The Veil of Ignorance

Not every post on this Liberal Democrat Teachers blog will relate directly to Liberalism, or even the Liberal Democrats, but to get things going I want to grapple with the challenge of creating an education system which caters for students of different levels of attainment, and whether liberalism might help us tackle this endemic challenge.

Providing for different levels of attainment is an endemic challenge because it’s entirely predictable that when you put young people together in a school or classroom they learn at different rates.  In a planning committee meeting for a yet-to-exist public education system, the question of how to provide for students working at different levels of attainment would have been scribbled on the flipchart from the very beginning, alongside other basic concerns such as which subjects should be taught and how we’re going to pay for all of this.

The fundamental and universal nature of this challenge is clear in Lucy Crehan’s brilliant book Cleverlands, which reveals the response of high performing education systems around the world to the quandary of supporting students at different levels of attainment.   Crehan makes a compelling case that the best education systems support students to take on challenges, rather than make concessions for lower-attaining students:

“Of the five top-performing systems I went to, four of them had common standards that nearly all children were expected to reach, right up until the age of 15. The teachers and the parents supported less able students to reach these standards through additional teaching and tutoring, and through having high expectations of those children – ‘I’ll help you get there but you’ve got to put in the effort’ – rather than making concessions, saying ‘Don’t worry, we can’t all be good at maths’, and sending them to a different school, putting them in a different class, or giving them a different curriculum.”

Crehan compares the Canadian system, in which lower performing students follow the same curriculum as their higher attaining peers, with the English system, where grammar schools, streaming, setting and target-setting can lock-in underachievement for those progressing at a slower rate.  Even within English classrooms there’s a tendency to lower our expectations for some students, with our all/most/some objectives, and our fixation with differentiation which, at its worst, can deny challenging tasks to those who need them most (“low attainers will draw a picture of a rainforest, middle attainers will describe a rainforest, high attainers will describe different types of rainforest”).

In Cleverlands, the exception to the rule that good education systems keep all students on the same track is Singapore, where students are separated by ability and sent to different types of schools at the ages of 10 and 12. By clustering kids who are performing better at these points, and putting them in highly academic schools with the system’s best teachers and facilities, the Singapore system accelerates the advantages that richer kids already enjoy, thereby exacerbating the challenges faced by poorer kids.

When I first started thinking about liberalism and separating students by attainment (which includes grammar schools, streaming and setting) I wondered if liberalism’s founding fathers would be pretty comfortable with the concept, as setting by ability could be seen as an expression of individualism, allowing students to flourish on their own terms, based on their talents and efforts.

Yet on closer inspection separating students by attainment is precisely the kind of external interference and entrenched privilege that liberals reject.  Under the grammar system, for example, a higher authority decides what kind of education an individual student deserves, rather than all individuals receiving their rightful entitlement to a sound education.

The ‘father of liberalism’ John Locke advocated a night-watchman state which would protect citizens when necessary but would otherwise allow people to get on with their lives.  The practice of kettling our higher attainers with other higher atttainers, and our lower attainers with other lower attainers, is far more like the meddling state that Locke and other liberals rejected, than the night-watchman state that they proposed.

The solution to our endemic challenge of catering for students at different levels of attainment might lie with another liberal named John – John Rawls.  Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance was his solution to the challenge of allowing for some variation between individuals in terms of their wealth and status, but not so much variation that those at the bottom suffer.  Rawls proposed that a society should be planned behind this veil of ignorance, so that any of the planners could occupy any position in the society that they create – this would ensure that no one would agree to a level of inequality that caused suffering to those at the bottom, since they themselves could occupy that place:

“Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”

Applied to schools and setting, our veil of ignorance would remind us that if we want to set students by attainment, the plight of students in the bottom sets must be forefront in our thinking – this could be us or our own kids – and we should only proceed if and when we are reassured that setting would not damage their prospects.

I’m pretty sure that an education system designed behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance would ensure that all students follow the same track until 15 or 16, and that the only form of differentiation experienced by our lower attainers would be increased support so that they can catch up and keep up with their peers. I’m pretty sure that these lower attainers would be guaranteed access to the best facilities and the best teachers in order to aid this catch-up.

Let’s learn from Rawls, Locke and the best education systems in the world, by keeping all our kids on the same track until the age of 16.