Thursday, 11 September 2008

UK Social Divisions Hardened By Education

If you want to know where Britain is going in terms of its social structure it is always worth reading the Education pages of websites like the BBC. Their stories, as is suitable for a website, are usually tightly focused, but it only takes reading a few stories to begin to see an overarching picture. I have commented before about how higher education is becoming closed off to children from both middle and working class backgrounds because of the huge cost and the debt it throws people into. The fees on study in England are likely to be uncapped in the coming years. Already students leave university with debts of £15,000 (€18,900; US$26,700) and this expected to be up to £17,000 this year. There are bursaries available, but actually you have to come from poor backgrounds to qualify for these and while they are not negligible to the poorest students, they leave out a large chunk of the population.

The government has been driving to increase the number of people going into higher education for over a decade now and they are succeeding, though the rise has slowed down since 2002 and it has still benefited middle class people more than working class. We are getting simply more people from the class that was the one which sent their children to university before. Public spending has risen on higher education by 48% 2000-2005. The UK is now about the OECD average for attendance at university which is 56% of school leavers going into higher education. This fits a common trend. Countries with smaller populations such as Australia (about 16 million people) and Iceland have seen the largest jumps and the highest level of participation. Poland, Finland and importantly the USA have seen larger jumps than the UK and have higher participation. The UK does lead EU rivals like Spain (which has recorded a fall in university students since 2000) and Germany as well as Japan. However, it is clear that this shift in the UK is having other collateral effects that might not have been anticipated. It is actually reversing rather than improving opportunities for social mobility.

I have noted before how a degree is almost becoming like a baseline qualification for people to get any kind of decent job. Reports on the BBC have shown that as a consequence the gap between those people who have degrees and those who do not, in terms of income, is actually widening. In 1997 graduates were likely to earn 53% more than non-graduates throughout their careers, now the figure is 59%. To some degree this is unsurprising, given the vast debts students now incur they will press for salaries which will help them pay this back. It is not only a an issue of income, but also the range of jobs to which you must have a degree to gain access. This situation has been worsened by the government cut-back of funding into 'lifelong learning', i.e. people going back to take new courses and/or retrain when they are in their 30s-60s; the number of people doing this kind of learning has fallen by 1.5 million compared to 2006. The UK is in danger of becoming even more like France, where if you have the misfortune to have trained in an industry which has become obsolete you find it almost impossible to get into another profession because of the training requirements. Basically, the UK is moving to a 'Brave New World' pattern. Rather than being categorised at 11 as used to be the case, it will now come at 18 and those who get a degree go into the 'Beta' class (most of us cannot get into the 'Alpha' class even with degrees because of the engrained position of wealthy families and privilege in the UK, you are categorised into that or not, at birth) or the 'Delta' class or even 'Gamma' class.

The split is not even. With women making up 56% of university students, there is going to be an imbalance with more female Betas than male ones. This is already happening and is clashing against a system in which women still earn 17% less than their male counterparts in the UK. Either this 'ceiling' will be broken or it is another way to keep down salaries as more of the Beta class is come to be made up of relatively cheaper women, so again keeping even skilled and well-educated people away from the decent incomes of the Alphas, the super-wealthy. The other thing is that it is very racially imbalanced. The fact that more people from Asian backgrounds go into medical professions compared to Caucasians who are the most numerous racial group in the UK, has long been a trend. However, in other reports, the continued challenges of advancing children from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds is still being noted. The blame seems to be levelled in turn at institutional racism, that schools give up on black children from the start and at youth culture among Afro-Caribbean children, especially boys, which glamourises crime and violence.

Personally I think both factors are to blame. However, I think this also neglects that actually all youth culture nowadays for whatever race the children come from glamourises a criminal lifestyle. This is as detrimental for girls as it is for boys as it suggests that it is good for them to become blond-haired, air-headed 'bimbos' who gain acceptance by complying with the demands of males and concentrating on fashion, binge drinking and drug-taking. For boys it is that they need to be tough, drink, take drugs, have lots of unprotected sex, carry a knife or a gun and buy credibility by being violent and carrying out criminal activities. This goes for white children, mixed-race children and Asians as much as it does for blacks. None of this is new, you can go back to 'West Side Story' of the mid-1950s to see similar views.

I agree that Britain like many countries in the EU suffers from institutional racism, but I think that on top of that is institutional class prejudice as well. It has long been recognised that teachers give up on working class children and it has been proven that intelligent children from such backgrounds fall behind less intelligent children from wealthy backgrounds almost immediately on entering school. This is because teachers privilege the language and culture of the middle classes and schools are dependent on the costly support for learning at home that comes through buying computers, paying for after-school classes, etc. that only middle class people (and increasingly only the top end of that bracket) can afford. As children are tested so regularly at school, the curriculum has become too large to accommodate in the school day and so it spills after school. The six-year old in my house is already doing homework, five years earlier than I started it. Homework increasingly needs an internet connected computer, a colour printer and has always needed a quiet spacious place. With libraries now noisy spaces with no room for study, those without sufficiently large houses are going to lose out. Problems identified in the 1950s are back with a vengeance. Of course Afro-Caribbean families are often working class and so suffer these issues twice over. Racial definition is too simplistic in the UK anyway, especially given how many mixed-race families there are and siblings and half-siblings with different skin colours actually get treated the same, not because of their particular individual racial characteristics, but because of the home context they come out of and how that is perceived by teachers.

So, even if there was not an active policy of hardening social divides, trends in British society, exacerbated by government policy are actually doing this. However, there is an added element which I picked up on in June and that is, that the privileged are beginning to bite back. Now more than even in the Thatcher years they are losing their shame about their positions and the benefits they gain. They seem to believe that the era of democratisation of the 1960s and 1970s is truly at an end, probably helped by the Blairite party having been in power and the Conservatives moving away from grammar school Thatcher and Major to Eton-educated, clearly elitist, Cameron. The statements of Rear Admiral Chris Parry in regard to keeping ordinary children out of private schools proved to be too rich, but it did mark a trend which it is clear is not going away and the privileged are becoming emboldened after his ranging shot. Vice-Chancellor Alison Richard, head of the University of Cambridge has said that universities should not be about social engineering. Effectively she was telling governments to back off and stop telling the elite universities to let in more ordinary people. Reports in July 2008 showed how there had been little improvement in the elitist approach to entry to all universities. Ironically Cambridge allowed in 59% of its students from state schools (which make up 93% of the secondary education sector) this year, the highest percentage since 1981. However, I doubt this level will be sustained. In addition, this figure also shows that by getting 41% of the places students from private education are effectively almost six times over-represented at Cambridge.

As I have noted before, Britain is moving to a very hierarchical society in which social mobility will be very limited. Education was once seen as a way to break such patterns but now it is clear it is simply reinforcing them. Any attempt from the government to challenge these things either economically (look how the windfall tax is being choked off by utility companies) or by policies is stopped by the ultra-rich and other privileged sectors of British society. After a few decades of having to keep their head down they feel their time has come and they are speaking openly about keeping back those (the majority) from other sectors of society and teachers are active collaborators in this. All are happy to have a youth culture that they can condemn but are actually please because it stops too many people questioning and challenging the hardening status quo.

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