On Ability

In chapter 5, Gillborn (2008, pp. 110-116) also deals with the concept of ‘ability’, pointing out that much of the 2005 Government publication, ‘Higher Standards, Better Schools for All’ (Department for Education, Schools and Families 2005) embodies the kind of assumptions about ‘ability’ that were around more than sixty years ago, and which have repeatedly been debunked (Gillborn 2008, p. 110). Here I am in total agreement with Gillborn. Indeed, in chapter 5 of this volume, I made brief reference to the Learning Without Limits (LWL) project of Hart et al. (2004) which critiques the notion of ‘fixed ability’, and to my Marxist assessment thereof (Cole 2008c). As I put it in Cole 2008c, p. 454:

Fixed Ability adversely affects the working class as a whole. This is because while that which they are perceived as ‘able’ to do needs to constantly adapt to changes in the capitalist mode of production, the working class are always labelled as having ‘limited potential’ in order that their subordinate structural location in a hierarchical capitalist society appears as ‘natural’ rather than as driven by capitalist imperatives. This appearance of ‘naturalness’ has to be constantly reinforced ideologically.

In England and Wales, school tests (children sit more exams that anywhere else in Europe) play a key role in this ideological process (Davis 2008, p. 12). Dave Davis (ibid.) encapsulates how it works:

would you rather work with someone who when faced with a problem removes themselves into a quiet room and ponders it in isolation for one hour and forty minutes? Or someone who attempts to find the answer by asking other people and looking things up on the internet—in other words, cheating. In fact, all exams do is test the ability of children to sit tests.

Davis concludes that the tests perform one crucial function—‘they help maintain the myth that we live in a meritocracy’. They justify superior salaries by ‘superior ability’ (ibid.). Speaking against and working against fixed ability and differentiation is essential for all those who wish to militate against the stifling of the capacity and unlimited potential of the working class. The Learning Without Limits (LWL) project is one such attempt to do this (Hart et al. 2004).

Gillborn (2008, pp. 114-6) charts the way in which New Labour’s ‘gifted and talented’ scheme, claimed by the Department for Education and Employment that it will operate ‘regardless of ethnic background’ (cited in Gillborn 2008, p. 114) whereas in fact recent inspection reports show ‘only small numbers from Pakistani, Black African and Black Caribbean heritages’ appeared on NAGTY (National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth) courses (Gillborn 2008, p. 116).

I am in full agreement with Gillborn’s (2008, p. 117) overall conclusion to chapter 5 which is:

Until we address the presence of racism, as a fundamental defining characteristic of the education system, the present situation is unlikely to change in any meaningful sense, irrespective of superficial rhetorical commitments to inclusion, civil rights and social justice.

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