KES

This week, Film and Education students have been watching KES.

Fifteen year old Billy Casper is physically and verbally abused by his older brother Jud, ignored by his mother and bullied by his peers.  Billy, determined not to follow his brother “down the pit”, seems hopelessly destined to do just that. When Billy takes a young kestrel chick from a nest he nurtures a significant, touching bond, and inhabits a world seemingly removed from his other, more brutal reality. As the story unfolds, we learn that it is not and while Billy is powerless to break free from his reality he is never broken.

Ken Loach’s retelling of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave has become a cinematic classic.   Using pupils from local secondary modern schools (in other words those who had failed their 11+) including David Bradley as Billy, as well as other non professional actors drawn from around Barnsley, Loach attempts a gritty realism, an authentic portrayal of one working class boy’s life as he faces the transition from school to work.  The use of natural lighting emphasises the contrasting environments that Billy faces, or will face; the dark interiors of home, the pit and school versus the light, bright freedom of the outdoors.  The Barnsley dialect, which allegedly rendered Hungarian more understandable to Rank executives (Stephenson, 1973) along with a plot focusing on the mundane with its absence of dramatic events or happy endings is surely used to add a feeling of purity and sense of authenticity.

KES’ representation of secondary education in the late 1960‘s reveals its ideological opposition to a school’s role in preparing working class pupils for a life of routine manual labour through inculcating a culture of subordination, obedience and powerlessness.  In this way KES is a dramatisation of Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) correspondence theory. Yet, through its  fictional ethnography of schooling KES also illustrates the agency of pupils in response to this culture, akin to some of the observations found in Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour.

Powerless as Billy Casper and his peers are to escape this structure the film reveals the pupils awareness of it, as well as their resilience to it. The hilarious football scene in which a deluded Mr. Sugden (played by Brian Glover, then a Barnsley school teacher and part-time wrestler) plays out his Bobby Charlton fantasies, shows the pupils arguing with him about unfairness and cheating. MacDowell vociferously protests his innocence regarding the ‘offence’ of coughing in assembly while the ‘culprit’ keeps quiet.  Assembled boys, waiting for the head teacher collectively discharge their contraband to an innocent messenger, and together they laugh as the head speechifies about the “generation that never listens” before he, in turn fails to listen to the protests of the unwitting mule.

The caning scene is brutal, but it is routinised, as is all the violence in KES, making it, perhaps more acceptable to those receiving and perpetrating it.  Certainly, as one boy says  “I’d rather have the cane than do lessons”. Similarly, Gryce, the head teacher describes having no option but to use the cane, even though he is clearly aware it does not work:

“I still have to use this to you boys everyday….until someone produces a better solution I’ll continue to use this cane, knowing fully well that you’ll be back for it, time and time, and time again….”

Interestingly, the DVD describes the violence contained in the film as “infrequent/mild” suggesting to viewers that, perhaps, routinised violence is acceptable.

Then there is Billy’s awareness of his own employment prospects and his philosophy surrounding this. Following a fight on the coke heap with MacDowell, Billy’s conversation with Mr. Farthing (played by Colin Welland, at the time the only professional actor in the film) about his impending transition from school to work reveals Billy’s acceptance of his position in life, but crucially his awareness of it:

Farthing: What sort of job do you want?

Casper:  Not bothered Sir, anything’ll do me

Farthing: Yea, but you want something that you’re looking forward to, that your interested in, don’t you?

Casper: I’ve not much choice Sir, I’ll take what I’ve got

Farthing: I thought you wanted to leave school?

Casper: I’m not bothered

Farthing: I thought you didn’t like school?

Casper: I don’t, but it don’t mean I’ll like work, does it. Still, I’ll get paid for not liking it, that’s one thing

Farthing: Yea, I suppose it is

And so, Loach problematises middle-class sympathy in his attempt to privilege the voice of the working-class pupils in describing the reality of their lived experience.  Limited agency, yes, but Billy and his peers are no somnolent sufferers of false class consciousness.

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School of Rock

The first film under the spotlight on this term’s Film and Education is School of Rock (2003) directed by Richard Linklater.

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Through the liminal zone of the classroom at Horace Green Preparatory School Dewey Finn, in a desperate attempt to pay his share of the rent, impersonates a substitute teacher. Rejecting the expected curriculum and pedagogy he sets out to transform his class into a winning rock band, and while his deceit is exposed, Dewey is redeemed and his teaching style is vindicated as the class secure their place in the Battle of the Bands.

School of Rock adopts a formulaic narrative which sees the equilibrium broken for all characters, and ends with the establishment of a new, and more fulfilling one.  The representations of schooling, teachers, teaching and learning reflect ongoing debates around the purpose and nature of education.  Dewey literally rips up the system of rewards and demerits, grants recess and abandons the syllabus.  While initially this reflects his antipathy towards his feigned role (having described teaching as babysitting), on recognising musical talent in his pupils, this is soon channelled into a child centred pedagogy.  We see the children engaging enthusiastically on a rock band project, collaborating with Dewey to conceal the reality of their new school experience from the stern Principal Mullins.  Yet, while the narrative predictably sets teacher centred learning against child centred learning, Dewey, the child centred protagonist is not averse to drawing on authoritarian approaches himself, while the pupils have to pledge allegiance to the band, they also have to pledge their allegiance to his creativity.

The pretence cannot last of course, and Dewey’s true identity is revealed after he fails to convince assembled parents that he has taught the required syllabus, or that rock is a suitable subject for study.  We learn early on in the film that education is a market place; parents spend $15, 000 a year for a place at Horace Green Prep. They expect results and not the anti-establishment, creative expressions of a rock band.  Just as it seems that the forces of progressivism have been quashed, the pupils organise themselves to rescue Dewey from returning to his former self,  defying authority to play at the Battle of the Bands.  They don’t win of course, at least not the battle itself.  After all, they have abandoned grades, but they have won something much more significant as a new equilibrium is established with Principal Mullins and parents convinced of a more liberal education, at least in the discreet context of Dewey’s after school rock project.

Speed (2010: 101) highlights the “anti-intellectualism” inherent in this film, seen firstly in Dewey Finn’s rejection of the school system, the knowledge taught and teaching styles.  Secondly, we see this “anti-intellectualism” endorsed through the popularity of Dewey and the apparent success of his approach to teaching.

Fun to watch, School of Rock explores the tensions between competing educational ideologies and resolves them, safely.

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The Grammar School: A Secret History

BBC Four have just finished broadcasting a two-part series The Grammar School: A Secret History.  Both episodes can be accessed via the BBC programmes page.  I found the series less than illuminating, and not as analytical as it could, or should have been.

The narrative of episode two focused on “the golden age of grammar schools” indicating a particular, positive view of this type of secondary school.  Far from being a secret history this episode repeated several common sense assumptions about the opportunities grammar schools gave to working class children, as well as the turn towards comprehensivisation.

A number of problematic phrases stood out:

“Grammar schools offered talented children from the poorest backgrounds the chance to go to some of the best schools in the country”

Talent in this content clearly refers to academic talent. It assumes that the 11+ was effective at identifying talent in children,  and implies that only talented children from the poorest backgrounds deserve a chance to go to the best schools.  It says nothing about middle class children, do they automatically go to “some of the best schools”?

“The grammar schools created a generation of upwardly mobile high-flyers who helped transform Britain”

This suggests that the grammar school system created social mobility.  Evidence suggests otherwise.  Middle class children were more likely to enter grammar schools, and once there, a middle class pupil was more likely to succeed than a working class pupil (Halsey and Gardner 1953; Little and Westergaard, 1964; Lacey, 1971).  True, the post-war years saw some upward mobility, but it also saw a change in the occupational structure, with an expansion of professional (middle class jobs) and a contraction of manual (working class jobs).

The mobility claims are less firm when considering the overall numbers of pupils educated in grammar schools.  As the narrator went on to state, they:

“educated a quarter of all secondary school pupils”

Can a “golden age” really be claimed for a system which excluded 75% of all pupils?  Even this “quarter” figure is misleading as grammar school places were not evenly distributed across the nation.  You had more chance of getting to grammar school in Wales than in parts of England.  The rationale for selection to a grammar school is that a pupil is suited for a grammar school education, in other words the 11+ identifies the possession of academic talent. How then can the uneven distribution of grammar schools places be explained?  Were Welsh children more academically gifted than English children?

The episode went on to describe how grammar schools would compensate working class children for the

“cultural impoverishment of home”

which, not only is this offensive, suggesting that working class culture is impoverished compared to the middle class culture of the grammar schools, it was immediately contradicted by the vignettes of working class ex-grammar school pupils whose families clearly valued education and aspired to greater educational opportunities. The programme makers have apparently, not read Nell Keddie’s Tinker Tailor.

Then, the programme moved on to the demise of the grammar schools, which, we were invited to believe is lamentable.  It was all the fault of

“The Labour Government [who] persuaded and pressured them to go comprehensive”

How much persuading, and pressuring did LEAs need?  True, there was the famous circular 10/65 which hardly compelled LEAs to go comprehensive.  This programme did briefly refer to middle-class dissatisfaction with the 11+ plus system, but said nothing of the economic rationale for comprehensivisation.  When Margaret Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education, Circular 10/70 attempted to stop plans for comprehensivisation, however LEAs continued submitting such plans, and more comprehensive schools were created. It was hardly a case of a Labour Government forcing comprehensive schooling on unwilling LEAs. None of this was mentioned.

The narration went on to describe

“enforced comprehensivisation”

which probably refers to the 1976 Education Act, which was repealed in 1979, meaning comprehensivisation wasn’t enforced.

The Grammar School: A Secret History was an interesting attempt at illuminating the history of secondary education, but it could do better.

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The logic of school refusal

Truancy is a problem.  Children should go to school, parents should ensure their attendance and schools should do more. Its common sense. The present Government are keen to tackle the issue, giving schools more powers and issuing more punitive sanctions to parents. In a speech last year, Michael Gove said:

“we have got to tackle the truancy tragedy in England”

Notwithstanding the educational related disadvantage that children who truant may face, truancy might be an understandable response to school life.  Jenn Ashworth writes an interesting article in the Guardian.  She describes refusing to go to school (though technically this is school refusal not truanting).  Her rationale appears quite logical.  Why would anyone volunteer to spend five days a week in a crowded building where everyone is dressed the same, and where your every move is controlled by a bell?

Read Jenn Ashworth’s article in the Guardian.

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Policing Schools

In a recent Guardian article Chris McGreal reports on the Texas schools hosting their own police forces. Police officers patrol school corridors, maintaining order, arresting and charging students with a range of offences which, had they been committed outside of the school’s jurisdiction would be classified as misdemeanours.  Children who are charged are left with a criminal record which can impact on their future prospects.  Thus, childhood misbehaviour and, more generally childhood itself is criminalised.

Marxist sociologists would argue that schools have long been designed as spaces for the control, regulation, surveillance and discipline of (mainly) working class children.  Drill practice was common in Victorian schools, and galleried classrooms lend evidence to the notion of the school as a panopticon, as do biometric controls and CCTV in contemporary schools in the UK and USAIn the United States, Bowles and Gintis (1976: 39) highlighted the “repressive nature” of schooling with its focus on discipline and obedience.  However, as Hirschfield (2008: 80) observes “the traditional disciplinary project of American mass education is slowly crumbling” as the behaviours of students which would once be dealt with via school discipline are criminalised.

It can be argued that this school to prison pipeline replaces the school to factory pipeline described by Bowles and Gintis (op. cit). Schools are no longer required to socialise the next generation of workers, instead they prevent and punish crime, even if that involves expanding the definition of criminal behaviour. And thus, alongside de-industrialisation the criminal justice system has expanded.  Brown (2006) comments on the numbers of school police officers’ associations in the United State, presumably created to protect, and possibly promote their professional interests.

All this relates to the United States.  The presence of police officers in UK schools is recognised to be increasing. Late last year, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)  published Police officers in schools: a scoping study which explored the ways in which the police service worked with schools.  That report did identify a number of challenges to the successful involvement of police in schools.  However, it also appears to accept early intervention as a rationale for police involvement, and is focused on the mutual benefits to pupils, schools, the police and the community.  The report’s concluding section sets out recommendations for ensuring the ‘success’ of police work in schools.  In other words, schools as agencies of criminalisation might soon be common place in the UK too.