School Swap, ITV’s quasi-documentary series concluded last night. Described as an ‘unique experiment’ (it was neither) the series saw pupils from a private and a state school swap places. In the first episode three pupils from the private Warminster School in Wiltshire travel to Derby to spend a week attending lessons at The Bemrose School. In the second episode three pupils from Bemrose spent a week boarding at Warminster. The swap is designed to highlight the contrasts between the two types of schools and despite ITV claiming it to be ‘unique’ is actually a well rehearsed TV format (for example in the 1980’s the BBC’s Forty Minutes broadcast the feature Changing Places which saw pupils from Rugby School exchanging places with Ruffwood, a comprehensive in Kirkby near Liverpool) and one that endures, along with social class and educational inequalities.
By highlighting the apparent success of the private sector there was an implication that the state sector is deficient in comparison. This framing of the problem of the ‘educational divide’ serves to set up the private sector as offering solutions to the challenges faced by state schools, and in so doing diverts attention from the pervasive problems of an unequal society. Analysis of the assumptions and ideas presented were thin on the ground. For example, the identification of ‘white working class boys’ as underachieving is a gross oversimplification which is supported in some discourses by the conflation of ‘Free School Meals’ with ‘working class’. It also diverts attention from the underachievement of pupils from Black backgrounds. In the interviews with the Bemrose pupils at Warminster a positive attitude to the school dress code was considered to be a worthy moral position, but this position can be problematised as being an example of how pupils are socialised into conformity or belonging to the group (a good start would be to read some Durkheim or Bowles and Gintis).
While the series was sub-titled The Class Divide, there was little analysis of the ways in which social class might shape educational experiences and outcomes, and this was revealed in some of the problematic statements from both headteachers, which one would have expected to have been challenged in a documentary. From the Head teacher of Warminster there was a denial that contacts helped to improve the life chances of its students, which is to ignore the powerful influences of different forms of social capital for educational outcomes and life chances. From the headteacher of the Bemrose School there was an expression of the belief that “education is the key to unlocking the inequalities in society”, yet education systems have a social purpose, are shaped by the society in which they exist and thus may serve to reproduce social inequality, rather than challenge it. At the end of the series we learn that Brett from Bemrose has been offered a funded place at Warminster, but there was no explanation of why Brett was singled out for the offer. Twitter users responded by offering congratulations. If he chooses to accept, Brett may well benefit, but benevolent scholarships are not the answer to inequalities in education.
This was documentary lite. It is more interesting to see how the debate is framed than for anything it reveals about social class and educational inequalities and solutions to this injustice. Please, read some Bourdieu, some Durkheim, Ball…