Ladders, Stairways & Sieves: The basis of almost all educational debate

4th December 2011

When each of us holds a different metaphor of education we end up with different answers about what is the best possible education policy. This is usually because, secretly, we are asking education to achieve completely different things.

Ladder thinkers see education as the route for climbing to the top of society. As TH Huxley said in an address to the London School Board ‘(there is) a great educational ladder, the bottom of which should be the gutter and the top is the University’.  Once we think of education as a ladder, the primary purpose of schools becomes giving students the strengths to climb each rung towards this destination.

The danger of the ladder viewpoint is its narrowness.  There is one way up, and one way down.  It’s also an individualistic view.  Getting to the top means the individual is more economically able and more learned (read: ‘happy’) for their experience.  The driving question for ladders is therefore: How do we get each child to the top of the ladder?

Sieves, on the other hand, think of education as a way to sift the gems from the sandstone.  As Sir Martin Conway, once the Conservative MP for English Universities, stated: “It is not, in fact, a ladder that we want from the lowest slum to the highest university honour, what we want is a sieve.”

In the sieve point of view, the most important questions are: How can we give the right amount and type of education based on a person’s strength? And, how can we efficiently allocate each person to a job or further study?

The current coalition policy of guaranteeing university places to AAB students while reducing the number of places overall is a classic sieve policy. Grammar schools is another one.

Finally, there are the Stairways.  Sometimes portrayed as the hand-wringing lefties, the metaphor extends from a 1909 speech by Hobson where he said education is “not an educational ladder, narrowing as it rises, to be climbed with difficulty by a chosen energetic few….It is a broad easy stair that is wanted, one which will entice everyone to rise, will make for general and not selected culture.” 

Stairway thinkers value diversity in the pathways through education – particularly appreciating vocational and non-school learning experiences. Their guiding question is: “How can all people find their strengths and use them to be successful and happy in the future?”  Their answers are not premised on a top goal of university but quality of life principles– though the intangible nature of these means its supporters often fail to articulate how anyone can know if a policy would lead to such outcomes.

Policies favoured by stairways also tend to give a supportive hand from one level of the stairway to another.  The pupil premium policy would fall into this category.

One reason why many Coalition policies seem counter-productive is because they only meet the needs of one metaphor.  The EBacc, for instance, plays to the ladder metaphor as it is a tool for helping more children climb the university ladder. But, the sieve must immediately ask, what if everyone achieved the EBacc – as is the hope of this policy – how will we know who should move up? Also, does the EBacc truly help employers sift out who is most appropriate for their workplaces? Employers are always saying they want teamwork, initiative and resilience – why isn’t this recognised in a qualification system? And, finally, the Stairways add their chagrin: What about those whose strengths lie outside these subjects – has their stairway been narrowed into a ladder that they simply don’t wish to climb?

So there you have it – Ladders, Stairways & Sieves: the basis of almost all educational debate.

Noticing when these differences in metaphor are operating is important as it throws light on the basis of disagreements, and instead can move people onto practical compromises that help meet the needs of each view point.  Other metaphors are also likely to exist – as will views on which metaphor should prevail in current policy, or whether any Coalition Policy can realistically meet such varied views.  Your comments and thoughts on this would be most appreciated.

*In an annoying twist of fate, the notes I took for this book don’t have a title on. In an entire leverarch file of notes this is the only sheet that doesn’t have a title. Here is a picture of the front page of my notes and if anyone name the book I would be most grateful.