The soft bigotry of low expectations

This phrase first entered regular usage when George W Bush exercised it regularly during his Presidency. I heard it again on Thursday evening this week, from Donald Clark, e-learning entrepreneur and one of 6 contributors to the Learning without frontiers seminar focussing leading educationalists on “What should be taught in our schools”.  The informal evening of discussion and debate also featured Katharine Birbalsingh (teacher and author), Toby Young (journalist and author), Dr Ralph Townsend (Headmaster Winchester College), Dawn Hallybone (senior teacher), and Tristram Shepard (online educational publisher.  You can hear the transcript to the whole event here, ( and each of the speakers did really well, though not necessarily answering the question posed!  I was fortunate enough to be asked to make a contribution, and you can hear that at 69min28secs into the track.

Evenings such as these arise when government calls for national review of provision, and that’s precisely what is going on now, not just because the current national curriculum is to be overhauled, but also because separate review has been called on the ‘new’ idea from Mr Gove, namely the EBacc. All over the nation, teachers of creative and technological subjects are collaborating to make impassioned plea to ensure these subjects are retained post review.  There is no doubt that the drive back to the academic by Mr Gove is set to remove some spurious 4 GCSE equivalent portfolios from the GCSE curriculum, and to focus all schools on the general principles that children aged 16 should have a core of academic knowledge underpinning their qualifications. What seems silly is the idea that creative subjects have no value; the one thing the English curriculum has done over the last 40 years is to encourage sufficient breadth so our base of creative and designers has been broad enough, indeed providing today for large numbers of highly paid and rewarded jobs and ensuring that UKPLC is at the forefront of innovation in the world. 

By the time the main contributions had come to a close, there was broad scale agreement on one thing, that of pupils behaviour, and that’s where teacher and author Kate Birbalsingh really caught the mood, words to the effect  “I don’t really mind what the government wants to include in the curriculum, what I want is for classroom behaviour to be good enough for the children within to learn something, anything”. Kate is attributed as ‘damming the state sector’ but nothing could be further from the truth. Out loud and in print (To Miss with Love, Penguin), she makes it clear that children deserve to be taught well and rigorously, and that if our education is to improve, we must demand above all that classes are orderly places. What is taught in them must also be of value, and that’s where a separation begins between those that believe Shakespeare and a Language have a part to play, and those that believe their charges should be permitted to concentrate more obviously on the subjects they want to do, and that they should be allowed to drop the bard and verb tests. 

In all schools, both state and independent, we have seen a dramatic rise in unacceptable behaviour amongst the early teenage years over the last 10 years or so. Part of the problem seems to lie in the developing ‘virtual network’ to which our children belong, where posting pictures and videos of the lewd and unacceptable normalises such activity and makes it difficult it seems for adults to express disapproval before it’s too late. Many children have become consummate consumers of such rubbish, and through bravado encourage others in like manner. Whereas before, careful parenting kept their charges away from such poor influence, now it resides within their homes, indeed often in the child’s own bedroom, and its effect is corrosive on minds and bodies. In schools such as ours, we’ll cope, because we have such great support from home, where once alerted the problem can be contained.  But it’s the not knowing to start with that clearly upsets the family applecart, that an innocent child’s head is so quickly turned by such trash. 

Claires Court does not select academically in the way that its rivals in the area do, but we have strong selection on grounds of behaviour. What we’ll not brook is bad behaviour and we won’t accept it as normal, and that is sometimes a really hard ask with families where boundaries have already relaxed. What George Bush was referring when he referenced ‘ soft bigotry of low expectations’ was an explanation of why the down-and-out could never achieve, justifying inaction from educators in schools. What the 21st century parent and teacher must guard against is permitting low expectations to creep in with regards to the conduct of children. As adults, we know when we must scrub up and equally when we can let our hair down; children simply don’t know the difference, hence the need to teach them the range of good manners required in society, from dress to politeness, from hairstyle to language, from writing to organisation, they are all of a piece. So any curriculum we choose to bring in for the future must have at its heart subjects that require disciplined learning. And both teachers and parents will need to accept that means some hard graft in school and at home, for which there is no excuse allowed; but given a balanced approach, there will be still sufficient play for Jack or Jill to enjoy life to the full!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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1 Response to The soft bigotry of low expectations

  1. Anne Brown says:

    Very much like your reflection on the ‘What should be taught in our schools’ event and particularly your comment on ”the idea that creative subjects have no value”. Attending the same event my overriding concern was the suggestion that rigour and high quality only come with certain ‘academic approaches’ and that the creative and practical approaches we associate with subjects like digital media, drama and art don’t stretch students as much as latin and languages.
    My work as an advanced skills teacher and on the Creative Partnerships Programme over the last eight years has shown that all areas of teaching and learning have the ‘potential’ to be more creative and allow students to take risks, problem solve, ask questions and make connections to the wider world. So I wonder if the current debate should not be what ‘subjects’ should be taught in our schools, but how we can enable and support all subject teachers to use more creative approaches and new technologies.

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