Friday, 12 November 2010

The Death of Opportunity 2: Cutting Off Chances in Further Education

Now having been unemployed for five months these days I spend most of my time in a 2Km radius of my house with occasional trips out of the town for job interviews.  I interact with very few people: the woman who has been assigned my case at the Job Centre, a couple of staff in the Post Office and a few others in a couple of supermarkets in short walking distance of my house.  Consequently a lot of my input has to come via the internet or the newspaper.  I view the BBC website for news and I buy one or two copies of 'The Guardian' per week, so my media intake is pretty restricted, though giving how alarming so much of it is, I probably could not take much more.  Call me weak, but at the moment I could not stomach any content which told me that people of my kind are lazy and bringing down British society.  Someone offered me a copy of the 'Daily Mail' in a cafe the other day and I turned it down warning her that she would just hear me shouting at it: I would rather gaze out at the people walking by in the wealthy town I had been called for an interview in.

One columnist I read in 'The Guardian' is Polly Toynbee.  I welcome her articles, even if I do not always agree with them all, because she has such a broad scope and each week seems to shine a light into a corner of the socio-political landscape that many others are overlooking.  I disagreed with her when she advised Gordon Brown to step down before the last election, but now see that she was probably right.  It should not have made any difference, but in our society which makes more out of the style rather than the substance of what politicians are saying, it might not have meant Labour winning more seats, but it may have done and it might have strengthened the chance of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition rather than the one we ended up with which is busily taking the UK back to the 18th century in terms of social division and making it into a replica of Greece in the 1970s in terms of its economy.

Toynbee's column reminded me that in my recent posting about the rapid destruction of higher education, i.e. universities, in the UK, like many commentators I had missed the greater damage that was being done to further education, i.e. education for pupils 16+ though also often encompassing vocational and skills training for older people.  Whilst higher education has expanded rapidly in the past 15 years, it still impinges on far fewer people than further education.  Toynbee's argument is that damaging this sector, and other elements of education I discuss below, will shut off far greater opportunities for people than even the damage being down to universities.  I find her argument convincing.  Last year I looked at how despite the efforts of the Blair Party to increase social mobility in fact they had pretty much failed:  I had detected a resurgence among the privileged and that has obviously continued far more vigorously now that David Cameron is in power. 

It is interesting to note that if they had lived under the regime Cameron is imposing, previous Conservative prime ministers Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and especially John Major would never have got the opportunities that they did and would never have got close to the top of the Conservative Party let alone becoming prime minister.  Cameron is vigorously pursuing a social counter-revolution, not only seeking to turn back equality gains of the 1960s but even, it seems, of the 1910s.  There is an assumption by many that the current public expenditure cuts are only temporary measures and sometime after 2015, presumably with the deficit reduced, things will ease.  This is an utter mistake.  Cameron would have pursued his New Right destruction of the state even if there had been no deficit.  Cameron has no intention of ever restoring the welfare state and other branches of government to anything close to the level he has found them in.  People's lives are being wrecked right now in order to fund the huge salaries and bonuses that Cameron's friends in the City are receiving and to supply all business with a low waged and compliant workforce that it lusts after, so as to make even larger profits.

What Cameron and his cronies are doing now will damage the UK long after Cameron has died of old age.  In the 1990s, as in the 1960s, it was recognised by all the leading political parties that the UK was falling behind not just European but global competitors because it had a poorly educated and trained population.  You only had to work in the civil service in the 1990s to see how many Spanish and Danish people were in senior positions to know the UK was not generating enough intelligent people to hold those positions; we sent fewer than half the civil servants we were entitled to, to the European Commission and had to make up our quota using people from states like Sweden and Austria at the time outside the EU.  That is just a tiny example.  You can look at the fact that so few UK utility companies are now owned by British companies.  Now, I am not prejudiced, I would not say: no foreign ownership of companies in the UK (something interestingly even the BNP and UKIP have not argued), if they are better than UK companies, then it is a factor of capitalist market competition that they should win.  It is just that the UK hampers the chances of its citizens by offering so few of them the chances to be educated and trained to the level needed to run successful companies.  I know people say that successful business people are born and not made, but on that basis why are MBAs so popular to study?

The recognition of this need led to the expansion of higher education.  However, no business is simply run by the high level executives, it needs educated, trained and skilled people at all levels and this is something, which even in my recent writing, I have failed to really emphasise in the way Toynbee did so well last weekend.  The Labour government's attitude to boosting training at all levels has been almost covert, and, at times, ambivalent.  Notable is the sharp cutbacks in the mid-2000s funding to 'lifelong learning', i.e. training for people who were adult learners, often seeking to retrain or raise their skills.  The funds were shifted to 16-19 training provision.  There was an attempt yet again to resolve the problem of the British looking down on vocational training, but yet again, pretty much as it did at regular intervals in the 19th and 20th centuries, the vocational diploma is seen as a failure.  Vocational training always fails due to snobbery, parents 'want better' for their children than to be trained to be skilled rather than academic.  This is because, unlike, say, Germany, which I think all of us would acknowledge as still very successful in industry, there are never technicians, engineers, let alone workers on the boards of companies, rather people who studied Classics at Oxford.  In addition, UK companies always want the state to simply train students to be able to work in their particular company, as if they should be designated like citizens of 'Brave New World' (trained for one specific purpose and discarded when no longer wanted).  This is incredibly short-sighted.  Unlike, say, German employers, who see that a pool of skilled workers is better to be able to draw from and induct into your way of working, rather than a pool of untrained workers who you then have to train up to basic levels before even getting them to engage with your company.  In the UK this obsession that a worker must be locked into your company for as long as you need them and no other method is acceptable, has really hampered the development of an educated workforce at all levels.

Even with the governments of Blair and Brown which seemed sympathetic to greater opportunities, not only for the high flyers but also the middle-ranking people who fill up so much of any company, there were challenges in raising the training levels of British workers.  Now that is going entirely out the window.  This is going to impinge on not only the quality of British companies, but also, as with all of these things, the prospects for millions of people.  Toynbee noted things that too many have forgotten, that Further Education (FE) colleges already received lower payments for students compared to schools with 6th Form years (i.e. years 12 and 13) attached: £4,631 compared to £5,650 per student.  FE colleges are the places where students who are taking a little longer to get their basic qualifications catch up and they are the places where the core of vocational training goes on.  Even for people on apprenticeships or company training courses, a lot of the actual teaching, and this is not simply in the classroom but in college workshops, goes on in the local college.  Out of FE colleges come people trained in a vast range of activities such as caring, agriculture, hairdressing, mechanics, catering and office work. 

FE colleges are what now produces the skilled working class as opposed to the unskilled, with the machine minders of the past now call centre workers.  Having skills of a nationally recognised standard (and you only have to think back eating in restaurants and cafes in the 1990s to see the improvement through things like NVQs)  not only means that companies have more skilled workers, but also that these people have more opportunities and through better pay inject more money into our consumer-driven economy.  No economy can run on simply having the unskilled alone.  The likelihood is that skilled workers from across the EU will come and fill the gap that, through its cutbacks (because FE colleges are funded by local authorities), the government will quickly open up.  The other element which damages opportunities is the shutting off of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).  This was something that until a few months ago, you heard advertised regularly.  The EMA was only £30 (€34; US$48) per student per week and was only paid to families with a combined income below the national average salary.  The total bill was £500 million, just over a third of the cost of (building, let alone maintaining) the two aircraft carriers not to be in service until 2014 and 2016.  The thing is EMA, introduced in 2004, made the difference for many young people between being able to stay on at FE college and be trained and being compelled to go to work immediately, by definition in a lower paid job, or now as unemployment rises, be unemployed.  It is a double loss to the state as they will have to receive some benefits in order to live and in some families it will mean teenagers being pushed out on to the streets into crime.  As Toynbee notes, the supposed concessions in the cuts, such as £150 million in university bursaries and the 'pupil premimum' will benefit wealthier middle class families rather than the poorer ones who gained from EMA, not just in the immediate term but longer because their children could go into better jobs.

Noting this, shows up how prejudiced the government's policies are in terms of social class.  As recent revelations about the state subsidy of the pensions of teachers teaching at the UK's most elite schools, Harrow and Eton and the fact that the head of Lloyds bank which is 40% publicly-owned is being paid £8 million per year shows that the elites are not 'sharing' the pain of the supposedly deficit-imposed cuts.  Further down the social hierarchy, whilst the middle classes feel they too are being unfairly punished (to a degree I think Cameron under-estimated, but that is the 'me first' society Thatcher and her inheritors created - deal with it Cameron) they will gain some sops by having money taken from those people already in lower social categories, increasingly being locked into those categories and being both disparaged and pressured in terms of cuts, because they are not only more dependent on state assistance but other things such as public transport which is going to suffer too.  We see a regressive spending policy which seems bent on hardening social division and robbing the poor to give yet more to the rich.

Toynbee highlights a further example, which is Sure Start which was begun in 1998 and even I have generally overlooked it as one stand out achievement (along with the minimum wage) of the Blair governments.  We all know that children from different social backgrounds with equal intelligence when they start school will find two years later that the poorer child is already falling behind the wealthier one.  In many ways we are already in the 'Brave New World' model that because of opportunities, internet access at home, a mother not compelled to go out and work and a father employed by family-friendly company not compelled to work long hours, is always going to help, especially as IT now plays such a role in education even in pre-school years.  Sure Start was a useful gateway which brings us back to the FE colleges, because the 'one stop shop' approach meant not only assistance with pre-school learning and also parenting skills that many feel parents need training in, but also connected parents to training and retraining at local colleges.  This is now all going with its government funding frozen (so falling in real terms) and again local authorities further pressed for the cash they would have put into Sure Start.

I am grateful for Polly Toynbee for continuing to scratch behind the headlines, dominated by higher education, to show how extensive this government's damage to opportunities is.  If they believed in a successful private sector with skilled, trained staff, then they would not be ending EMA.  Though no-one has stated it, and too many continue to divorce the financial aspects of the spending cuts from their social impact, it is clear we are heading towards a society in which you will have no chance to get yourself out of the social category into which you are born, even through study and hard work.  You will be condemned from birth by this government's attitudes.  I guess they think middle class people no longer able to aspire to higher education will take over the vocational places and give up hope of 'threatening' to come close to the 'natural' elite that Cameron and his ilk clearly see themselves as being.  I see a bleak future for FE colleges, always in a challening situation in terms of their funding; some, I have noticed are rebranding themselves as FE/HE colleges, seeking to capture the kind of 'community college' market, a cheap university, as in the USA.  However, I believe that the government have made a severe miscalculation and very quickly the UK will be lacking skilled workers even skilled middle management and this will have to be supplemented with people from other parts of the EU where you can still get training in these necessary aspects of work.  Many of the opportunities left are being closed off right now in your street and right across your town, for the benefit of the wealthy.

P.P. After I wrote the first draft of this posting I heard on the BBC news that the School Sports Partnership which now involves 6.5 million children, has introduced 1 million children to doing competitive sport in the past year alone and costs £150 million is to be axed.  The government says it wants to encourage more 'competitive sport' and leave choices up to school heads.  Yet again they show their upper class prejudices, that somehow, state-backed sport is not about encouraging competition and this scheme replaced rather than augmented school provision.  Given the challenge of childhood obesity in the UK, the cost of this step will not only be on opportunities but additional burden on the health system in the years to come.  It is apparent that again, with the apparent carte blanche provided by the deficit, the government is social engineering once again.  Sport has often been a 'way out' for a few individuals from ordinary and poor backgrounds, but now such opportunities are being choked off.  It is very likely that the British teams competing in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics will have have the same social profile as those competing for the UK in 1920 or 1924.  Sport will become an elite activity once more not an opportunity for people from ordinary backgrounds to shine.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

I am not alone in being one to spot how elitist British society is becoming once again. Andrew Neil,millionaire and former editor of the 'Sunday Times' newspaper and a television commentator on politics could hardly be portrayed as a radical and yet even he is noting the rapid decline in politicians coming from ordinary backgrounds and this week had a programme on this topic: 'Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain'. You can read his article on this on the BBC website: Apparently two-thirds of David Cameron's cabinet went to the elite public schools which only education 7% of the population, less than one child in ten. Neil identifies that opportunity to rise in public service in the UK is declining rapidly. Whereas all prime ministers 1945-2010 had attended state schools, the current crop of politicians and their young advisers who will be the next generation, whether in Labour, the Liberal Democrats or Conservatives are all coming from a very narrow slice of society. As I have noted here before, the fight back by the privileged against meritocracy is succeeding very well.