In 1973 in Conisbrough, a mining village in Yorkshire, there was an interesting experiment. The school-leaving age in Britain had been raised from fifteen to sixteen, and an arrangement was made to look after a group of fifteen boys from the local secondary school who were thought to be among the least likely to gain anything from an extra year at school.
The experiment was based in a building called The Terrace, some way away from the school itself. It is described in detail in Pat Kitto's book, Dartington in Conisbrough, where Ken Hosey, one of the staff members, gives this account of his first impression of the boys.
They were all basically unused to close adult contact, especially of the variety that could impel them into new experience and self-appraisal. The boys had all obviously, and successfully, either missed or avoided meaningful and productive contact with adults. The boys belonged to a group that was fairly anonymous at school, the ones who never put their hands up and automatically sat at the back of the class as far away from the teacher as possible. Most of them were members of that faceless minority who slip through most normal schooling without being touched by it. Obviously, in a school of over 1000, with classes of up to thirty, no matter how enlightened it may be, being anonymous both in the academic as well as social and emotional senses of the word, is a pretty easy task; particularly if you wish the situation to exist. The sheer weight of numbers makes contact between the teacher and this particular type of boy almost impossible.
He then describes what he calls 'the second common denominator of the group.'
Besides the low standards of reading and writing which were common to all these boys, their standards of attainment in almost every other direction were extremely low. If one asked a boy to do something as simple as sweeping a floor, or washing some cups, or just putting tools away in a cupboard, the job would be left not even half-done – the job would, in fact, be a mess. The floor would still be littered, the cups full of sediment, and the tools merely thrown in a disorganised pile. And if one asked the unfortunate boy concerned: "What's the idea? What do you think you're doing?" he would be shocked, taken aback, and say, "But Ken, I've finished. The job's done!" And the appalling thing about this situation was not so much the bad workmanship or lack of caring – it was the fact that the boys actually thought the job was finished, and satisfactorily! It was no bluff, it wasn't a question of laziness, it was a basic question of standards. What the individual boy was saying to me was not merely, "This is all I am capable of – this is my limit." He was saying, "This is me, this is what I am and I can be no better." The boys were not aware that they might possibly do or be anything more than mediocre. What I am talking about is basic, essential, self-awareness – the feeling that one is dynamic and loaded with potential. This quality is classless, or should be, and grows in childhood largely through contact with caring adults who act as touchstones for standards and generators of awareness. The Terrace group did not think they were capable of anything better, simply because no one had told them, or impelled them into discovering that they were capable of anything better.
The fifteen almost inarticulate youths who were allotted to the scheme were allowed to plan their own activities. At the school their attendance rate had been 60%. By the third week at The Terrace it had risen to 98%, and thereafter never fell below 92% (figures taken from The Terrace: An Educational Experiment in a State School, by Michael Duane). In the new regime they were able to succeed, and after only one year their self-confidence, their apparent level of intelligence and their ambitions were all raised. When a panel of teachers was asked to assess a transcript of a discussion with six of the boys, they assessed all of them as average or above average, including one who, prior to the year at the Terrace, and been considered to be almost educationally subnormal. One of the Terrace boys went on to Ruskin College, Oxford. Two of them are said to have become millionaires.
Success breeds success. Failure breeds failure.
National examination systems are devised to identify the most able children who can then be passed on to universities or trained for high-status careers. A by-product is that the rest are identified as failures. If you fail at school, you expect to continue to fail when you leave. You have been identified as a failure, and you accept that there is no point in having ambitions, because you know you will never achieve them.
Conventional education offers some children from poor backgrounds a chance to move up the social scale, but it does nothing to diminish the significance of the social scale itself. As well as promoting the academically able, it also picks out the children who are going to have to take the jobs with low wages and low status. Rather than reducing social distinctions, it confirms the status quo.
Modern society needs failures, and schools are organised to provide them.