Class interest and the ‘attainment gap’

Neo-liberal governance in Scotland operates through social class. It reveals itself through a propensity for sociologically naïve constructions of issues. The attainment gap, a major educational policy focus, presents a model of working-class communities as deficient, whilst avoiding challenging those with the entrenched power whose class interests generate the supposed gap. Additionally, the technocratic definition of the gap in terms of the school curricular areas of literacy and numeracy represents a celebration of striving and thriving compatible with the priorities of neo-liberal capitalism. Rather than introducing greater meritocracy, more virulent types of strategies to maintain class privilege have emerged. The first of these entails control over the policy narrative of how attainment is defined, thereby allowing a process of naming and shaming to appear legitimate. The second is through what sociologist, Max Weber, described as social closure, where privileged groups hoard opportunities and deny access to them, the net effect of which is to create various social environments that are either more, or less, nurturing to educational success.

Judged through the results of national and international benchmarking attainment tests, the performance of children from what the government labels ‘less affluent areas’ of Scotland fell below that of affluent peers. Neighbourhood effects originating in affluence-differences at school level were to be rectified, through the Attainment Scotland Funding, which is the Scottish Government’s answer to closing the gap, and given to schools or local authorities in areas judged as having the greatest deprivation. The ostracisation by the government of a critical academic community in favour of more compliant voices has meant no attention was given to alternative views of the origins, and longevity, of this gap. So other potential ways of addressing it have been ignored. The reasons for government adversity to critical views of the attainment gap are to be found in the dependency relationship with the patronage it gives and it receives from these compliant voices. 

Several policies indicate why so-called ‘equity’ gaps will remain, and why this issue is conceptually much deeper than dominant political elites in parliament are prepared to admit. Firstly, the government’s decision to continue its support for private education in Scotland indicates it is not hopeful about communities divided by class. Weber demonstrated that elite groups practice ‘social closure’ to maintain their privilege by deploying social strategies that prevent others gaining access to valued economic, cultural and social resources. Closure entails opportunity hoarding and exclusive access to the hoarded resources. However effortful a group or individuals might be, this clandestine hoarding interferes with meritocratic flourishing by restricting important opportunities to the few. Secondly, the recent Scottish Budget increases taxation for those with salaries beyond £100,000pa by only a proportionately small extent. Members of this middle to upper-middle class are the main users of private education, with its access to privileged networks that will subsequently give competitive advantage in the market. By participating in this ‘club’ they are on the ‘right’ side of the closure barrier. Joseph Stiglitz has demonstrated that trickle-up, not down, characterises the origins of the documented increase in structural inequality over the past decade or more.

The attainment gap, therefore, has its origins in class conflict. Returning to the first strategy, from time to time those lower down in the class pyramid must be subjected to naming and shaming in order to encourage them to self-blame rather than demand a more just distribution of resources. The narrative framing the attainment gap allows the issue of private schooling to stay off the policy agenda. The attainment gap logic willfully ignores the fact that the sources of this gap lie within practices of closure and opportunity hoarding practiced for centuries and supported by private systems of schooling, open mainly to the most affluent families. Differentials in performance may have been proven to exist across schools within the state sector. It does not follow on this basis, however, that this is the only equity difference. Others are politically more contentious for government to provoke into public debate and thus their ‘testing’ of the source of the gap is quietly overlooked. So, a class analysis of the attainment gap is not congruent with keeping wealthy patrons on side, nor would such an analysis help to keep open the revolving door of privilege. In British politics, this dynamic of self-seeking privilege is a notorious feature of those elites who move from political posts into jobs in industries with which they have previously networked during their tenure in political office.

Chris Holligan is a professor in the fields of education, sociology and criminology at the University of the West of Scotland.

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