Why they don’t give a shit: the chronic indifference of the South-Eastern elite to industry


In an excellent dissection of the Conservative party’s failure to offer the steelworkers of Port Talbot realistic long-term state support, Paul Mason briefly referred to the education of large swathes of the political elite:

Not giving a shit — about industries, jobs or social consequences — is at the heart of the ideology the political elite has learned since they were at private school.

This is the soft-end of the critique – clearly the steel crisis is not being caused by the private school education of much of the Conservative cabinet, it is the shifting structures of the global economy which are at work. However, the role of private schools is not just important in thinking about fostering a particular attitude of indifference. Elite, mostly private education plays a deeper, more structural role in British, and especially English, society, which is central to understanding the structures of capitalism in Britain. This is not simply ‘a textbook lesson in neoliberalism’, the tendencies underlying the disinterest in industry in particular have much longer historical roots.

With a famous series of articles in the mid-1960s, Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn delivered a decisive critique of British capitalism. They presented a systematic historical argument about how the social structure of the UK developed, noting the fusion between the rising bourgeoisie and the aristocracy as the key development in preventing conflict within the ruling class and limiting direct bourgeois political control. Within this, brief mention was made of the importance of the public schools in fusing the rising industrial bourgeoisie, the expanding professional middle classes and the aristocracy around the pseudo-aristocratic ideal of the ‘gentleman’.

In fact in their work, an analysis of the nascent public school system of the late 19th century plays only a relatively minor role. It was the work of historian W.D. Rubinstein who really ironed out the creases in the Anderson-Nairn understanding of the British elite[1] and the geography of Britain’s class structure. He showed how middle-class incomes over the 19th century became increasingly concentrated on the South-East – exactly where the majority of private schools were founded and remain. More importantly for the case of the Port Talbot steelworkers, his analysis showed how the wealthiest men of the 19th century overwhelmingly made their fortunes through banking and commerce and lived in or around London. The provincial industrial bourgeoisie were relatively speaking, poorer, lived further from the centre of political and economic power and were culturally disinclined towards sending their sons to the Anglican boarding schools of the South-East.

London and its Home Counties environs have long been the place of residence for Britain’s elites and it remains so in the 21st century. As education became increasingly important for accessing professional employment over the 19th century, this necessitated the creation of an educational infrastructure of elite social reproduction. The reform of Oxford and Cambridge and the older public schools in the late 19th century meant the preservation of a pseudo-aristocratic heritage within education which remains powerful today.

One famous interpretation of British economic malaise, saw this apparently anti-business educational culture as at the heart of the decline of the UK economy, an argument which gained traction amongst Thatcher’s Conservative government. Rubinstein’s rebutted the ‘Wiener thesis’ firmly, and described how public schools fostered links with the most ‘dynamic’ areas of the British economy. Already by the late 19th century, the core source of wealth for British elites and the major area of economic development was concentrated on the City of London and this trend increased over the first half of the 20th century.

As finance grew in importance, students from the public schools increasingly opted to go into finance. Eton in particular developed intense links with the City. The overlap between land-ownership and City finance grew as landed estates declined in value and the wealth exchanged grew. Oxbridge and the public schools formed an increasingly important part of this nexus of elites focussed on the South-East of England, or what Tom Nairn called ‘the Crown Heartland’. This was ‘a Southern-lowland hegemonic bloc uniting an hereditary élite to the central processing block of commercial and financial capital.’ Within England and by proxy, through the continuing political power of Westminster, it is this shifting but persistent social and economic constellation who dominate British politics, economy and culture.

The public schools, and, it must be said, increasingly a small number of elite state schools, are the first institutional stage in what must be understood as a broader infrastructure of elite power, with Oxbridge, the City and Westminster being its other obvious institutional bases. It is not the curricular emphasis of the public schools which creates a bias towards finance within the British economy, it is their role within a nexus of economic, cultural and political power concentrated on South-East England and the fact that generations of their alumnae have gone on to work in these central institutions of the British state.

More than any other Conservative politician, Cameron himself embodies this Anderson-Nairn-Rubinstein understanding of the British ruling class. He comes from a family which has worked in the City for generations, married into minor aristocracy over several generations (both himself and his father) and has sent its sons to Eton from the late 19th century (which could be behind the apparent decision to send his son to prep school). Samantha Cameron may have family with strong aristocratic Yorkshire-Lincolnshire connections, but she grew up and went to school in the South-East of England.

Why though does any of this matter for the steelworkers of Port Talbot?

The ‘political ideology’ of the public schools is not anti-industry per se. Rather it forms part of a broader institutional pattern within the British ruling classes. Post-war, state-owned industry did not challenge the hegemonic position of the City of London over British economic life any more than industry did during the 19th century. This tendency of the south-eastern elite to be largely indifferent to the fate of industry predates neoliberalism. For certain strata of the elite, the City has been integral to their personal and broader class interests for generations.

Whilst the ownership of the Port Talbot mills by Tata, an Indian multinational, reveal the depth of changes to the British and global economy, the response of the Conservatives is partly driven by this path-dependent set of interests aligned with this socio-cultural south-eastern elite. These interests are deeply historical and relate to the long-term orientation of the British economy. Neo-liberalism gave this a new form and mode of operation but it did so within the context of an existing geography of class and economic power which was structurally indifferent to provincial industry.

Moving away from this model would involve a seismic shift within the British economy and society. It would involve acknowledging the real geographical political division within the UK is between the Crown Heartland elite and the rest of the country. The steelworkers of Lanarkshire, Port Talbot and Scunthorpe, just like the rest of us, have more in common than what divides us.


[1] There are clearly important distinctions to be made in terms of the history of Irish, Scottish and Welsh elites which I can’t do justice to here. I refer to British elites concentrated on London as these groups were dominant within the British ruling class as a whole but that is not to say that there are not distinctive national histories as well.









How to fight the right on education, housing and aspiration – and win


The exchange at Prime Minister’s Questions in the middle of January revealed how easy it is for Cameron to bat away arguments about the unfairness of cutting nursing bursaries and maintenance grants. Corbyn came across strongly at the end of his questions with his line of questioning with his points on nursing but Cameron’s lines about ‘uncapping aspiration’ and his argument about economic security at the end were strong and politically damaging.


Here’s a few Corbyn could use in reply: the new funding system is a policy of broken aspiration, lifetime debt and economic hypocrisy. Taking these last two points first, for literally millions of young people the Tories are the party of deficit-makers. For a party that continues to position itself on the economy in relation to government debt, they are strangely insistent on indebting an entire generation up to the eye-balls. This contradiction should be exploited politically and Labour quite simply never has.


On the issue of aspiration, picking out teachers and nurses is symbolically important: both of these are careers which became associated with upward social mobility over the 20th century. But it isn’t enough to talk about the aspiration of safe Labour voters. The greatest political weakness of the Conservative party is the economic vulnerability of the working lower-middle class which their higher education reforms are undoubtedly damaging. Poorer students will now graduate with an average of £12,500 more debt than their wealthier peers. This coincides with the broader changes in the housing market which has seen house ownership and mortgage rates fall since the financial crisis, across all income quintiles and especially for the bottom 60% of households. Fundamentally the aspiration to owner-occupancy increasingly difficult if not impossible for more and more people. Aspiration based around these norms is increasingly vulnerable – it is at least breaking if not broken.


Labour desperately needs to appeal to this demographic but this has to go beyond an electoral strategy. Having soundbites that people understand that we can repeat over and over again matters. But it matters not for the cynical reasons of the Conservatives – what we are engaged in is a struggle to transform the political ‘common sense’ of people and we need to build a movement which can do this. We are trying to challenge the long-term occupancy of power – not just in a political sense but in the deep transformative way that Thatcher shifted English society and culture rightwards. For the first time in my lifetime there is just the possibility that the left could move onto the front foot.


By talking about education and housing we pick away at two areas which are now far more vulnerable areas of social policy for the Conservatives. In these circumstances, social mobility itself as it has been conceived of, i.e. the fair chance through education of free upward (never downward) movement, is politically vulnerable. In an immediate sense, there is a clear tilting of the scales against the poorest and most debt-averse students. But this crisis runs far deeper.


A generation of more affluent though not rich young people, and, let us not forget this essential political point, their parents, are facing the serious likelihood of serious difficulties accessing the housing market combined with a lifetime of debt repayment. Conservative housing policy will deepen social and racial cleansing of inner-city housing, but it does so in a desperate attempt to prop-up middle-class first-time buyers. The trick for Labour is to come up with a policy which speaks to that middle-class anxiety, not because they are our priority but because their status represents the security that many aspire to. We shouldn’t reject that as bourgeois, we should acknowledge that this is the language of the everyday life that people want.


There is a fundamental need for a rigorously thought-out political programme from Labour which highlights these weaknesses, critiques the old models and puts something new in their place. Just as McDonnell announced with reference to cooperative models of worker ownership, ‘we cannot simply turn the clock back’ to old forms of public ownership. The same is true in higher education and we need a systematic programme for a radical alternative to back up the soundbites.


If as Stuart Hall argued, drawing on Gramsci, ‘every crisis is also a moment of reconstruction; that there is no destruction which is not, also, reconstruction’ then we have to make sure we win the political argument of the current crisis. This is not just an economic crisis – the crises within education and housing are an opportunity to re-shape not only the political agenda but the deeper social and cultural assumptions which are rapidly being shown to be contradictory. Cameron and the old hegemony of the new right is vulnerable and, with Corbyn as leader, there is an opening for an offensive from the left.

Rhodes Must Fall – should Oxford fall too?

What does the crucial campaign about Cecil Rhodes mean for fighting for alternative structures and ways of doing higher education.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford has been one of the most important and vocal student campaigns of this academic year. This morning it forced a public response from the chancellor of the University of Oxford. The English elite is being forced to confront its colonial legacy and it doesn’t like it. Little surprise given that it strikes at the very heart of an institution which is integral to maintaining the legitimacy and domination of the English elite.

Lord Patten, Chancellor at Oxford asked where would it stop if we were to give in to the group and remove the statue. So many buildings housing major institutions of the British establishment were built with the ill-gotten, blood-soaked funds of the British Empire. The fact that it has sparked such media uproar on the right and the liberal left, reflects how little debate there has been about the historical legacy of the British empire. There has never truly been any Vergangenheitsbewältigung, coming to terms with the past, of the sort that happened in the two Germanies and continues in the unified state, since 1945. Hopefully with this upsurge in activism which challenges the left on issues of race as well as the establishment and greater discussion of Britain’s colonial legacy, this will begin to change.

For higher education, and the British elite the debate has opened up a can of worms. From an institutional perspective, it asks serious questions of the role of these universities. Above all, it makes us see how colonialism is woven into the physical fabric, the very architecture of our universities. The expansion and reform of Oxford and Cambridge in the late 19th century was reliant, directly or indirectly, on money from the Empire.

More than that, Oxbridge taught generations of colonial administrators and continues to train national and international elites who are deeply implicated in new forms of oppression. This asks all sorts of questions of the British establishment which in all honesty, it has no good answers to. Beyond this confrontation about the past, though this campaign is also about curriculum and everyday treatment of students of colour, what does Rhodes Must Fall Oxford mean for the structure of UK higher education as a whole?

 If there is an area where questions[1] could be asked of the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign from the left, then I think is in relation to how issues of race at Oxford differ from those elsewhere in British higher education. The University of Oxford has serious issues with how it treats students of colour – this has been obvious throughout the RMF Oxford campaign but was also clear beforehand. Educational institutions of the British elite have long and largely unacknowledged or forgotten histories of racism, with Eton College being a case in point.

Within the UK however, the biggest racial divide in higher education is between the Russell Group and the post-1992 sector. Ethnic diversity in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of elite institutions (London, Oxford and Cambridge) actually got worse between 2006 and 2010, when there were nearly 10 times as many black students in post-1992 universities than at these universities at the apex of the English system.

This situation is changing and organisations exist which deliberately, but I would argue problematically, seek to challenge this racial divide:

Rare is passionate about creating a more equal society. We believe that if more black people get in to Oxbridge, more black people will reach the top of our society. Target Oxbridge is our contribution to making that happen.

The problem here is that we want a society where universities are more open, less racist and yes clearly that means more students of colour at Oxford. But surely we do not want to simply replace a largely white, male elite with an elite which has more people of colour, women and LGTBQ individuals. The discourse of organisation Rare seems to imply simply a more diverse elite. In the here and now and speaking pragmatically this matters, but it is not enough. We want to push beyond this, we have to push beyond this otherwise our activism is nothing but the re-legitimizing of the status quo where an elitist form of higher education reproduces a more acceptable hierarchical social structure.

It might seem like these questions are not relevant to a campaign which has as its focus the colonial legacy and symbols of this which adorn institutions of the British elite. My question, and it is a friendly one, is if those symbols are removed (and they must be) and the curriculum was changed, what type of higher education system would we be left with? The institutional hierarchy would still be there – Oxford would still be an institution of the elite, London Metropolitan University, if it survives the current cuts, would still be dominated by local, first-generation students of colour/working-class students. We want a university which is de-colonised and anti-sexist. But we also want a university which do not have as a central function the creation of elites.

The violence of a symbol is powerful, especially in a country which does so little to acknowledge its colonial past. But the University of Oxford is fundamentally a site of symbolic violence – it has been the site of the creation of national and international elites for hundreds of years. The attraction of Oxford and Cambridge to some international students is not only as centres of knowledge – like the elite ‘public’ schools[2] that feed into them, they represent the deep ossification and persistence of the British elite. This south-eastern, pseudo-aristocratic, now finance-led class has long dominated British society and, with waning influence, parts of the rest of the world. The violence is silent and these institutions find legitimation through the dreamy spires image – fairy-tale medieval places of learning, where Rhodes and others like him have been, until now, invisible.

Making Rhodes visible as a sign of colonial and racial oppression has to be simultaneously wedded to making the classed violence of Oxbridge visible too. We have to fight for a new form of higher education and this means fusing our struggles for a university which is not colonial and racist, capitalist, classist or sexist. Centres of knowledge must exist but do we ultimately wish to study in institutions which perpetuate these different forms of violence?

Beyond Rhodes Must Fall, the real question we have to ask is, should Oxford fall too?

[1] I used this term in the loosest sense, this is not about criticism rather about adding to the debate.

[2] These are private fee-paying schools which are referred to as ‘public schools’ in British English.

Class-wash, capital and social mobility: critiquing corporate investment in widening participation

Another critical look at widening participation. This time I look at how the big corporates are involved and how the social mobility initiatives they support serve to legitimize their own interests whilst neutralising a political language of class.

“It’s all about class…” Dennis Skinner.

‘We do not believe in prizes for all. Whilst one can learn from the experience of the journey, ultimately there is often only one winner.’  Tony Sewell

I argued in an earlier post that the logic of selecting up a limited number of ‘non-traditional’ students for access to elite universities had deep parallels with the old logic of the ladder, the 11+ entrance exam and the scholarship boys and girls of the 1940s and 50s. At the crux of this critique is the argument that these programmes, despite the undoubted good they do at an individual level, also function as a social alibi for the universities involved. There is, however, another social alibi at work: the major financial banks and consultancy firms of the City of London are deeply embroiled in funding a whole machinery of widening participation organizations and programmes and we need to ask why and think critically about what they are doing.

What organizations am I talking about? The list is long – the Social Mobility Foundation, upReach, Generating Genius, Future First, The Brokerage City Link, Inspiring the Future, My Big Career… These organizations, primarily based in London, but increasingly expanding outwards, offer a heady mix of activities to schools and their students – talks from professionals, mentoring, special access to work experience, summer schools and so on. Often, though by no means always, accessing these programmes is in itself academically selective and the logic behind them, can be competitive. Take for example the description of programmes offered by Generating Genius, who offer a range of aspiration raising activities around STEM subjects:

“‘The programmes we offer are intended to be challenging,’ says Dr Sewell. ‘The students are expected to maintain a high standard of self-discipline, behaviour and academic performance. ‘We do not believe in prizes for all. Whilst one can learn from the experience of the journey, ultimately there is often only one winner.”

Sewell has close links to Boris Johnson and headed up his London Schools Excellence Fund, so there should be little surprise that his approach to WP activities is based on a heavily individualized, discourse of aspiration as part of a fierce social competition. We might not like the framing, but once again in a zero-sum sense, these programmes make a difference to people’s lives – they encourage students to apply to elite universities who would otherwise be less likely to gain a place and evaluations of these programmes shows this. Moreover, specifically in the case of Generating Genius, who could argue that we don’t need more people of colour and women working in science and engineering? Again – my point here is not to criticize the value for individuals of these programmes or the importance of having greater ‘access’ to professions for marginalized groups and organizations which encourage this. What we have to ask is what structural function does this serve and who is gaining here?

If we look at the financial backing and the ‘partners’ of many of these organizations, it quickly becomes clear that the major City institutions are backing these initiatives seriously – JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank, Deloitte, Unilever, the list goes on. In some cases, this is explicit to the aims and purposes of the organizations in question, as with upReach, who explicitly target jobs in finance and management.

This is a serious business – these organizations are investing significant amounts of money and employee time in these initiatives. KPMG is perhaps a particularly clear example of this, spending £6.2 on community contributions in 2013-14, with a strong focus on social mobility (their pre-tax profit was £414m that year, but hey). They are also particularly strong in offering an apprenticeship scheme for school-leavers, but as one of my interviewees responded all is not what it seems:

And of course, the other thing that we’ve not done in this country, we’ve never developed a good technical alternative to higher education. And when I hear now, governments banging on about higher apprenticeships- they’re not there! Students come to me and say, “David, where are the higher apprenticeships website, couldn’t find anything, it’s crap.” And I say “Yeah, it’s crap.” “Couldn’t find anything on the website and when I do get it to work, there’s nothing there.” The message they’re getting is, this is a wonderful option to higher education- No it’s not! There are a few marquee things like KPMG, Deloitte, BT that gets 1000 applicants for one place. I mean this is rubbish you know. And I get on my email, someone from Credit Suisse will say we’ve got this great internship, immediately I get worried I see the word “internship” – what’s that? Is it money, or what is it, where does it lead? And it says, we want 300 UCAS points, so what they’re saying is that we don’t want you to go to uni, we want you to come to us and then we might fund you to go part-time, but we still want you to have at least 3 B’s at A-level

David, HE and Careers Adviser (my emphasis).

The crux of what I want to get at here is the point in bold: ‘this is rubbish’. It is not that the scheme in itself is not, on paper, a good one, but that this is an impossible solution for most of the students he sees in the sixth forms he works. Most people simply will not benefit, and those that do have to pass a substantial academic barrier to do so. But the structural logic runs deeper. What is also being re-framed here is the jobs students from marginalized groups should aspire to do and attain. Why ‘higher’ apprenticeships? What is wrong with a simple apprenticeship? Yes we need more ‘diverse’ professions, but there is an implicit de-valuation of non-middle-class employment going on here. I am not arguing for a return to some fairy tale land of full employment in manufacturing – there was no fairy tale. But the undertones of this discourse carry the leaden weight and symbolic violence of class stigmatization. In purely concentrating on class in terms of ‘access’ for a selected few, the political nature of class as a collective struggle is neutralized and jobs which do not fit into this category are de-valued.

For KPMG, Milburn’s report on social mobility and access to the professions directly call into question the legitimacy and ‘fairness’ of their recruitment processes and KPMG acknowledges this. What is never on the table is any question of the work these large corporate funders do and whether or not we actually support this. I was told a few years ago by a young white middle-class person I met at a wedding that ‘the hardest thing’ she had to do in her job at KPMG was tell people who had worked in council jobs for many years that they had to leave/were being sacked. Their response was ‘What right have you got to come in here and tell me to leave? I’ve been here 30 years…’ We have the phrase ‘green-wash’ and ‘pink-wash’ to describe how LGBT rights and investment in Green programmes are used to cover-up other forms of oppression and inequality. Perhaps it is time that we begin to think about ‘class-wash’.

What I mean by this is that the major corporate financial backers have an interest in supporting widening participation and their funding does have positive impacts. Their interest is immediate and has to do with tackling the image that they are in some way involved in producing inequality at the point of recruitment to their organizations. Anything else is off the table. The entire discourse surrounding social mobility which is pushed by central government, and much of this was bedded in under New Labour and continued under the coalition, allows no space for a discussion of the actual everyday social and political implications of the existence of investment banks and so forth in the first place. In education the fact of class inequalities in ‘attainment’ and access to university is openly acknowledged and discussed. By discussing these inequalities in terms of social mobility and access, the politics of class are kept hidden and the institutions legitimize themselves in relation to this narrow understanding of inequality.

The issue is with the framing of the solutions to the problem – the new wave of NGO-run measures, of which WP initiatives are only one, to ‘tackle’ the issue of social mobility is deeply damaging to a left-wing approach to dealing with inequality. Social mobility and WP measures are providing these organizations with another ‘social alibi’ but in doing so they also make it impossible to talk about any other conception of society. Class-wash covers these organizations in the short-term by showing that they take the issue of ‘access’ seriously. It also distracts from the deeper structural violence by framing the problem in such a way that any other alternative seems impossible. Politically the language of class is neutralised, pushed into a shallow, safe and strictly de-limited context of ‘access’.

From a left perspective we need to be absolutely clear about what is going on here ideologically, even if we support and work with these organizations to gain immediate benefit for young people in the short-term. In short we need to be clinically pragmatic but talk politically in a language of class which moves us away from individual aspiration. Quite simply, individual ‘aspiration’ is a blind alley for the left, as has been discussed elsewhere this week. Corbyn’s election campaign has transformed the shape of political debate in a way which simply could not have been predicted. We should be absolutely clear that talking about social mobility is not the way forward. The corporate backers of class-wash should be worried however, the wheels on the Blairite bandwagon which helped keep this discourse in place could be about to fall off…

Brit-Chic: tales of geography and education in a visit to the Mid-West

This April I visited the American Mid-West to attend three academic conferences, below I summarize some of the best papers and key issues which my visit covered.


Picture: As a proud Sheffielder and geographer of education, I was particularly tickled to travel all the way to Chicago to attend a session organized by Chris Taylor on the geography of school choice in a room called Sheffield.

Local dynamics of race: the Dept. of Education Policy Studies Conference, Madison

My first stop on my academic excursion in the Mid-West was the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Through a speaker at an urban education session I co-organized at the RGS-IBG in 2014, Linn Posey-Maddox I found out about the annual conference of the Dept. of Education Policy Studies, this year entitled ‘Race, Class, and Inequality in American Education: Placing the Local in Context’. The salience of race, as opposed to class, was a notable feature of the critical educational scholarship in the two American education conferences I attended in the USA. This did not come as a shock per se, but compared to the UK context where the dominant structural inequality in education debates is class this was distinctive. In the case of the Madison conference this was a deliberate theme of the conference and L’Heureux Lewis McCoy’s keynote framed this very clearly. His recent book concentrates on African American experiences in the suburban district of ‘Rolling Acres’, perceived as “a promised land” educationally by the African American families increasingly locating there. However, despite this initial optimism, the reality has been the maintenance of racial inequalities within suburban settings. McCoy drew on relative deprivation theory to highlight the contradictory position of recently re-located parents who found themselves unable to afford the extra-curricular activities which may previously have been offered free through outreach activities aimed at inner-city areas. Similarly success in a suburban setting was still seen by parents of colour to be relative to their own family background as opposed to the expectations of others in the school: parity of destinations was not the aim. He also sought to highlight how rather than Lareau’s concerted cultivation vs. natural growth model of parental engagement in schooling, what was central here was the racially differentiated institutional reception of parents of colour and their white counter-parts. Forms of racial discrimination were both subtle and quietly overt: there were distinctions made between working and middle-class African American parents though both experienced racial barriers, white middle-class parents also successfully petitioned to avoid their children being taught by the only black teacher in the school. At the heart of McCoy’s argument para-phrasing the Wutan Clan he argued that rather than class ruling everything around me‘Class Rules Everything Around Me’ (CREAM), or ‘class matters for all and race matters for something’ and instead emphasise the role of race in these new suburban settings.

Scholar-activism in Madison

The second day of the conference continued these themes with Decoteau Irby describing how their research team asked students and teachers how they explained racially stratified attainment data from within their own school. In discussion afterwards there was also critical reflection on the need to move away from white guilt and hand-wringing from parents and teachers which in the end was not helpful for other minority students: being politically hamstrung by feelings of guilt was not an excuse for doing nothing. The Hope Lab initiatives providing direct financial and pastoral care for students of colour/working class students in university and the Race to equity project provided useful examples of the more activist and engaged scholarship which seemed to me to be more prevalent in Madison and the AERA in Chicago than in the UK context. The Hope Lab approach may be of interest to those working in widening participation in the UK (see below however for at least one exception), though it is worth noting the director Sara Goldrick-Raab’s distinction between the ‘scholar-activist’ and advocacy-type roles of other politically engaged academics. Certainly her randomised-controlled trial-esque approach was quite different to the community organizing and union-aligned approach seen in Chicago. The latter was present here too however, with Michael Apple’s talk recalling the recent demonstrations to protect collective bargaining in the state of Wisconsin.

Community organizing and the politics of research in Chicago

Pauline Lipman’s recent work on the politics of urban school reform in Chicago has provided one of the sharpest and strident critiques of how neo-liberal school reform is moulded to new patterns of urban governance and old forms of racial injustice in American cities. Charter School reform in the city has been deliberately aligned with housing projects of state-led gentrification and displacement of communities of colour. The governance structures of charters have been constructed to allow the school itself to become a direct site for capital to seek investment returns as Dan Cohen would argue the following week at the AAG. The Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Lipman is based, were strongly represented in sessions at AERA. Papers from Rhoda Rae Guetierrez, Carol Caref and many others from the collective highlighted the strength of links between researchers and the rich alliance of community organizations and the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) in particular. The latter make strong use of GIS software in reports opposing school reform and also in workshops allowing parents and teachers to use GIS software to explore socio-spatial urban and educational inequalities themselves. Sarah Hainds is employed directly by the CTU in a research role which includes extensive use of GIS in a role which should give UK teachers’ unions pause for thought. Moreover, the tradition of an ‘off-site’ visit organized by one of the SIG’s to hear local grassroots education activists removed the middle-man of academic interpretation, allowing them to speak directly and on their own terms. At a community centre in Pilsen, students, teachers’ and parents’ organizations were all present including a student from a youth organization campaigning for public schools and against school closures. The latter had been included in a book I reviewed on Schools and Urban Revitalization which also reflected the closer engagement of academics in various forms of community-based activism. It was interesting in particular to hear about resistance to newly-introduced standardized testing through parental opt-out, a strategy which I had not heard of in a UK context.

Not everywhere has the rich history of community organizing that Chicago does, but the simple need to consider what effect our analyses and ‘critiques’ actually have was underlined in a joint-session by led by politically-active researchers from Chicago and Chile, two testing grounds for neo-liberal school reform. Lipman spoke again drawing on Tuck’s (2009) paper on the need to move beyond documenting the damage experienced by marginalized communities and instead:

re-vision and firm up our theory(ies) of change and to determine what role, if any, research has in making our dreams come true for our communities

(Tuck, 2009: 23)

With my own work on spatial patterns of social reproduction across urban school systems in the UK, the question does linger sometimes about whether empirical and theoretical critiques of social reproduction are self-indulgent. Hattam and Smyth (2015) have drawn on Rancière to critique Bourdieusian approaches to social reproduction, focussing specifically on the tendency for Bourdieu’s work to ‘assume deficit positions for the subjects of our study’ allowing ‘the critical intellectual to play master explicator again’ (Hattam and Smyth: 281). Knowing the work, background and political activity of those in the Bourdieu Study Group in the UK I am extremely sceptical that Bourdieu is being used in this sense. Moreover, whilst theoretical debates are important the more powerful critique of critical intellectuals is to judge them by their own political activism (or lack thereof). Speaking personally, my activism has been concentrated on politicizing the conditions of my own workplace at the university as a PhD rep I also speak up at departmental meetings, a setting which provides a restricted space for dialogue (let alone activism) despite the number of more established critical intellectuals in the room who are otherwise supportive. However, I feel increasingly that this is insufficient and, whether it be from a sociological or geographical perspective, asking what social and political contribution are critiques are actually making to the communities we research should be central to our work.

Embedding the geography of education…

From my perspective the most exciting sessions were the Placing Education sessions organized by two PhD students, Dan Cohen and Chris Lizotte. AERA had included a panel on the critical geographies of school choice at which Ee-Seul Yoon, Kalervo Gulson, Sarah Hainds and others spoke about the potential for critical uses of GIS in education research. However the Placing Education sessions at the AAG provided the largest collection of papers I have seen at any conference up till now, more than twice the size of the two urban education sessions I co-organized last year at the RGS. The presentations were of very high quality and scope and I cannot do justice to all the speakers here. Alice Huff’s paper on the eradication of attendance boundaries with Charter school reform in New Orleans echoed AERA papers on Chicago school reform where the same process has happened. A central concern was the loss of local public space from which communities can both organize and engage in schooling. Caroline Loomis also provided a rich ethnographic account of elementary schools the division of space in a site shared by both a public school and a new, and academically selective, charter school. The latter confirmed patterns of internal segmentation and classed, racial segregation of tracks within gentrifying neighbourhoods as seen in Allison Rhoda’s paper in an excellent AERA session co-organized with Molly Makris. In the AAG session three other papers stood out for me personally, Håkan Forsberg, Dan Cohen (as already mentioned above) and Nicole Nguyen. Håkan’s work, like my own paper on new-old patterns of social reproduction in a selective-suburban grammar school, drew on Bourdieu pushing this approach forward by combining Multiple Correspondence Analysis with GIS to examine neo-liberal school reform in Stockholm. Nicole’s paper provided a rich theoretical analysis of how neo-liberalism alone is not sufficient to understand contemporary racialized and, in her study, militarized nature of school reform, a historical understanding of the deep roots of these processes is also necessary.

As we discussed after the session, there is a general issue of how we place and position ourselves within geography. Having a strong session like this is key to establish the subject as a regular fixture within the discipline and particularly on an international stage. However, this sits next to the contradictory need to speak ‘out’ and proselytize for the geography of education by participating in non-education sessions. Developing an international network for geographers of education either as a SIG or, more likely perhaps in the short-term, something more informal is something we should consider. This presents various difficulties which face researchers working between and across disciplines but is the only way to establish the sub-discipline and, speaking personally, to combat the everyday isolation of ‘lone-wolf’ educational geographers/spatial sociologists of education like myself.

There are a number of other papers, speakers and friends who deserve mention here. Above all, to my old friend Berit Ness who I stayed with in Madison and travelled with me to Detroit for brief post-conference visit. Also to Linn Posey-Maddox who let me know about the departmental conference in Madison and James Glaeckner who met me there. Meeting Michael Bradford, Geoff Whitty and several other key people who were only ‘big-names’ beforehand was particularly exciting and useful. There were two strong sessions of class-conscious urban analysis from the UK and Chile in a paper organized by Emma Jackson, Michaela Benson, Kirsteen Patton and Roger Burrows. Sarah Leaney’s fantastic paper on classed experiences on a council housing estate and Maria Luisa Mendez’s work on the upper and middle classes in Santiago De Chile particularly stood out for me personally. A paper in an earlier AERA session also attempted to transfer the concept of “red-lining” from the housing-insurance market to racialized inequalities in the class-room which I also found particularly interesting. Another UK grouping also made a splash at the AERA with Ruth Boyask and Katy Vigurs speaking in a session on the politics of educational research from a UK perspective. I gave a second paper in an excellent session on the geographies of higher education organized by the great cluster of geographers interested in education from the University of Loughborough. One of the last and best sessions I attended at the AAG was organized by and for ‘Blue Collar Scholars‘. A group of working class scholars, both women and men, and scholars of colour, discussed openly and honestly the difficulties of being ‘a fish out of water’ and confronting the deeply rooted prejudice and inequalities on which academia itself rests. My friend and colleague Mark Griffiths also drew on similar experiences in his paper which discussed how his Northern English, working-class background played a role in his positionality as a white researcher from the globa north in India: the imperial legacy binds us all but acknowledging how class differentiates us is important. The Blue Collar Scholar session was important for allowing a safe and supportive space in which people could speak about their experiences, for me the key  focus has to be how we move from this to to actively changing the institutions we work in which frequently remain implicitly sexist, racist and classist in how they operate. It was a credit to geography that this kind of session made it onto the programme and it topped off a politcally challenging and intellectually rich visit to the Mid-West.

Here’s to old and new friends, politicizing our research and embedding the geography of education!

In solidarity from London,


Conference report – funding acknowledgement

The funds I received allowed All in all the conferences were a rich intellectual and social experience and I am grateful to both the SSPP Small Bursaries Fund and the KCL Grad School Fund for contributions to cover costs.g me to attend two international conferences in Chicago, the annual conferences of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association of Geographers (AAG), as well as a smaller departmental conference at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I gave two papers both at the AAG and whilst I did not participate as a speaker at the other conferences I was active from the floor as a participant and made some useful connections to younger and more established figures in the field. I am grateful to the SSPP Small Bursaries Fund and the KCL Graduate School Conference Fund for financial support they provided.