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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Class, prejudice and the British School System

 I love the way different people see different things in different pictures, how their cultural and visual literacy affects what they see and how they see it. The most visually literate may be culturally illiterate, may make critical assumptions that are based on less than solid assumptions.

I've shown the above pictures to diverse groups of students. The top picture is from Raimond Wouda's excellent school series. One Dutch-Somali student  (not a photography student) instantly identified the pictures as Dutch and then clicked off where different students came from, what their politics were, their interests, the degree of religious affiliation and where female Muslim students came from based on how they wore their hijab - something that would be beyond virtually every serious photography critic or commentator including myself.

I showed the John Davies picture of Mersey Square, Stockport (bottom picture) to a group of doc-phot students at Newport and one (hi Reggie!) started looking at the number plates and clicked off the year the cars were made and gave an educated guess to when the picture was made - 1986. I always look at the picture and look at the warehouse on the right - it was an indoor skatepark where I used to skateboard in the late 1970s.

Show the Rosa Parks picture to people who are not familiar with it and, as well as making the 'correct' interpretation (is there such a thing?) they guess that the two people in the picture are getting married, that he's putting a ring on Parks's finger or that she's hurt herself and he's putting a bandage on her finger (he has a kind face).

Anyway, all that talk of school gets me thinking of school selection in the UK. It's an incredibly divisive subject. My wife and I have just put down our choices for the school Isabel will go to next year. It wasn't too difficult 1) Because nearly all the schools in Bath are very good and we don't have the dilemmas that seriously urban parents have and 2) Because there is a great school called St Marks right on our doorstep with committed teachers, a dynamic head and an inclusive approach that means pupils get to engage and learn with a mix of students.

Not everybody feels the same way. Most of Isabel's female classmates are going to an all-girls school on the other side of town called Hayesfield. Many reasons are given for this (at St Marks the classes are too small, the drama department isn't as good as at Hayesfield, the art department's better at Ralph Allen, it's a faith school, it's too close too home, it's not a cool school, it's good to go to a big school, the pet snake is bigger at Ralph Allen, they had robot cars at the open evening at Beechen Cliff etc etc...)  but the underbelly of most of the reasons is that upper-middle class parents don't send their children to St Marks. So in the last few weeks I've had one parent tell me that only poor people send their children to St Marks so his daughter is going to Hayesfield  - another said they wanted to send their son to Beechen Cliff so he could meet wealthy kids and get free holidays. Yet another said they were going to send their son to Beechen Cliff because that's where rich people whose children didn't get into Kingswood or Royal High (very expensive Bath private schools) sent their boys too. And then just yesterday a parent asked how the new head at St Marks could overcome this problem of no-upper-middle-class-parents and attract parents from that wealthier socio-economic background.

And then I wondered? Why would any school want to attract parents from an upper-middle-class background? Why would a school  want to entice parents who are openly prejudiced against children who are economically less well-off?  Where does this impulse to pander and suck up to divisive and discrimatory wealthy come from? 

What do people think? That the 'rich' are going to make friends with you and spread their money around. That there is going to be some kind of informal trickle-down effect. I know some exceptionally generous wealthy people, but really, is that the way to govern your life - to let your ideals, values and opinions be swung by the sniff of mammon. And if that's what the parents think, well what about the kids? What kind of people are they? And would I want my daughter to be hanging around with the spawn of these lickspittle money-grubbing sychophants?

Bringing it back to photography, as well as wondering how much lickspittle sycophancy there is in photography, how can one portray the ideas in images? How can words and pictures convey the deep-rooted hypocrisy of free parental choice, the manner in which contempt and snobbery are passed on through family, education and association?

I think Raimond Wouda comes close in some ways, but in a Dutch context, which is very different. And he's not explicit in that respect. I'd love to see some British photographers really addressing class in their work and the way the kind of choices I've mentioned don't just affect a society but help make it destructive and negative. Perhaps I should give it a go.

University of Wales, Newport video of a Raimond Wouda talk.

Urbanautica interview with Raimond Wouda

The thing that fascinates me about the secondary school is the fact that is a closed world. I call it a micro-cosmos. The students are going there 5 to 6 days a week, they see the same people everyday, and the physical barrier is the fact that there is a fence that surrounds the schoolyard. In the development of a juvenile the secondary school plays a very important role because it’s the place were you will become aware of your identity. So in a way secondary school plays a major role on how people are formed, on how they develop as a person. In the environment of the secondary school the relationship with the other also plays an important role in the shaping of your identity. It’s always about who am I and how am I dealing with the others. In which group or subculture I belong? Who are my friends? How do they look like? What kind of music do they listen to? What books do they read? All this question that you are going to ask yourself for the first time are related to the context of the secondary school.


Deborah Parkin Photography said...

Such a brilliant post Colin. You & I have already spoken about this issue so you know my thoughts. I was verbally blasted by a woman who couldn't believe I would send my son to the school he is in - she was going private. I kept my cool but she was so annoyed - it was ironic as it was as I was making her feel guilty without even trying. I hadn't thought about those who want to social climb as hating the poor before, but you are right. As the child that parents wanted their kids to avoid (just because I was from a single parent/council estate etc) I would never let my children make friends based upon class or anything else other than they are nice or not nice people to be around.
I think you should do a project on this - I really do. You are could make this work - and it would be so powerful. The funny thing is if you asked why these social climbers/upper middle class didn't want to mix with 'poor people' they would deny it.
Lastly, I also love what people bring to an image - can be pretty revealing.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Deborah. I was talking about this today with some other people - it really marks out where people stand on some basic things.

I've had the parent who privately educates their child (which is ultimately their choice) question and denigrate the school Issy is going to - but then get outraged and upset when other people question where their son is being educated.

Photographically it would be difficult but maybe I should give it a go and see what comes out visually!

Deborah Parkin Photography said...

It would be difficult photographically - how do you photograph these prejudices (because I suppose in a way that is what they are) - especially when they are so politely hidden behind respectability? We all want the best for our children and we all have our own way of thinking what is best for them. For me it was leaving a town I lived in when I was asked if I would be going private or going for the 11+for grammar school - my son was only a few months old (as you know). Kids are under so much pressure - even mine.