I have just been reading a fascinating book, The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson and Pickett. It is the result of many years of research which tries to understand, through international comparisons, what effects equality and inequality have in different societies and countries. In short, there are some countries where the difference between the highest and lowest earners is relatively small, and others where it is much wider. The UK and the USA are among those with a relatively wide gap between the top and bottom earners, whereas countries like Sweden and Finland have much narrower gaps. The conclusion of the research is that the smaller the gap between rich and poor in any country, the better overall outcomes are in health, education, and ‘happiness’.
The section on education is especially interesting to me, for obvious reasons. The chapter reports several pieces of educational research. One which caught my eye was an experiment done in the USA in schools in the 1960s. The researcher told children in the school that scientific research had recently concluded that people with blue eyes were more intelligent on average and more likely to succeed than people with brown eyes, who on average were less motivated and more lazy. Within a very short period, less than a week, the children with blue eyes became measurably dominant over those with brown eyes, began to treat brown eyed children with contempt, and, when assessed academically, scored much better. The next week, the researcher told the children that a mistake had been made, and actually it was the other way around. Again, over the course of the week, the situation reversed, and the children with brown eyes scored better in the end of week test than those with blue eyes at the end of the second week.
There are several other similar experiments recorded in the book which point in the same direction. Basically, human beings need to be told that they are valued and can achieve in order to allow that achievement to take place. I have long nurtured a strong scepticism about programmes promoted by the last government, in particular SEAL (social and emotional aspects to learning) because too often they fall into the trap of simply telling every child that everything they do is wonderful in order to ‘boost their self esteem’ – I think this does many children a disservice, and certainly does not prepare them well to be resilient emotionally in adult life. In the light of the blue eyes/brown eyes experiment, it is important to strike a balance though. Victimising or stigmatising people creates a self fulfilling prophecy, but indiscriminate praise when not deserved can be equally unhelpful.
There are all sorts of ways of applying these ideas in both education and more widely. Despite what some areas of the popular press say, almost all educational, sociological and psychological research points to the damaging effects of separating children into different schools at age 11. It sets up exactly the self fulfilling prophecy hinted at by the eye colour experiment. Today we have the welfare reforms being announced by the government. The Archbishop of Canterbury has already intervened in a parallel dispute on housing benefit, to the derision of some in the media, who think religious figures should not comment on politics. But in one sense he is right – if you convey a message to people at the bottom of the pile that they are valueless you will set up exactly the same situation as in the eye colour experiment . But again there does need to be a balance – indiscriminately giving anyone high levels of welfare is a bit like offering indiscriminate praise to children in school who don’t actually deserve it – ultimately it is unhelpful in moving them forward.
Here at school we are into real November weather – this week two days have been wet and windswept. Everyone knows that children find it harder to remain calm when it’s windy – when they are drenched as well it compounds the problem! It is amazing how many – presumably in the interests of fashion? – are prepared to walk around in pouring rain with no coat or umbrella – especially when they have a perfectly good coat in their bags! I am sure I was never like this as a teenager …
At 11 am today we are observing the remembrance silence at school. All lesson activity will stop for a short period, and we will hear an act of remembrance (They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old, etc – a wonderful extract from the First World War poem The Fallen by Laurence Binyon), and the Last Post will be played on the trumpet, followed by a prayer for peace. Shared tradition helps make society cohesive, both within school and nationally, and I believe it to be of great importance that students are enabled to share in this national moment of recollection.