The Exclusive Pursuit of Social Inclusion

Since the election of a ‘New Labour’ government in 1997 avowedly determined to prioritise ‘education, education, education’ there has been a concern to broaden social-inclusion. Given the well-established (and well-defended) patterns of social inequality in Britain, this was never going to be an easy task.
But recent pronouncements from the Secretary of State for Education Ruth Kelly have begun to concede just how substantial the failure to broaden social inclusion has been. It would seem new Labour policies have in fact worked not to broaden social inclusion but the deepen social exclusion. Speaking on the 26 July 2005 to the new Labour think-tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research, she said:

The gap between rich and poor in national curriculum test results and admissions to universities had grown. We must treat seriously the possibility that – despite all our efforts – who your parents are still affects attainment as much in 2004 as it did in 1998 (Richard Game, Education reforms and the better off. The Independent, 27.06.2005, p. 17).

The key phrase in this statement is the phrase “despite all our efforts”. Looking at the report again should raise our suspicions. While she admits that “who your parents are still affects attainment as much in 2004 as it did in 1998”, her data actually shows rather that new Labour policies have worked to increase not modify the gap between rich and poor in educational attainment. Not so much a result “despite all our efforts” but a result quite possibly “because of all our efforts”. The data shows that new Labour policies are not working towards social inclusion but actually furthering social exclusion.

Now a cynical reading of New Labour policies might argue that this government has been following a policy of fine-tuning social exclusion by stealth. I do not take this view. Rather I suspect we have a government with broadly good intentions that approaches the task of social inclusion as a Christian and philanthropic duty. The educational background of the major players in government and their advisers and civil servants pre-dispose them to believe in social inclusion as a process of distributing elite educational categories more widely. They forget that as members of the elite their educational experiences were founded on the social exclusions of others. What counted as education for them was designed for the few at the price of exclusion for the many.

As a result they have quite possibly unknowingly employed educational strategies built around well-established foundations of exclusion to try to deliver social inclusion. This is not as illogical as an informed educational research reading might imply. Most of us equate “education” with our own educational experiences and we accept as “givens” basic educational phenomena such as “traditional” school subjects or “academic” examinations. These are part of the widely accepted “grammar of schooling”. A layman's view would be that since “these things equal good schooling” let's try and include more pupils in this kind of educational experience and thereby we will deliver social inclusion”. Seems like common sense and certainly this was the way new Labour proceeded. In fact the truth is far more complex and contradictory. We need to understand a little of the history of schooling to see why new Labour rushed so far and fast up an exclusionary cul-de-sac in pursuit of social inclusion.

To outline a section on the history of schooling I want to draw on the studies I have been undertaking for the last thirty or so years. They too have attempted to answer the question as to why social inclusion and ‘fair education for all’ seems so perennially elusive. Broadly what these studies show is that many of the traditional building blocks of schooling are themselves devices for social exclusion not inclusion. Let me take as an example that unproblematic “given” in every school the “traditional school subject”.
Date of publication:
Education Policy
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Appears in:
Forum, Vol. 47, numbers 2-3, summer/autumn 2005