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Rethinking Contemporary Myths of Meritocracy
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The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, but this hiatus provided an opportunity to rethink the fundamental principles of our education system.

In this thought-provoking book, Alice Bradbury discusses how, before the pandemic, the education system assumed ability to be measurable and innate, and how this meritocracy myth reinforced educational inequalities – a central issue during the crisis.

Drawing on a project dealing with ability-grouping practices, Bradbury analyses how the recent educational developments of datafication and neuroscience have revised these ideas about how we classify and label children, and how we can rethink the idea of innate intelligence as we rebuild a post-pandemic schooling system.

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The main argument of this book is that the idea of ‘ability’ and how it operates is one of the ways in which the school system in England reproduces social inequalities, contrary to claims of meritocracy and fairness. This is not a new argument, but one that has been discussed in depth for decades, as academics have repeatedly made links between the idea of fixed intelligence and its damaging relation to particular social groups, including the working class and some minoritised communities (such as Gillborn 2010; Ball 2013). However, it is an argument that requires updating and contextualising in this post-pandemic era, where the disruption to normal ways of life has allowed for some disruption to ‘normal’ ways of thinking about schooling. What I aim to do here is to consider how these two axes of ‘ability’ and inequality operated in the era preceding the pandemic, in all their contextual peculiarity, and in turn to use this discussion to ask questions about the future, post-crisis education system.

This revisiting is necessary because discourse, as Foucault (1977) contends, operates in a particular historical and social context; thus we need to repeatedly consider how discourses of ‘ability’ and its proxies work to reproduce inequality in each period and context. I contend that the era under discussion – that of the late 2010s – requires particular scrutiny as the operation of ‘ability’ evolved in new directions.

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This chapter focuses on the concept of ability as it is currently used in schools. The main focus is on what we can glean from teachers’ responses to a question about their understanding of ‘ability’ in the context of grouping decisions (arising from the Grouping Project explained in Chapter 1). As Ladwig and McPherson argue, there is research on the role of ability in distribution of curricula but ‘teachers’ conceptualisation and everyday use of the term “ability” has remained relatively obscure’ (2017, p. 344). My intention here is to complement the existing literature on the concept of ability in policy and its dangerous effects by exploring the operation of this discourse at classroom (or disciplinary) level, through analysis of the words of teachers on the topic. A final section following the discussion of teachers’ conceptions of ability considers the manifestation of ability in classroom practices, including grouping, labelling and interventions. These are the real-world effects of the ideas held by teachers.

Before embarking on this discussion, it is important to provide some historical context for the concept of ability and its related ideas of intelligence, potential and meritocracy. In the following sections, I examine how scholars have characterised the development of intelligence as an idea, and how it manifests itself in modern political and social discourses shaped by neoliberalism. I also consider how recent findings in genetics and epigenetics have influenced discussions about the hereditability of intelligence, in what has been called the ‘postgenomic’ era.

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This chapter begins by setting out the extent and nature of inequalities in the education system in England, based on attainment data. Then, using research data from interviews with teachers, I set out the case for the argument that ‘ability’ and inequality are intertwined concepts, reinvigorated by recent developments. The literature discussed in the later part of the chapter demonstrates that the notion of ability has always been inflected with raced and classed discourses, but I argue here that the idea has been reinvigorated so that it works in new ways in the current system, and the post-pandemic era offers new dangers, as well as new ways of thinking.

As mentioned, I use the term inequalities1 here to consider those disparities relating mainly to class and race. The intention is not to dismiss other forms of inequality, but simply to make the topic manageable. Other scholars have dealt more thoroughly with issues of gender, religion, sexuality, dis/ability and others, and their intersection; and how this relates to perceptions of ability and students’ identities as learners (Francis and Skelton 2005; Jackson 2006; Walkerdine and Ringrose 2006; Bradford and Hey 2007; Skelton et al 2007; Shain 2010; Slee 2011; Youdell 2011; Mirza and Meetoo 2018). I focus on class and race because (along with gender) these are major organising principles in education, which have been associated with differing levels of intelligence historically. In this section I draw on attainment and exclusion data from England in order to consider the current state of educational inequalities.

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This chapter focuses on the first of the two education trends, the growing influence of neuroscience. I begin by examining the influence of neuroscience in the broadest sense, before considering the ‘neuroturn’ (De Vos 2017) in education specifically. This is followed by a discussion of the doubts and dangers of using neuroscientific findings in simplistic ways in real life contexts, including in classrooms. I then turn to the interaction between neuroscience and the concept of ability, while a final section explores the inequalities that can be reproduced through a focus on the brain as a symbol for different abilities.

Throughout this chapter, I do not make any claims as to the quality of neuroscientific research, as I am not qualified to do so; rather my focus is on the ways in which this ‘new knowledge’ (McGimpsey et al 2017) filters into wider discourses about children and the effects this has on inequalities. The brain has always been ideologically constructed in importance, such as in historic efforts to measure the size of skulls and relate them to class, gender and race (Richardson 2017); what I argue here is that the growth of neuroscience and its powerful influence on policy in recent years represent a reworking of discourses of determinism related to background, to which we must focus our attention, particularly given the repeated connections made in popular debate between background and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning. This crisis has facilitated further focus on children’s brains.

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In this chapter, I explore the impact of a second educational trend which sees an increased emphasis placed on data about children within schools, known as datafication. As with neuroscience, I begin with a discussion of the role of data in education, before considering the relation to concepts of ability and to the reproduction of inequalities. The field of data and education is vast and written about extensively elsewhere (for example, Eynon 2013; Lingard and Sellar 2013; Selwyn et al 2015; Lupton and Williamson 2017) so I provide an overview of the main debates and points of discussion, before focusing specifically on the relationship between data and concepts of ability. I wish to emphasise the ways in which current data-focused practices work to reinforce long-standing ideas about children as positioned on a spectrum of ability, where they can be compared with each other. These positions are solidified through data and as such lead to deterministic predictions of what children can or cannot do, as exemplified through the drift towards measurements of progress over raw attainment.

Through this chapter I discuss the impact of data on values, as well as on practice. A datafied education system is one governed by a specific rationality, whereby numbers become the means through which we understand children and their potential, but also the teacher’s worth and impact.

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This book has sought to examine in detail how discourses of ‘ability’ as fixed and measurable, embedded within broader discourses of meritocracy, reproduce inequalities in education. I have argued that ability as discourse is a set of parameters which define and maintain acceptable truths within schooling, which can have pernicious effects. Two developments in education, related to data and to neuroscience, were used to consider how ability discourses operate at this historical juncture – within the current episteme – in a neoliberal education system shaped by a decade of Conservative-led governments. The aim was to uncover the choices that are made about how we understand children’s ‘ability’ through scrutiny of the impact of new developments. This endeavour was informed by theoretical perspectives from Foucault on discipline and regulation, and influenced by CRT, which asks questions about how everyday workings of systems can disadvantage minoritised groups.

During the period of writing of this book, the emergence of a new coronavirus and the resulting pandemic brought dramatic shifts in terms of education, but also society and the economy. These continue as the crisis unfolds and there is increasingly awareness of the long-term impacts of COVID-19. One of these impacts is a greater focus on educational inequality, as the idea that attainment gaps would be increased by children learning at home became a familiar topic in the media. It will take many years for the effects of these events to be understood, but we can begin to explore what the post-pandemic era might look like in education, and how it can be reshaped in equitable ways, particularly as research on the first wave of the pandemic is published.

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