appear to imprison both students and teachers. And there is troubling evidence of staff exploitation in academies. In 2015 the staff in one London academy went on strike after the school announced its intention to introduce zero-hours contracts for staff. Management’s intention was that time spent marking and planning lessons would go unpaid and teachers would only be paid during term-time. One teacher speaking of his experience of teaching in an academy said “it’s like putting someone in a prison cell and saying you’re free to do what you like in there” .

Finally, the book raises vital philosophical as well as educational issues. It allows us to see very clearly how the focus on aspiration is not progressive but reactionary, as Stefan Collini argues “a symptom of the abandonment of what have been, for the best part of a century, the goals of progressive politics”. We have allowed the “structural conditions of a deep social, political and economic crisis” to be defined as a problem of “individual behaviours”. The costs and cruelties of this ideological displacement are disturbingly evident in the young working class students’ accounts of always having to do better, to be better, and in the system’s judgment that, in the vast majority of cases, their efforts and striving are not good enough. But beyond that the book raises crucial questions around freedom and the contradictory, hypocritical nature of freedom under neoliberal hegemony because structures set up under neoliberal capitalism only work to liberate the elite. For the rest of us it always has been, and always will be, about control.

Then there is the quagmire surrounding the issue of resistance. Resistance has a long esteemed history in sociological thinking but in both Christy’s book and Kirsty Morrin’s work on a Northern academy we barely glimpse resistance so I guess other really interesting question that arose from reading Christy’s book was what has happened to resistance. There was lots of resistance among Willis’ lads when he wrote Learning to Labour in the 1970s and a strong aware resistance among the young Black Women Heidi Mirza wrote about in Young Female and Black in the 1990s. So where and why has it gone? We seem to be reduced to Bourdieu’s ‘liberating submission’ which, as a social mobile working class child who became a Cambridge professor, I can say with authority is a way of transcending your background that all too often brings us back to either Jackson and Marsden’s unquestioning, rigid conformist socially mobile young adults or a troubling sense of betrayal and guilt. This wonderful, thought-provoking book challenges us to seriously consider the damage imposed on all children by the English educational system but particularly the harm inflicted on those with the least resources and power – black and white working class children and young people.

Diane Reay, University of Cambridge

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