Book Review: Factories for Learning by Christy Kulz

Review by Anna Bull

Christy Kulz is currently a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education working on a three-year research project that explores how schools and their subjects are governed through the education market and social mobility dreamscapes. She completed her ESRC-funded PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths College in 2014. Christy’s research monograph, Factories for learning: Making race, class and inequality in the neoliberal academy, was recently published by Manchester University Press (2017).

There are many striking vignettes in Christy Kulz’s ethnographic study of a flagship academy school in London. One is her description of how students are required to recite a ‘pledge of allegiance to the self and its aspirational fulfilment’, six times per day, at the start of each lesson (2017, 58). Another is the ‘verbal cane’, the practice of teachers shouting and screaming in students’ faces – except when there are visitors or inspectors present, during which time this is prohibited (2017, 44). These vivid ethnographic descriptions alone would be enough to make this book a compelling read. But Kulz’s monograph also offers a thorough sociological analysis of the lived experience of attending or working in the school, and a complex and nuanced account of how academisation is reproducing gendered, raced and classed inequalities.

Kulz powerfully deconstructs the school’s ethos of ‘structure liberates’ to ask why ‘structure’, i.e. discipline and authority, is seen as the answer to race and class inequality (2017, 15). The school’s pseudonym is ‘Dreamfields’, a reference to the ‘mobility dreams’ of the good life that the structure of the school promises to ‘liberate’ pupils into (2017, 28). Kulz’s analysis foregrounds the ‘fantasy’ element of Dreamfields, whereby the school’s excellent academic results convince pupils and teachers to put up with the suffering and unequal treatment that come with its authoritarian, disciplinary methods.

One of the most skillful ethnographic passages I have ever read comes where Kulz describes pupils discussing the hierarchies that are produced by Dreamfields and trying to understand how these come about. Pupils know that through setting or other practices, certain pupils are given advantages over others, but in the discussion she documents they are arguing about whether this is due to merit, or something else (i.e. structural inequality). Kulz has already laid out the ways that she, as a social scientist, can see white pupils being valued over pupils of colour, but this passage captures wonderfully pupils’ vernacular understandings of the inequalities they live within (2017, 106-8). Kulz’s ability to create a space where the students can have this discussion, and to capture it so vividly, vindicates the possibilities of ethnography as a method by showing how structures are made sense of by pupils, and elsewhere in the book, by their parents and teachers.

A particular strength of the book is the sophisticated analysis of how race and class are elided by the everyday practices and discourses of the school, and how through this process any discussion of race is silenced. Coded language of ‘urban children’ is used to talk about race (2017, 87), and teachers use the language of class in order to avoid having to discuss race or racism. Kulz describes how this silence around race plays out for the pupils, who are policed in different ways according to their racialized identities. For example, black pupils sometimes ‘consciously perform[ed] ‘whiter’ forms of comportment’ (p.108); in the brilliant words of one pupil, Joshua, white bodies are ‘compact, controlled, and concise – the ‘three Cs’’, and by his understanding, this was the reason they did not get policed in the same way as black bodies (2017, 98). The study also shows a keen attention to social groups that reflect and reproduce wider inequalities amongst the pupils. One friendship group is labelled the ‘long-haired lovelies’ by one teacher; they are of course white middle-class girls. Long hair is one signifier within a complicated semiotics of race and hair in the school, which leads to differently racialized groups being policed more or less severely by teaching staff (2017, 68-69).

Particularly striking is Kulz’s argument that academization is part of a ‘wider turn towards authoritarian methods in education’ (2017, 2). As also comprising part of this turn Kulz identifies the Troops to Teachers programme; Gove’s revision of the history curriculum; and the introduction of ‘character education’, a policy area beloved across the political party spectrum but drawing on US conservative ideologies (2017, 15-16; see also Bull and Allen: 2018). She argues that this ‘turn’, drawing on language reminiscient of Empire, needs to be understood in the context of a (decline in) national prestige. This is a convincing framing of this ‘turn to authoritarian methods’ and it raises further questions. For example, what are the networks and policies that are fuelling this zeitgeist of authoritarian education? And how does it work in dialogue with other current trends in education policy such as positive psychology?

This is a book about an academy, but it is also a book about authority and discipline; about neoliberal education; about new incarnations of racism; and about how people make sense of living under an oppressive regime. The polemic of the title, describing academies as ‘factories for learning’, makes sense after reading it. Overall, this book serves as a powerful and convincing rebuttal to the ‘celebratory imperial histories’ of Conservative education policy (2017, 15), all the while retaining a vivid sense of the humour and energy of the young people that it describes.

Review by Anna Bull, University of Portsmouth.

Originally posted 17th October 2018

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