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Institute of Continuing Education


‘There is’, as Cornford would have it, ‘only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing. The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do.’ (1922, p. 18) My research explores the relationship between education, particularly further and higher education, and social justice (defined as the provision of equality of opportunity for all students irrespective of their personal characteristics or social background).

Having grown up in a working-class community in the 1970s, studied sociology at the University of Essex in the 1980s and spent much of the 1990s teaching GCSE, BTEC and A Level it is, perhaps, unsurprising that for me exploring educational differences and inequalities and their underlying causes seemed morally correct. It was, ‘the right thing to do’. Recent government changes to education in England, like the replacement (on less generous terms) of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (2010) and the increase of university tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 per year (2012), have only confirmed my research agenda. It remains, ‘the right thing to do’.

This research agenda is de facto political, I make no specious attempt to disguise it as ‘public-spiritedness’, because the structure and funding of education are the products of government ideology (Cornford, 1922, p. 23). It is, however, also empirical. It seeks to map educational differences and inequalities accurately, using statistical techniques, and then explain the underlying causes of these differences and inequalities drawing on interviews with students, teachers and managers in education. The results of the research projects I have undertaken, both individually and in collaboration, have been at times predictable and, at times, surprising. Some have also courted controversy.

My first major research project, published as Educational Attainment and Society (2007), assessed the relative impact of gender and social class on students’ examination results at GCSE and A Level. This question had arisen as a result of my experience as a teacher. The results of the analysis of data, derived from questionnaires, interviews and secondary statistics, showed that: 1) the effect of social class on examination results – to the advantage of the middle class – was approximately five times greater than the effect of gender (to girls’ advantage); 2) the gender gap (to girls’ advantage) tended to weaken between GCSE and A level, but the magnitude of the class effect persisted; and 3) the size of the gender gap (to girls’ advantage) was relative to social class (it was weaker for upper middle class students and much more sizable for working class students). I tried to explain these differences developing a theoretical model of the relationship between gender, social class and education which was, borrowing from Eckstein (1997), labelled congruence theory.

To those familiar with the results of educational research from the 1950s, these results were of little surprise. The vogue for studying the ‘closure of the gender gap’ in the late 1990s, however, resulted in some feminists responding to my findings as ‘motley’ ‘truth-claims’ ignorant of 21st century educational thinking (Arnot et al. 1999; David 2008). In trying to ‘do the right thing’, that is appraising the relative impact of gender and social class on attainment, I had apparently hit a raw nerve in education studies. In contrast, other researchers were highly supportive commenting, for example, ‘I would advise you to read this book by a promising researcher for its discussion of the role of theory, its elegant approach to methods, and the substantive findings’ (Gorard 2007).

Neglecting Cornford’s (1922) advice to the young academic politician, basically avoid making your own way in academia for this makes you ‘dreadfully disagreeable’, I responded to my critics by publishing Theory Building in Educational Research (2010/12). This text seeks, unashamedly, to map the ‘crisis’ in the quality of explanations which currently pervade education studies, as they have little or no power to explain social processes, and provide a system of logic and methods to promote superior explanations. It also considers – as another manifestation of ‘the right thing to do’ – the development of curriculum innovation strategies to promote social justice as a result of education. Responses to Theory Building have ranged from leading educational scholars privately chastising me to published responses praising the political analysis of the researcher’s role as ‘remarkable’ (Jarvis 2012). In education studies, there is little agreement over the meaning of ‘doing the right thing’ and the pursuit of knowledge of the relationship between education and social justice promotes divisions, which reflect the sectional interests of researchers (almost irrespective of the truth).

My current research projects include collaborative work on the Evaluation of the Cambridge Bursary Scheme, with Dr Joan M Whitehead in the Faculty of Education, and an analysis of variations in pupils’ educational behaviours by gender and social class which seeks to develop curriculum innovation strategies to enhance attainment. The results of the former project have been, at times, surprising. We have found pupils’ social class background has little impact on determining their decisions concerning university applications in Year 12, despite the widespread belief to the contrary (Kettley and Whitehead 2011). Results also show how men and women adapt differently to funding opportunities in higher education and how this can impact on their degree results (Kettley et al.2008). The results of the latter project are to be published as Educational Practice and Society (2013). Here I will continue to make myself dreadfully disagreeable, despite Cornford’s (1922) warning to the academic politician, because the moral commitment to ‘do the right thing’ should not be contingent upon the responses of others. Politics is always personal as well as social.   

The focus of my research – exploring the relationship between education and social justice – is reflected in my teaching for the Institute. The pursuit of social justice through education might, at first glance, seem like an oxymoron in the context of an elite university. Yet, when James Stewart first began providing public lectures to working men in the late 1860s, it was precisely social justice as a result of ‘accessibility’ to elite higher education that he sought to promote (Kettley 2007).

If, like me, you are interested in issues of education, social justice and debates in the social sciences more generally, the Institute offers a range of courses from non-accredited open access programmes to full Master of Studies degrees. You can find a full list of our Education and social science courses on our website. Additionally, the Institute provides a Master of Studies in Advanced Subject Teaching.

Dr Nigel Kettley, University Lecturer and ICE Academic Director in Education and Social Science

Main reference

Cornford, F M (1922) Microcosmographia Academia: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician. Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes. (Reproduced in full in: Johnson, G. (1994) University Politics: F M Cornford’s Cambridge and his advice to the Young Academic Politician. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

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