Review : Inequality, Poverty, Education   A Political Economy of School Exclusion by Francesca Ashurst and Couze Venn 

Inequality, Poverty, Education A Political Economy of School Exclusion by Francesca Ashurst and Couze Venn.    Published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke              IBSN 978-1-34700-8   pp 195    £61.00     Formats : hardcover, Ebook (EPUB), Ebook (PDF)



Review by Charles Sharpe

The creation in 1948 of the NHS was, and remains, in this reviewer’s mind, the finest achievement of the community of people who live in the United Kingdom, providing as it did, equal access to a comprehensive health service for everyone: child, woman and man. Likewise, that other major pillar of the emerging Welfare State, the implementation of the 1944 Education Act by the post-World War II Labour government, was on the face of things, as great a triumph of community effort as the establishment of a national health service, making secondary education up to the age of 14 years both compulsory and free for all children. Here at last all children from the very poor to the better off would have access to all levels of education. The contention of the authors of this book, Francesca Ashurst, an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University and Couze Venn,Visiting Professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, would be that the good intentions of the 1944 Education Act, were, in relation to poor children, doomed from the start.


In what is an impressively comprehensive history of the trail of the economic, political, social and philosophic ideas threading through the process by which children become excluded from school, the authors cogently argue that exclusion from school is a symptom of poverty and inequality that has its source in the economic and political struggles of the early 19th century. Some may argue why is it important for us to read something we already know, that is, exclusion from educational opportunities is something that happens to children from poor backgrounds ?  But such a question seems to me to miss the mark. What we discover here is that invariably our approaches to dealing with the issue of poverty simply create an even better climate for its continuance. These approaches have included placing children in reformatory schools, sending children to the colonies, placing children in penal institutions and, though the authors do not mention this, their ejection from their own schools in their own communities by placing them in ‘units’ for excluded students. It can seem as if the collective voice is not saying, “Let’s help these, they are our children”, but rather, “ Let’s keep these children away from us.”

An observation gradually comes into focus on reading this book, that is, when we do exclude children from the education provided for the majority of children we also exclude them from our (their) community. These children grow up to be poor and their children become the next generation of children to be excluded from school and community. A high proportion of them populate our prisons.

The authors provide examples of the progressive techniques introduced at different times in England, Europe and North America which have committed to genuine inclusion of troubled children. These include the Ragged School movement in England, The Mettray Penal Colony in France, and the Children’s Friend Society in Canada, but always the evidence provided by authors’ wide ranging research demonstrates only that prevailing political climates blow these promising initiatives away :

These [progressive] techniques involved the recognition of the class basis for inequalities and poverty and its psychological and emotional consequences, whilst liberal governmentality chose to foreground individual responsibility, innate defects or criminal environment. This basic division has remained over the years, although ‘progressivism’ and its inclusionary goals seemed to prevail during the period of the Welfare State until the era of neo-liberalism in the UK has gradually returned to the cold and abstract values of the market and accounting practice (p117).

The authors give an example of this trend of particular interest to psychotherapists. Describing both the role taken on by the welfare state to prioritise the state’s responsibility for every citizen, and the post-war effort to take account of underlying problems, for instance through psychoanalytically informed interventions or explanations, Ashurst and Venn point out that since those halcyon days there has been

‘a return to a behaviourist psychology model such as in cognitive behaviour therapy , which reflects the demand for cost-effective solutions and is more in keeping with a regime obsessed with ‘evidence based’ policy and practice and short-term budgetary objectives” (p162).

Ashurst and Venn provide the reader with many other telling clues as to how economic and political, rather than personal discourses tend to prevail.

The crux of this important book is reached at the conclusion of a chapter about the progressive ‘without walls’ Mettray Penal Colony near Tours in France. The authors isolate four discourses which can be distinguished in our consideration of education for poor and alienated children. It seems to me it would be helpful for anyone engaged with supporting children who are being excluded from both school and hence their communities, to be aware of these discourses.

  • An official discourse, expressed in government reports, policy statements, legal provisions, institutional briefs and the like
  • A scientific discourse, about delinquency, crime, deviation, pathologies, and so on, increasingly, from the second half of the 19th century
  • A critical discourse, such as Foucault’s own interpretation of Mettray within his analysis of power and governmentality.
  • A humanitarian, reformist or alternative/progressive set of discourses differently positioned according to circumstances which are more concerned with the care of children, with moral and ethical issues, and ideas of the ‘whole child’ as the focus of intervention. This oppositional or dissenting discourse has informed alternative education.

The first and second of these discourses have a tendency to distance the poor and to exclude them. The third discourse, if its critical analysis is reasonably free of personal prejudice can be helpful. For instance Foucault’s analysis of the regime at Mettray suggested the young men placed there were helped because Mettray’s environment encouraged them to learn about themselves from the inside rather than from external striction and restriction. To me this is, in a significant measure, describing a fundament of the therapeutic process. My guess is that many of the readers of this review know and try to act upon the final discourse.

The authors help us keep in mind that all we do and say in education carries assumptions that our education practice is held together by ideals of democracy and justice. Unfortunately the pervasiveness of these assumptions is not matched by energetic, rigorous and imaginative thought about their validity.

This book, is much more than, as the publishers claim, ‘a political economy of the genealogy of school exclusion’, for reading this book will give the general reader, teachers, social workers, counsellors, psychotherapists, politicians of all ilk, and students of history, education, sociology, politics, and philosophy, a thorough grounding and understanding of the education of the poor in the last two centuries. More than this, Ashurst’s and Venn’s book is the equal of many seminal works on climate change, for the consequences of the continued injustice of poverty, its concomitant exclusion of parents and children and the increasing gap between the “haves and have nots” may, like global warming, point to unspeakable prospects in the future.


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