`There is an educational nihilism in Britain that could prove catastrop hic'

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The Independent Online
Two phrases leap out from yesterday's remarks on educational standards by Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. The first is "white boys" and the second is "anti-educational cultures". The first is startling because of its identification of a specific racial category associated with underachievement, and the second because it marks an acceptance that in Britain there exists a distinct educational nihilism that could prove socially and economically catastrophic.

The issue of racial differences in any area is fraught; in education it is explosive. Clearly if Woodhead had made the same point about black boys, there would have been an instant detonation. When Paul Condon of the Metropolitan Police made the statistically uncontentious observation that blacks were disproportionately heavily involved in street crime, the idea was at once buried beneath the inflammatory rhetoric of race warfare.

It is in the nature of contemporary political dialogue that there is no such rhetoric to protect whites from the revelations - often admittedly spurious - of statistics or genetics. So Woodhead is safe; his remarks will not be called "racist". But his phrase about "white boys" raises precisely the same issue as the specification of a racial category in any context. If white boys are underachieving, is it because they are white or is their whiteness simply one aspect of their cultural predicament?

In fact, his identification of a specifically white problem in education works to discredit many of the assumptions previously made about racial differences. Most studies that have attempted to link race and IQ have tended to show that Orientals are the smartest, whites come second and blacks third. The existence of such clear-cut differences appears, at first sight, to be unsurprising. After all, obvious racial variations do exist, so it seems reasonable to assume that less obvious ones, such as academic ability, are as real as slanting eyes or curly hair.

However, most of the studies are compromised by fundamental conceptual flaws. First, genetics has tended to show that racial differences are superficial; variations within a population are far greater than variations between populations. Second, intelligence is still not sufficiently well defined to make it convincingly measurable. Third, many studies suggest that changes in environment - say, moving a child from a poor area to a rich one - can produce changes in IQ far greater than any differences arising from purely inherited factors. And fourth, no such study can be convincingly scientific because of the impossibility of isolating environmental from inherited factors in human populations.

So Woodhead's observation that whites are doing badly is strong evidence against the depressingly numerous, supposedly scientific and usually dumbly right-wing studies which suggest that blacks are intrinsically intellectually inferior. That is good news, not because it undermines the serious study of racial differences but because it helps to undermine the stupid, politically corrupted study of racial differences. Obviously we may one day find something to say about mass human variation on the basis of race or genetics, but it will certainly not be a glibly mechanistic linkage of colour and intelligence.

Against the dumb left it should also be added that identifying a problem among whites tends also to discredit the belief among blindly ideological race warriors that racism is at the root of all disadvantage. In short: nothing is reducible to the more mindless slogans of either the right or the left. More good news.

But Woodhead's second phrase - "anti-educational cultures" - is not good news and it is made less good by the fact that he is plainly right.

One of the great mysteries of education in Britain has been the quiescence of parents. No one within the spectrum of serious politics now doubts that, during the past 30 years, British education has failed. Particularly among the poorest and most disadvantaged, our standards are horribly low compared with those of other developed countries. One in five seven- year-olds in London schools scores zero in reading tests.

Worse still, our system has produced appalling social divisions. School league tables may be an imperfect guide, but the grossness of the disparity they reveal between the worst and the best is overwhelming evidence that we are busily dumping huge numbers of children into defective schools.

Yet the parents have done almost nothing. Do they protest outside the gates of these sink schools? They do not. Do they heckle the grumpy wreckers of the teachers' unions? Never. Now we have one possible explanation - the quiescence of parents itself may be part of an anti-education culture. Not enough parents take education seriously enough.

Anecdotally, I have been convinced of the existence of such a culture for some time. I have asked criminals with virtually no education why their parents did not attempt to push them through school. The answer, invariably, was: because they did not care, education was to them little more than a temporary inconvenience; it had no obvious worth.

The first official awareness of the possibility that we have an anti- educational culture came in a report from the Select Committee on Education last year. That is now endorsed by Woodhead. But how has it happened? And why are white boys such victims of this culture?

"Anti-educational cultures", he writes, "grow out of the experience of educational failure." These are carefully hedged words that do not immediately offer consolation either to the right or the left. The left, for example, may argue that unemployment produces educational despair: what is the point if there are no jobs? But this is a contemptible argument that patronises the poor by suggesting they are incapable of seeing any value in education other than the most immediately functional. Clearly dismal job prospects do not help but, equally clearly, it is absolutely better to have some education than to have no education at all. The employment picture may change and, in any case, everybody is better off knowing something rather than nothing.

Not to believe in the absolute value of education is to be a nihilist because it amounts to a disbelief in all human culture. If, as seems to be the case, there is a hard-core anti-education group in this country, then we have some dangerous nihilists in our midst, people who are effectively writing themselves out of a constructive participation in society, not just this society but any society. We might try to console ourselves with the thought that there will always be such an irreducible hard core. But, alarmingly, the dawning recognition of this phenomenon is accompanied by the assertion that it may be distinctively British, at least in its scale.

So the underachieving white boy phenomenon is a terrible warning. It cannot yet, as Woodhead admits, be fully explained and it may still prove less serious than it at first appears. But for me it feels right. It indicates that deep in the culture there is a loss of faith, a profound disbelief in any kind of continuity or achievement. It indicates, above all, that the defence of the culture against, among other things, the moronic slogans of the right and the left is now more urgent than ever.