Archive for the 'Social theory' Category

‘Politicians see the British education system as a job factory’

Policy Press author and academic Peter Mortimore’s book Education Under Siege has just been released in paperback. Nearly 18 months on from Mortimore first sitting down to write it, Rebecca Megson asks what he’s still concerned about in the education system in the UK.

peter-mortimore-photoApart from a change in education minister, Peter Mortimore says the UK’s educational landscape remains largely the same as it was when he first wrote and published Education under Siege. The focus remains on the exclusive achievement of ‘levels’ which Mortimore believes is bad news for children, parents and teachers, applying, as it does, an almost constant level of pressure.

“The idea of education having a ‘noble’ side has been written out of the British education system – the system is seen as a job factory. Ministers are too focused on targets. Once you have a target in place, then the focus on education falls away,” he says.

Despite the relentless emphasis on results, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the UK’s international results are only average for maths and reading compared to similar countries. The 2012 report also showed little improvement in any of the subjects tested compared with earlier results.

Average results

Whilst a results-driven education agenda continues to dominate the UK debate, the PISA measurement system would suggest that system changes implemented over the past eight years have had little impact.

“I blame politicians for this situation – and all political parties too, there’s no bias in my condemnation. I’m sure they believe they are doing the right thing but they all have worked to make our system more and more competitive and have therefore created a national neurosis.”

Mortimore has worked in the education system as a teacher and researcher and was the director of the Institute of Education, University of London. He believes that when parents set out on the educational journey, they simply want the best for their children, which they define as them being happy, safe and successful at school.

Whilst this is the environment most children experience in Key Stage 1 Mortimore says it isn’t long before the system becomes more competitive. He says: “Suddenly it’s about getting into the best schools by living in the best areas – of course estate agents benefit enormously but it’s hopeless as a national strategy. More and more people fighting for limited places just creates fear, anxiety and panic.”

“Education is a powerful force in our culture: the better the system the better the society our children will inherit”

Earlier this month, education secretary Nicky Morgan denied rumours that she was on the verge of introducing compulsory setting in secondary schools. Mortimore welcomes this, warning against setting. He asks ministers and parents to look at the hard evidence, which clearly indicates that setting makes little difference. He says: “The theory that you get to focus on each group according to their ability is good. But, in practice, as soon as you stream, you lower children’s self-expectations.”

Mortimore has worked with a number of education ministers in his career. His work at the University of Southern Denmark also provided him with insight into the Nordic education. He believes the system in the Nordic countries offers an interesting alternative.

“You don’t get the same focus on competition, it’s about bringing up children to be happy and secure. Of course, life will be competitive but in the Nordic systems competition is introduced later, because it is believed that the older you are the better able you are to deal with it.”

Mortimore believes the campaign for change needs to come from the grassroots. In order for that to happen, he feels parents need to realise there are alternatives and then to put pressure on politicians to make changes. He believes the secondary school system is a disaster, creating confusion by providing too many different types of school, with funding distributed to whichever school type is most favoured by those with political power at the time.

He feels the situation could be immediately improved by simply providing schools with same basic funding, rules and powers. Through these measures Mortimore believes the system could at least return to a more level playing field.

Beyond that, he calls for ‘brave politicians’ who are willing and able to introduce a balanced intake of pupils so as to ensure that the school environment accurately reflects the diversity of people and backgrounds within modern society.

“The only method I can see that really works is a ‘lottery’ system, allocating kids pupils so that each school gets a fair intake, then every school can has a chance to be as successful as the next,” he says.“Education is a powerful force in our culture: the better the system the better the society our children will inherit. The converse is also true as the two are locked together.”

As a society, Mortimore feels we are becoming increasingly divided. The plethora of schools from which to choose from and the nature of area selection, entrenches the position of economically disadvantaged children as opposed to encouraging their potential. Furthermore, the number of different teaching unions dissipates teachers’ strength and power to challenge and change the system.

Mortimore feels more optimistic about the future. He says: “In the past year or so, as I’ve toured round the country I’ve found teachers and education officers collaborating, despite what the politicians are doing and saying. They realise it’s important for schools to work together.” He believes that in the long run things will get better, but he warns that, without thoughtful and supportive involvement from the country’s politicians, it is likely to be a slow game.

The paperback of Education Under Siege is available at the 20% discount price of £7.99 (RRP £9.99) on the Policy Press website. Click here for more details.

Related links

UK’s international results as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Guardian article on Nicky Morgan

Personal brand ‘essential’ to gangland survival

Academic and Policy Press author Simon Harding’s award winning book The Street Casino is based on findings from his extensive ethnographic study of local residents, professionals and gang members in south London.

Harding’s research provides a fresh perspective and new insights on the gang world. He believes more time should be spent understanding, rather than condemning, the street gang system if we are serious about helping the young people trapped in it. Interview and report by Rebecca Megson.


SimonHarding2NEW FINDINGS show that street gang leaders actively work to build a ‘brand’ for themselves as an essential part of gang culture.

Author and senior criminology lecturer Dr Simon Harding has been researching street gangs for some years. He has found that on the street developing a person’s brand is as essential as it is in mainstream consumerist society.

Harding explains that an individual’s brand is effectively ‘capital’ on the street; capital that can be traded, exchanged, increased and reduced. Brand protection is one reason why street violence erupts and escalates so rapidly.

Harding says: “If I ‘dis’ you, I take some of your ‘street capital’. You have to act pretty quickly in order to regain it. You might do that by knifing me, in which case you have now regained and multiplied your street capital.”

It doesn’t end there, though. “If the person is knifed in front of other people the value of that action is perceived to have increased. The wider group of people then also knife the person as their way of getting a piece of the capital.”

‘Creativity and intelligence’

Harding’s ethnographic study has focused specifically on a deprived area of Lambeth, South London, SW9. He interviewed people from the area, including young people involved in street gangs.

He says: “What I found was an enormous amount of creativity and intelligence – these young people just want to get on with their lives. They are in gangs but they view it as something they have to get involved in even though they don’t really want to be. We owe the young people involved a moral and social responsibility to understand their world.”

Harding is very clear on one point that he feels needs to be addressed first and foremost: the wellspring of gangs is poverty.

“People enter gangs because there is no plausible alternative available to them. The old ways of moving from adolescence into adulthood have evaporated.”

“the gang has a strong gravitational pull”

There are few opportunities for the young people Harding talked to – something which he says is made worse in a multiply deprived area that has been effectively ‘written off’ by both local and national government.

As local services retreat, youth facilities and clubs close. If jobs exist they are sub-minimum wage and dead-end. Harding says: “These people are constantly battling the poverty trap, the gang has a strong gravitational pull.”

At this point, literally the only ‘game in town’ is the gang.

Harding says: “This is where my metaphor of the ‘Street Casino’ comes in – life is a casino for these people. They think they are going to win and win big, but the reality is very different.”

As with a real casino, there are many diversions along the way to keep people playing. They win a little, get some girls, have some entertainment.

Harding found that young people believe in the ‘game’ as their way out. They get addicted, the game becomes compulsive and people get stuck in this world. “The gang becomes the only game in town – but more than that, it becomes the only game they know how to play.”

In light of his findings Harding believes that young people need better support from local services, who in turn should work more effectively with a deeper understanding of the gang domain to provide a safer, alternative future to the Street Casino.

Copies of The Street Casino are available to purchase, with a special discount from the Policy Press website.
The Street Casino has just been awarded The Frederick Milton Thrasher award for Superior Gang Research. The award was established by the journal of Gang Research in 1992 to honour and recognise outstanding scholarship, leadership and service contributions by individuals and programs in dealing with public safety issues like that posed by gangs.

Ray Pahl, friendship and the emergence of Discover Society magazine

By John Holmwood, University of Nottingham, President of the British Sociological Association and Managing Editor of Discover Society

Discover society logo

Earlier this month a new online magazine, Discover Society, was launched. The magazine features articles on social research, policy analysis and commentary, and is supported by the British Sociological Association, the Social Policy Association and Policy Press.

The seed of the project was planted when some of us who went on to set up Discover Society met with Ray Pahl, the eminent sociologist best known for his studies of social interaction, polarisation, work and friendship in suburban and post-industrial communities, shortly before he died in June 2011. We talked about a range of topics, including the fate of universities in the face of marketisation, the financial crisis, and the increasing hardship on the front-line of austerity Britain. We also talked about the future of social research – in truth, the future of sociology and the special character of the sociological imagination and its public relevance.

Ray researched and wrote about communities, but he also wrote for communities. As part of our visits to Ray, we also helped arrange his papers. In a dusty attic space, old copies of New Society were piled up and he pointed to them and said, “That’s what we need today. Without a magazine to disseminate sociology and social policy, there will be no real engagement.” Ray had written for New Society and, like many others – as the response to Mike Savage’s article on the magazine in our first issue shows – had felt its demise in 1988 keenly. He associated its closure with the changing tenor of the times and the claim that there was no such thing as society associated with the promotion of neo-liberal policies designed to make the claim a reality.

Ray’s comment was a challenge to remember that a common strand in the plural nature of social research is a commitment to engage in and engender public debate. It is no accident that Ray wrote about communities and about friendship. The North American political theorist and community advocate, Danielle Allen, has also argued that a reinvigorated public debate needs to cultivate the arts of friendship in order to develop new solidarities.

It is out of such solidarities that Discover Society has developed. In proposing it, the first question we were asked was about our business plan (given that New Society had folded, how might we succeed?). We decided that academic friendship – collegiality, if you will – could make it happen as a common commitment to show what the disciplines of sociology and social policy could contribute to public debate. Support from like-minded friends at Policy Press has followed.

Friendship entails commitment and, in the case of Discover Society, this is also commitment to a wider purpose. Our masthead contains the phrase, ‘measured – factual – critical’, and under this rubric our contributors will document the operations of power, inequality, and the unintended consequences of policy interventions as well as their often problematic basis in social fact. However, we will also document solidarities, limits to the development of solidarities, and the means of overcoming these limits. Public debate needs more argument, but it also requires the motivation to act across differences. To understand when making common cause is the most important thing.

Choice, markets and welfare

Paul Spicker

Paul Spicker

by Paul Spicker, author of Reclaiming individualism, published today

Having ‘choice’ is assumed to be part of welfare, but when people write about it they may be referring to very different things. Part of the arguments for ‘choice’ are arguments for self-determination and freedom of action; those may not be enough to be sure of people’s welfare, but they are certainly important. In economic theory, however, choice is about something quite different – the selection of preferred options from a limited basket of goods. Choice in the second sense tells us very little about choice in the first.

Markets offer some choice, but they only go so far. In the first place, things that are being chosen have to be capable of being treated as commodities. Second, because commodities are scarce, people have to decide what they are ready to forego, as well as what they want. Third, producers have choices, too. They can decide what to provide, and who to provide it to. Producers compete, and they become ‘efficient’, because they are selective. There is often ‘adverse selection’; people who are isolated, poor or who have particular needs may not be served. The argument that markets provide choices, and that choices guarantee well-being, is contingent at best, and this is not always good enough to protect the situation of individuals. Markets might work, and they might not.

Individualisation and personalisation, similarly, are not necessarily good ways to improve individual welfare. There are some circumstances where policies ought to be tailored to the individual, usually after more general services and facilities are put in place. There are others where people need a common foundation of services and facilities, such as schools and hospitals. Where there is no road, the answer is not to issue everyone with boots.

Where governments claim to work for people as individuals, they need to engage with a wide range of activity promoting and safeguarding their welfare. Markets are not enough. Reclaiming individualism makes the case for taking individualism as a focus for actions to protect rights, extending basic security and empowering people as citizens.

Reclaiming individualism is available with 20% discount at

Why social pedagogy?

Jan Storo

Jan Storo

by Jan Storø, author of Practical social pedagogy, publishing today

When I started working full time as a teacher at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences a few years ago, I was given responsibility for teaching social pedagogy. I was not fully up-to-date on the topic (at least not how it was understood in academia), and had to refresh my knowledge about it. I had been a student in the same institution myself, but that was twenty-five years earlier. I had spent all these years in the practice field, practicing social pedagogy. But, I have to admit, I had failed to update myself on theory.

Coming back into the university college with a large portion of practical experience in my rucksack, it was exciting to investigate the topic. In the places I had practiced all these years, mostly in residential care for young people, the term “social pedagogy” was not used frequently. We worked with young people. We were good at it. But we did not always theorize about our practice. Still, we knew very well that we were practicing social pedagogy.

This strange, double-sided relation to one of the most important terms of our profession – and to all its implications – came into focus for me almost the instant I walked over the threshold to the University College for the first time as an employee. After four days as a teacher, I took the decision that I had to go deeper into this topic. And that I would do it by writing a book about it. Only by doing a deep-dive in what I had done in the practice field and seek how this experience could be understood in my teaching,  could I hope to give the young students what I imagined they needed. That Saturday, after the first week as a teacher, I began working at the script that eventually became the book ‘Social pedagogy practice: Theories, values and tools for working with children and young people’.

To reflecting on social pedagogy is to travel in a landscape of theory and practice. From quite early in the process it was clear to me that I had to address these two concepts. It seemed  apparent to me that some of my colleagues from practice mostly were interested in…practicing, and that my new academic colleagues were more frequently focused solely on theory. I found myself in a fruitful middle-position. That gave me the starting point for the book.

Therefore in the book I have included an imagined dialogue between a practitioner and a researcher in the first couple of pages. The dialogue is meant to show how challenging it can be to speak about practice and theory within this field. This challenge is the invitation I give to my readers.

The dialogue can also be read in my article ‘The Difficult Connection Between Theory and Practice in Social Pedagogy‘ in the International Journal of Social Pedagogy, no.1, 2012.

Practical social pedagogy is available to buy with 20% discount at

Celebrating the British Welfare State?

The UK has recently looked back over the last sixty years in the context of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. At The Policy Press we have been thinking about what the last sixty years have really meant for Britain, and would love to know your thoughts – by leaving a comment on this blog, emailing or on Twitter @policypress.

Here, author Paul Spicker (How Social Security Works, Social Policy) takes a look at what has happened to the British Welfare State over this time:

The British Welfare State was intended to be an ideal. Asa Briggs identified three key elements by which it would act:

“First by guaranteeing individuals and families a minimum income irrespective of the market value of their work, or their property. Second by narrowing the extent of insecurity by enabling individuals and families to meet certain “social contingencies” (for example sickness, old age and unemployment) which lead otherwise to individual or family crisis, and third, by ensuring that all citizens without distinction of status or class are offered the best standards available in relation to a certain agreed range of social services.”  (Briggs A., ‘The welfare state in historical perspective’, European Journal of Sociology, 1961, 2, pp.221-258)

Although he refers three times to “individuals” and “families”, the Welfare State was conceived in collectivist terms. It depended on the idea that some things are done better through collective action, that government needed to serve the public, that it should try to ensure basic universal standards, and that it should do things as best it could.

The assault on the Welfare State by the New Right, and the shift in politics that has taken place since, challenged the conceptual foundation of the Welfare State, not just its practice. The market economy is now taken as the norm. The Treasury’s Green Book advises:

“Before any possible action by government is contemplated, it is important to identify a clear need which it is in the national interest for government to address. Accordingly, a statement of the rationale for intervention should be developed. This underlying rationale is usually founded either in market failure or where there are clear government distributional objectives that need to be met. Market failure refers to where the market has not and cannot of itself be expected to deliver an efficient outcome; the intervention that is contemplated will seek to redress this. Distributional objectives are self-explanatory and are based on equity considerations.”  (HM Treasury, n.d., Green Book, at

It appears, then, that it is not good enough for government to justify their actions because they would benefit people, because they protect people’s rights, because the government has a moral commitment – or even because it has been elected to address an issue. We have lost sight of the fundamental principle that government is there to do things for people.

Paul Spicker.

Paul Spicker’s book How Social Security Works is available for only £15 until the end of June only. Order your copy here.

What about the role being played by service users in the economic crisis?

ImageBill Jordan, the much respected social scientist, launched a spirited and thoughtful response here to Aditya Chakrabortty’s criticism in The Guardian of his academic peers for failing to address the crisis and cuts created by neo-liberal politics. But it, like the other responses from social scientists, seems to have cut little ice with Aditya who has since energetically defended his position. Perhaps, however, both of them are looking in the wrong direction. The sad truth is that social scientists have often been more effective in defending the status quo, than in challenging it.

The severity of the attacks on the most powerless people in our society  under the UK’s current government, including old and disabled people, poor families, disadvantaged young people and asylum seekers without citizen rights, are unmatched in modern memory. The crudity and viciousness of its welfare reform policies echo the poor law. These developments have only been matched by the flight of former allies of poor people who once fought their corner. The parliamentary Labour Party has taken a line on welfare reform little different from the Coalition. Big charities have seemed more interested in gaining government contracts from workfare schemes and outsourcing than speaking up for the constituencies they are supposed to serve. We should not be surprised if the response from social scientists, and indeed social policy academics and their professional organisations seems muted.

But what is much more interesting is the part that marginalized groups are themselves now beginning to play. While think tanks hog the media microphones and academics appear non-plussed under the cosh of the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework, disabled people, service users, their organisations and movements have stepped up to the plate to challenge the excesses of current capitalism. They have provided powerful first hand testimony of the excesses of current social policy and achieved U-turns at both an individual and policy level.

It was the Spartacus report on government welfare reform, put together by disabled people and their allies which first went viral and then stirred the House of Lords into action against welfare reform. It is the local user-led and disabled people’s organisations which have especially encouraged resistance and pioneered new forms of inclusive opposition, making use of social networking and social media. Service users have realized that we have to speak for ourselves because few others, it seems, will speak up on our behalf.

We can see the increasing impact of this action and engagement even in the lists of publishers like Policy Press, a not-for-profit publisher whose core mission is to make a positive difference to people’s lives, where the discourse is increasingly being influenced by service users, by calls for user involvement and by academic theory being recast and revitalized by the involvement of people with direct experience of the problems they talk about. The recent arrival of such ‘experiential knowledge’ into the policy arena, and the growing impact it has, represents a significant new force for change. That’s not to say there aren’t social scientists to be found among the growing band of service user activists. But perhaps we have been looking in the wrong places for them. They are more likely to be out there in the thick of it, rather than in academic associations and in the pages of unread peer review journals published by cutting edge capitalist companies.

Peter Beresford is co-author of Supporting people, published by The Policy Press, which demonstrates how change can be made now, and what strategic changes will be needed for person-centred support to have a sustainable future. It can be ordered here at 20% discount. Other books published for service users include Critical perspectives for user involvement by Marian Barnes & Phil Cotterell, which is also available at 20% discount.

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