Christy Kulz’s important and timely book is about the inner workings of the academy school system. In what she so aptly calls Factories for Learning she reveals exactly how, in both overt and imperceptible ways, the meritocratic ethos of neoliberal aspirations is woven into the fabric of our educational establishments. Andrew Adonis, one of the early ‘masterminds’ of academies, proclaimed the aim of these schools is to, ‘break the cycle of underachievement in areas of social and economic deprivation … by establishing a culture of ambition to replace the poverty of aspiration’. This causal vision firmly locates systemic educational failure at the unaspirational feet of the feckless black and white working class communities who live in ‘disadvantaged’ areas. Funded directly by central government and free from local authority control, Academies invited business sponsorship into their free-market solution to balance the books of social disadvantage. Academies have been systematically rolled out at a pace since their heady inception. Now almost two in three secondary schools are academies, extending their reach to one in every four pupils. They grew from a nascent stream of a few experimental schools under New Labour in the early 2000s to a veritable flood of glistening Coalition and Conservative flagship institutions with ‘state-of-the-art’ buildings and highly paid superheads. These are the lucky ones. The not-so-lucky, less celebrated schools in the more deprived cities and regions of Britain have to make do with the traumatic process of restructuring so they can ‘rise like a phoenix’, rebranded as an academy. However, despite the unabated enthusiastic political commitment to academies, the evidence from respected independent sources such as Ofsted and the Sutton Trust shows academies are clearly not working to raise the attainment of the most disadvantaged pupils. Moreover, beneath the high profile media stories of academy success, glitz and glamour, some have been found to engage in the ‘dark arts’ of ‘disappearing’ ‘failing’ children, who threaten their ranking on the all-important, ‘live or die’ league tables. With little scrutiny and accountability of academy governing bodies, financial scandals abound in which those entrusted with our children’s education are stealing the ‘food’ out of our babes’ mouths.
Looking back at the genealogy of the academy school system I realise, with a sense of shameful culpability, that I was there when the idea of the academy school system was first ‘birthed’ as a solution to the malaise of poor standards and failing schools in Britain. It was twenty years ago, in 1997, when New Labour under Tony Blair swept to power after years of being kept out in the cold by the Conservative regime. The modern ‘Cool Britannia’, ‘can-do’, neoliberal British society was ‘born’ in a euphoric blaze of hope and glory. The Prime Minister Tony Blair’s mantra was ‘education, education, education’ and within weeks of his election I was invited by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, to be member of the Schools Standards Task Force. It was a select meeting of the great and good in education, arts and entrepreneurship, and we set about with great gusto with talk of ‘turning around’ failing schools and ‘raising standards’ through literacy and numeracy – and who wouldn’t want that! I often wondered why I was there. I was from the ‘ivory tower’ of academia, not an educational practitioner, and the only woman of colour in the room, but it soon became clear. My research on the radical work of the black Caribbean supplementary school movement appealed to the ‘progressive’ left. The struggle of the post-war Caribbean migrant ‘Windrush generation’ to set up their own black-run schools outside the hostile, racist state education system stuck a chord with the beating heart of the New Labour’s neoliberal ideology and its turn to marketising education. Little did I realise at the time that what I saw as transformative grassroots radical action through commitment to education would be turned on its head and embraced as the true embodiment of ‘aspirational meritocracy’ – a prime example of disadvantaged communities ‘doing it for themselves.’ Before I knew it the energy and resilience of the black women who ran the supplementary schools was being harnessed as a model for ‘out of school provision’, especially for the excluded black kids! The market prevailed – just as it does with academy schools.
In Christy Kulz’s seminal book we can find many answers as to why academies are failing their pupils. Kulz’s spellbinding ethnography of Dreamfields Academy, a fictional name for a real school, focuses on the everyday detail of school life. This case study of one urban school offers a refreshing insight into a dimension of school life illuminating the seductive grasp of market-driven neoliberalism and its effect on the lives of working-class pupils in contemporary educational spaces. Kulz describes her personal dilemma of being a former employee now embedded as a researcher, in what often seemed like a war zone. In the year and a half she spent at the coal face at Dreamfields she documented the subtle institutional disciplinary regimes that reproduce racialised, class and gender inequalities. From her vivid descriptions of the charismatic headteacher, to the overworked teachers, to the multiracial pupils who were schooled to be like ‘robots’, and their anxious, aspirational parents, Kulz reveals the complexity of the ascendant market-driven neoliberal discourse framing twenty-first century British education. Deploying the metaphor of the ‘conveyer belt’, Kulz deconstructs the journey the pupils take from innocence and freedom to fear and compliance. The panoptical surveillance afforded by the glass buildings and the spirit-breaking, military disciplinary regime ensured the chaotic ‘difference and diversity’ of the urban residuum was erased and replaced by an ‘inspirational’ middle-class subjectivity and work ethic. White middle-class values and ideals of ‘good behaviour’ defined success and those that failed to comply were relegated to the darkness of the penal confines of the dreaded LSU (Learning Support Unit), or exiled beyond – excluded from school and cast out into a medieval-like oblivion.
At the core of Dreamfields Academy is Mr Culford, the headteacher whose mantra, ‘structure liberates’, is grounded in his firm belief that working-class, urban children are ‘unhappy’, coming as they do from chaotic and unstructured backgrounds. As he argues, his school’s ‘structure’ liberates them to do better. Kulz’s elegant prose powerfully captures the frustrations, terror and comedy of abject situations in which this ‘structure’ unfolds. There are the bizarre assemblies where Mr Culford espouses contemporary morality tales of good and evil and rags to riches to inspire the young people into the culture of ‘aspiration’. Then there is the madness of the frenetic after-school ‘chicken shop run’ where security guards drive around in a Mercedes Benz policing the pupils’ penchant for unhealthy ‘working-class snacks’. While some pupils are ‘knowing subjects’ and perform symbolic resistance through feigning submission and dissent, most learn to play the ‘game’ as it is a futile endeavour to resist the neoliberal promise of happiness!
Christy Kulz’s Factories for Learning is a worthy twenty-first-century addition to the classic canon of school ethnographies written in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Lacey’s ‘Hightown grammar’ (1970), Stephen Ball’s ‘Beachside comprehensive’ (1981), Máirtín Mac an Ghaill’s ‘Young, gifted and black’ (1988), and my own ‘Young, female and black’ (1992) drew on the long-established sociological tradition of ‘identity’ studies. Focusing on youth subcultures and teacher-pupil relations, we sought to expose the ‘inside story’ of how schools reproduce social inequalities through ‘cultures of reproduction’. When I first read Kulz’s book I immediately thought of Paul Willis’s ground-breaking study ‘Learning to labour’ (1970). While Willis’s white working-class ‘lads’ performed their elaborate anti-work cultures of resistance in the post-industrial age, forty years on Kulz’s sophisticated intersectional study reveals the complex nature of the seductive neoliberal turn. Far from rebelling, most young black, white and Asian working-class students in Dreamfields work hard to remake themselves into ‘good workers’ in order to access the bounties of the happy neoliberal ‘good life’.
I hope you enjoy reading this wonderful book as much as I did. It is an insightful, critical and perceptive tale of life in a modern urban school, which powerfully lifts the lid on the cruel and pervasive ‘myth of meritocracy’, so we can honestly begin to answer the crucial but elusive question, ‘why is there still so little social mobility in Britain?’
Heidi Safia Mirza, Professor of Race Faith and Culture at Goldsmiths Goldsmiths, University of London