Schools are laboratories – in a sense. They reflect the societies that create them, and, in doing so, measure the success or failure of government policies and cultural mores. They conspire to capture, in microcosm, the consequences of successive governmental approaches to the management of economic affairs, welfare provision and law and order, as well as, of course, their approaches to education itself.
Let’s take social security as an example. Since the Second World War ,governments have fostered, albeit inadvertently, the growth of a welfare-dependent underclass which, unsurprisingly, has had a detrimental impact on parental attitudes to education – attitudes that manifest themselves through children in schools up and down the country. To put it crudely, such families have lost respect and reverence for both schools and teachers because they no longer need them to escape poverty.
Or perhaps we should consider the impact of liberal individualism, an Enlightenment-inspired concept that views society as largely responsible for the behaviour of criminals – and thus, transmuted into an educational context, the poor behaviour of children in schools. It would therefore, the sentiment goes, be wrong to punish criminals and, by extension, unruly children for the evils imposed on them by societal pressures they have no control over. They are, for all intents and purposes, the victims. In practice then, as a logical corollary, teachers get the blame for badly behaved pupils. The pupils, of course, go unpunished and behaviour, as an inevitable consequence, gradually gets worse. Thus the principles of liberal individualism – principles that have guided governmental policy for the last 50 years – directly affect schools, teachers and, most importantly, children. Perhaps the coalition should take note.
Recently, though, as a result of the demographic changes taking place in my school, I have found myself pondering the government’s immigration policy and its impact on education.
As a case study, let’s look at one of my current Year 10 cohorts. Out of a class of eighteen pupils, ten of them are of foreign extraction: six were born and partially raised in former British West Africa; one was born in Romania and the other three in Poland. These students, without exception – and they are representative of the vast majority of their respective compatriots across the school – are a breath of fresh air. Unlike many of their British-born peers, they are hard-working, well behaved and have a ferocious desire to succeed. In short, they value education.
Why? The answer is simple. They’ve been raised by parents whose provenance can be traced to countries without generous welfare systems. By necessity, they care about and realise the value of a good education as a result. How else would they escape poverty? These children have thus been inculcated with values that emphasise the critical importance of self-help and personal responsibility. They are not, unlike their British counterparts, permitted to make excuses for their failings.
Just how long this will last, though, once they’ve been here for a few years and experience the generosity of a welfare system that discourages educational achievement, is anyone’s guess. But in the meantime, their presence is both refreshing and welcome.
I do harbour some cultural concerns, however. During a recent classroom debate on homosexuality, for example, the dissonance in opinion between the indigenous children and their foreign peers was stark. The British born kids were, broadly speaking, and to their credit, tolerant; their foreign classmates – notwithstanding one exception – were, in contrast, profoundly homophobic, to the extent of wanting to see homosexuality outlawed. Interestingly, these sentiments are fuelled by their domestic environments, environments that reflect the cultural and religious heritage of their parents (and, let’s not forget, the very same environments that value education and encourage hard work).
However, that said, these sentiments are, I’m sure you’d agree, deeply at odds with our shared conception of morality and individual liberty. This is a conception that rightly encourages the free expression of one’s sexuality and prohibits discrimination based upon sexual orientation. The rise of intolerance as a consequence of immigration and our misguided commitment to multiculturalism is a profoundly concerning feature of modern Britain – a feature distressingly displayed in my school and, I’m sure, many other schools across the country.
So we have a dilemma. On the one hand, encouraging the arrival of hard-working people who value education is remarkably beneficial; on the other, though, the very moral certainties that nurture courtesy, respect for authority, hard work and commitment, also promote intolerance and hatred. How do we, as a society, through a process of cross-fertilisation, seek the wholesale adoption of the former, thus encouraging the indigenous population to embrace hard work and respect for authority, whilst persuading the newcomers to renounce the latter, thus accepting Western values of tolerance and liberty?
Alas, and not for the first time, I don’t know. But the Coalition should be looking for answers, the efficacy of which will be revealed in laboratories – or classrooms – across the country.