Compensatory education competence

This is the idea, influential in the USA and UK in the 1960s and 1970s that children’s education should compensate for the cognitive and affective shortcomings of their culture. Associated with such figures COMPENSATORY EDUCATION 33 as Bereuter and Engelmann (1966) in the USA and Bernstein (1973) in the UK, compensatory education became influential in educational policy as part of initiatives to raise standards and increase equality.

Programs like Head start were inspired by compensation theorists. The movement has had its critics. The first line of criticism, owing to Labor (1972), was that it addressed a non-existent deficit in lower-class children. Radicals maintained that the education system failed students rather than vice versa. More moderate critics maintained that the nature of the educational problems facing lower-class students had been hastily and carelessly diagnosed (C. Winch 1990). Empirical confirmation was patchy.

Those programmers based on the premise that lower-class children suffered from verbal deficits have been largely discredited (Tigard and Hughes 1984). On the other hand, longitudinal studies of programmers like Head start have indicated that they may have assisted students in avoiding practical problems in later life. The insight of the compensatory education movement was that there may be a cultural mismatch between the expectations of school and home (Brice Heath 1983).

The dangers of its approach are that it encourages a sense of fatalism and low expectations concerning lower-class students on the part of teachers. Extreme pessimists believe that the mismatch is not cultural but genetic and therefore that compensation is not possible (Murray and Herrnstein 1994).

Ordinarily, when one is able to do something in a way that satisfies certain minimum standards, one is said to be competent at that activity. Thus, I am a competent swimmer if I am able to swim beyond a certain minimum distance in normal circumstances. The criterion for the ascription of competence is my ability to perform. On this account, it would be meaningless to say that I am competent although I have never performed, or that there are no circumstances in which it is envisaged that I could perform.

This account has been challenged by Chomsky (1965) and others, who maintain that competence is, at the bottom, an innate neural representational system. It is the presence in my brain of such a system that determines whether or not I am competent.


It is the remarkable, but the generally unremarked fact that in Europe and America at least, children are compelled to go to school and when they get there they are compelled to do some things rather than other things. This compulsion to attend a particular institution and indulge in particular institutional activities was strongly criticized by the deschoolers.

In reply to their arguments (see Barrow 1978) philosophers from the analytical school had little difficulty in showing that the arguments they produced over, say, assessment or curriculum choice were faulty and that their general position was badly argued and poorly evidenced. However, very little attention was given to one of their explicit or implicit basic assumptions, namely that if we compel someone to do something, then we need to provide a good reason for that compulsion.

Last word

The fact that in this case, those compelled are children alters the matter somewhat – because we expect children to be the subject of some compulsion – but does not affect the basic thrust of the question that concerns compulsory schooling.

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