Knowledge and control

In a flashback to the 1970s and early 80s, last Tuesday’s Guardian Education profiled sociologist Michael Young, then a curriculum radical,  author of books and articles on the relationship between knowledge, power and control and influential  in teacher education

Young and colleagues argued that the school curriculum reflected the culture and interests of the powerful ,  marginalising and devaluing  working class ‘everyday’ knowledge. This new sociology of education questioned the  way learning took place and formed the basis of an alternative pedagogy,  promoting a more integrated approach to the curriculum, a more egalitarian style of assessment, but also a more democratic relationship between teachers and students. This is a world away from the SATs and exam-based culture of today’s schools.

But  Young has now distanced himself from his early beliefs and ( so the article claimed) supports a Michael Gove type curriculum based around established academic subjects, where providing proper access to ‘powerful knowledge’ can allow working class students to move on in society. In other words, the notion of social justice and education has been turned on its head.  Yet is it quite that simple? Almost 50 years later, what do we make of all this?

Firstly recognising that certain knowledge is ‘powerful’ in terms of what it will buy, doesn’t mean that it should be considered intrinsically superior. We should accept that individual students, largely for instrumental reasons might want to sign up for particular subjects that improve their chances of entering more elitist institutions, while at the same time, arguing for a different curriculum for all students. One that includes a variety of learning, knowledge and skills.

Secondly, it isn’t clear how much the ‘alternative’ curriculum of the 1970s and 1980s, despite its radicalism,  really advanced the interests of working class students.  New ideas about learning and assessment  did find their way into established subjects like English and Humanities and  were influential in the creation of new ones like sociology for example. At the same time though , many of the new courses were  seen as alternatives for ‘non academic’ students who were waiting to leave school. It arguably reinforced educational divides as undermine them.

This was particularly the case with vocational education, which armed with a progressive and student friendly pedagogy,  grew up alongside, but didn’t really challenge the position of academic learning. It certainly didn’t enjoy equal status  and was not taken seriously by employers.  Though it did  allow progression to higher education for many students who would never have gone, but  to new post 94 institutions not the Russell Group.

Finally, in the current era where learning has become commodified  and  the reason for increased participation rates is as much to do with declining employment opportunities as it is a new ‘love of learning’  we should recognise that strategies for changing education must go further than the classroom and  linked to wider initiatives to improve the role of young people. This has always been the case!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s