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The day Educational inequality became policy

From 2010, David Cameron’s coalition government and the Department for Education, headed by Michael Gove, embedded their “one nation” ideology into educational institutions, following the globally-minded New Labour government. The abandonment of ‘state multiculturalism’ and the foregrounding of a singular nation identity resulted in a curriculum built around ‘core knowledge.’ The reforms evoked a phrase used by Victorian poet and cultural critic, Matthew Arnold, from over 140 years ago, as they claimed to introduce young people to “the best that has been thought and said.” Yet, this approach raises complex questions: who decides what is “core-knowledge”? What if the culture our curriculums teach alienates those who don’t recognise themselves as a member of it? Should our curriculums be as changeable as the multicultural world it serves?

The legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of the first truly nationalised curriculum set the precedent for the 2014 reforms. Introducing greater accountability measures and school performance indicators were a response to the free market policies of global capitalism and a bid to cement Britain’s position as a global power. What’s more, state control over what would be taught was intended to reassure both cultural conservatives and traditionalists at a time when youth culture threatened the establishment.

Thatcher’s reform positioned education as a means of social mobility which provided equal opportunities for all, proliferating the idea that those who failed to climb the social ladder did so due to their own short-comings. The Cameron and Gove reform positioned education as a means of social justice; it perceived itself as transcending the struggles of the working classes and minority ethnicities. Knowledge was framed as an objective, essential truth democratically available to all regardless of their socio-economic background. Yet, in reality, the reforms excluded, marginalised and dismissed anything that presented difference.

At the 2015 Education Reform Summit, Schools Minister Nick Gibb clarified that it was the purpose of education to build a “fairer society” and to secure the highest standards for young people regardless of their background (DfE, 2015). Gibb evoked the work of E.D. Hirsch who championed the “core knowledge” curriculum as a foundation for the reforms. Hirsch claimed that those students arriving at the gates of school with greater levels of “intellectual capital” are predisposed to make the most of what their education had to offer. Students lacking this “intellectual capital” are consequently deemed ill-prepared. Gibb utilised Hirsch’s research in order to justify the deficit of the working-classes and minority ethnicities, deferring responsibility from the knowledge-based curriculum onto the students who struggled to access it. Furthermore, Gibb implored the summit attendees that they “must resist to divide culture from knowledge,” whilst dismissing the argument that a core-knowledge curriculum would make it difficult for young people to develop into “creative, engaged citizens.” (DfE, 2015). This explicit recognition of the relationship between knowledge and culture illustrated the intent to privilege a specific cultural identity over another. Jane Coles outlines how problematic this is, stating:

[I]dealist notions of culture have served not only to mask the underlying political forces at work, but ultimately to have naturalised assumptions about what counts as ‘culture’ in the education system.” (53, 2015)

This naturalisation of privileged culture subsequently becomes impossible to refute. Curriculum policies serve to equate knowledge, culture and tradition, implying that the chosen “core knowledge” is inseparable from our national identity and thus highly resistant to—or to use Gibb’s militaristic terminology, “armoured against” (, 2015)—change (Winter, 2017).

The demarcation of a singular cultural heritage can be traced back to two key documents. In 2010, Michael Gove commissioned a report by an expert panel to establish a framework for an improved National Curriculum. The report outlined that “the education of pupils is expected to introduce them to the best of their cultural heritage(s), so that they can contribute to its further development.” (DfE, 2011). However, when these suggestions were taken into consideration and applied to the Key Stage Four English programme of study, the wording specified that the National Curriculum should encourage students of English to “appreciate our rich and varied [...] heritage.” (, 2014). The semantic evolution of these reports illustrate the influence of the push for cultural conservatism. The pluralism of the initial report, which identified the multiculturalism of modern Britain, is replaced by a singular and naturalised notion of “our” heritage, thus removing the agency of individual students, schools or communities to determine what constitutes their heritage.

Despite the core-knowledge curriculum promising social equality, the incorporation of greater focus on a single heritage “reproduces existing class advantages by adopting the cultural practices of the powerful” and uses this as a “neutral measure of ‘ability’.” (Bourdieu, 1975; Coles, 2013). As ‘ability’ has become the key principle by which Governments have framed education policy since Thatcher’s reforms, it now functions to naturalise what is being measured. The outcome of the educational process continues, under the current government, to privilege those whose culture it identifies as tradition.

Bourdieu, P. (1974). The school as a conservative force: Scholastic and cultural inequalities. Contemporary research in the sociology of education, 32, 46

Coles, J. (2013). ‘Every child's birthright’? Democratic entitlement and the role of canonical literature in the English National Curriculum. Curriculum Journal, 24(1), 50-66.

Department for Education (2014) National curriculum in England: English programme of study - key stage 4. Available at

Department for Education (2015) The Purpose of Education: Schools Minister Nick Gibb Addresses the Education Reform Summit. Available at

Matthew, A., & Arnold, M. (1993). Arnold:'Culture and Anarchy'and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press.

Winter, C. (2017). Curriculum policy reform in an era of technical accountability:‘fixing’curriculum, teachers and students in English schools. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 49(1), 55-74.

Yandell, John. "Culture, knowledge and power: What the Conservatives have learnt from ED Hirsch." Changing English 24.3 (2017): 246-252.

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