There is no shortage of themes to address in schools and universities: wellbeing; climate change; diversity; equity and social justice; assessment; 21st century learning; the list goes on.
But, are there some challenges that stand out above the others? The answer is yes, but yes on two fronts.
The first relates to the teacher – the most important human influence on student learning. This has been shown through multiple analyses: trials in Uganda have suggested a real shift in learning when the teacher is strong, research by the World Bank points to the importance of teachers’ beliefs in their students (what the groundbreaking psychologist Bandura called collective teacher efficacy) and an extensive study by the Rand Corporation outlines the extraordinary value-added teaching can have on students.
However, this is only part of the puzzle. Teachers and students operate in systems characterised by values, culture and opportunities which determine many crucial factors, such as how far a student can hope to go in their journey, what they will study and what the next steps in life might be.
A teacher alone cannot determine these aspects of life as many will be influenced, if not completely determined, by the second front that has the greatest effect on learning. This second front is ideological: elitism.
I’ve written a book on this – Education and Elitism: Challenges and Opportunities. I have noticed in my daily practice as a Principal that the theme of elitism is omnipresent, from the pressure students put on themselves to enter elitist universities to the type of knowledge that is promoted, and excluded, in the curriculum. I argue that elitism is a central theme that defines almost everything that happens in schools and universities.
Of course, this depends on geographic regions: in the book I show how educational elitism is far more strident in the free-market Anglo-American sphere, for example, than it is in social democracies in Nordic countries. However, this is a question of valency, for elitism affects all educational systems across the globe.
Let’s investigate what this means at different levels: meritocratic, plutocratic and cultural elitism.
First, there is the elitist system of meritocracy whereby the best are promoted and awarded. But what do we mean by the best? Best at what? Traditional school assessment metrics measure attainment in academic domains and extra curriculars.
The question to ask is where the space is for neurodivergent, physically challenged or socially disadvantaged students. Social advantage (or lack therefore) predicts opportunity. For instance, students with access to coaching and technologically advanced infrastructures can get ahead in extra curriculars.
In essence, meritocratic elitism is meant to be need-blind, but it is not.
Next, there is plutocratic elitism meaning that the wealthy have the opportunities and the poor do not.
This is especially true in education for a number of reasons. First, top-tier universities are still extremely expensive. Some students receive needs-based scholarships, but even after scholarships, average tuition is still very high. And its easier to get there through expensive schools, with resources directed at college counselling.
A 2019 Oxfam report showed that poorer children in the so-called “developing world” were seven times less likely to finish school. A UNICEF report makes it clear that even in more developed countries “not all children have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential”. This is often because lower resourced schools struggle to provide the type of learning support that many student might need to excel.
Finally, there is cultural elitism, in other words, presenting a curriculum to students that excludes many voices. For instance, Kenyan students are still learning as much, if not more, about British history through a British curriculum than Kenyan history and culture.
This causes what is known as curriculum violence. When the curriculum is biased towards one cultural hegemony, it can create complexes of inferiority among students and instructors from other, less represented, or pessimistically represented cultures. For example, clumsy classroom experiments on what it means to be a slave or colonised person run the risk of traumatising students from historically denigrated cultures as they are forced to confront heavy, painful issues in front of a curious audience.
Psychological well-being in schools often stems from a feeling of not belonging to the in-group. The effects of this alienation are manifold and can be extremely negative.
Anti-cultural elitist movements can veer into crude exclusionary tactics too: rubbishing Western culture; excluding people based on their identities or seeking stigmas, categorisations and new types of stereotypes. Ironically, in the effort to dismantle elitism, a new type of elitism can be created. The search should be for an expression of culture that is less fragmented and more inclusive. Culture is a discussion to be had by everyone.
At the end of the day, education is about building confidence in students for the next challenge, and to build up someone’s confidence, there must be care for their multiple identities, not an aggressively elitist interest in some groups only.
A way forward
In my book, I point out that elitism is not always necessarily bad. Situational elitism is at the core of much human organisation, mainly in systems of contests, canons of respect, social structure or aesthetic discernment. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a world without elitism.
However, when it is too strident and unchecked, it becomes important for educators to stand back, to check the systems and values that are framing student learning and to adapt them if possible.
How to do this?
Broaden Assessment. Schools need to look carefully at how they can assess students more broadly than on academic skills predicated on social advantage. At the same time, universities need to be part of that discussion too, ensuring that the entry requirements to tertiary instructions are more holistic and appreciative of character and human flourishing than they are at present. If schools want to encourage entrepreneurship and student agency, then transcripts have to change to recognise this. A group that is doing this work to broaden assessment is the coalition to honour all learning.
Improve the reputation of state universities. As long as students are queuing at the door of the same top-tier, Ivy League and Russell group universities, the pressure on guidance counsellors, teachers, parents and, of course, students, to outperform one another will remain, causing stress and unhealthy zero-sum-game competition. To mitigate this, entire national systems and districts have to do work to improve the reputation of state institutions so that progress to tertiary educational pathways is smoother and more mindful. Ranking tables should be discarded.
Decolonise the curriculum. If the society that human beings need in the future is more inclusive, sustainable and socially responsible, then the values that are implicit in the curriculum need to be rethought. Schools should re-calibrate so that the curriculum experience is critically-minded, diverse, competence-based and celebratory of human qualities such as compassion, cultural literacy, environmental custodianship and accountability. A good starting place for this work is the study of history.
Therefore, I submit that to reform education for good, elitism must be addressed. Schools and society should allow for people to reach potential, to become excellent, but it does not have to be at the cost of others. If we look for the good and celebrate gifts as they are rather than how they should appear in one rigid framework, the whole question of elitism will become a different question, one of human flourishing in all its diverse and powerful expressions.