I was sad to read of the death of the great historian of adult education, John Fletcher Clews (J.F.C.) Harrison, on 8 January 2018, aged 96. John was one of the generation of ‘extra mural’ adult educators that included E.P Thompson and Raymond Williams. He saw in adult education a catalyst for social change and his writing – marked, Thompson wrote, by its clarity and ‘unhurried, authoritative, economical style’ – was notable also for striving to reach beyond a narrow audience of academics to an ‘informed general public’.
For John, as for his contemporaries, adult education was a desperately serious business, with a clear social, political and civic purpose, in which learning ‘for leisure’ had no place. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview John for Adults Learning, in 2004, I think. He was an extremely kind, affable and gracious interviewee. I asked him what he thought were the prospects for the radical tradition of working class education. Much of what he had to say is still acutely relevant. The interview is reproduced below as it appeared in Adults Learning.
In his book, Learning and Living, John Harrison charted the history of adult learning understood ‘in terms of social purpose rather than institutional form’, a radical movement instrumental in the growth – and forever at the frontiers – of democracy. The work demonstrated how, within this largely voluntary tradition, adult education strove for liberation ‘personal and social’. As tutor for the University of Leeds’ extra-mural department in the 1950s, Harrison crossed great swathes of West and North Yorkshire to give tutorial classes to the region’s agricultural, steel and textile workers. However, the social changes that he hoped adult education would produce failed to materialise and nothing, he thinks, in the present political climate suggests a reverse. With universities ‘dumbing down’ their courses and the traditional subjects of the radical movement increasingly marginalised, the time, he thinks, is ripe for adult education to reconsider and build on its roots within a broader, popular movement.
Learning and Living, 1790-1960: A Study in the History of the English Adult Education Movement (1961) stemmed directly from Harrison’s experiences as an extra-mural lecturer in Yorkshire. He joined the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of the University of Leeds in September 1947. Harrison mostly taught WEA-organised evening classes in the towns and villages of the North Riding, sometimes travelling 70 miles to give a class on social history or international relations, then 70 miles back. He taught steel workers just off the night shift over breakfast in a Teeside Working Men’s Institute, hard-worked and poorly paid agricultural workers in the vale of York, textile workers in the West Riding. Driven on by its forceful and persuasive architect, Sidney Raybould, the department emphasised classes for manual workers. ‘Raybould would be very disappointed if we could only get a class of housewives, however worthy,’ says Harrison.
‘We took our lead from the famous sayings of Tawney, the great pioneer of adult education and the WEA. He said that he had learned a great deal about economic and social history from his students, that it was not just a one-way process, where the tutor gave out to the students, but that the students would give back from their experience and the tutor learn as much as he gave out.’ Tutors, Harrison says, did their best to honour this. ‘It didn’t always work. They didn’t always have a great deal to give back, just as we were often very tongue-tied with the questions they put to us. But it was very worthwhile. When I talked to steelworkers in Teeside about Beveridge and explained what it was, what it was looking for, I felt I was doing something worthwhile. It wasn’t just academic. It was helping people understand where they were and, insofar as they were active in their unions and other organisations, where they were going. And that, of course, is what they wanted and where the questioning came in. In a tutorial class it was partly presentation by the tutor and partly discussion by the students. The idea that you lectured for an hour and then had discussion for an hour was abandoned early on. We would talk for perhaps 10 minutes and then throw it open. And from the discussion you would get the next clue and then you would take it up and go on from there.
‘As a teaching method this, of course, was very exacting, but very useful indeed. When I became an internal lecturer I found very few of my contemporaries appreciated this, but the students did. This two-way exchange, which Tawney always talked about and which Raybould always said should be there, was a very real thing. If you didn’t get that, and in some classes you didn’t, it used to be sticky going. A two-hour session if there’s no comeback can be pretty horrific. You really must know your subject. You can’t prepare for something and then just put it across like you can if you are giving a 50-minute lecture in a university. That’s not how adult education was conceived, not how it went on. It was give-and-take. It was very exacting. That’s why adult tutors tended to be very good tutors. Those who weren’t fell by the wayside.’
The department Harrison joined already had a reputation as one of the finest of its kind anywhere in the country. Its policy was guided by the ideas and personality of Sidney Raybould. Born and bred in the Cleveland district of Yorkshire, Raybould led a team of outstanding teachers and academics, including Harrison, Roy Shaw and E.P. Thompson. The inheritor of the tutorial class tradition built up in Yorkshire by former WEA District Secretary George Thompson, Raybould was driven by the idea that an extra-mural department should do work of genuine university quality. Yet, often, Harrison confides, it was work that failed to meet this criterion that turned out to be the most valuable. ‘These were some of the most worthwhile classes. The agricultural workers I taught were some of the best students I had. Not because they achieved great academic prominence, they certainly didn’t, but because of what I helped them to do. Against the farmers, it was really the only thing they had ever come across that gave them any strength. The union was difficult to organise in that area, besides, as I discovered, agricultural workers are a very conservative bunch.’
Harrison’s teaching was mostly confined to history, modern history or ‘international relations’ at first, but, increasingly, as interest among students grew, social history – ‘the history of ordinary people’. This was in line with the vision of education Raybould inherited from George Thompson, who insisted that the subjects taught should reflect the seriousness of the educators’ intent. ‘George Thompson didn’t have much time for the arts,’ Harrison says, ‘he thought they were all really peripheral. Literature and certainly music, things like that, were alright for those with leisure, but for the workers it had to be economics, and a certain amount of social history, basically what Tawney had taught. ‘Learning for leisure’ wasn’t the way we were going. It seemed to be deflecting us from the very serious intent of adult education.’
Such an approach, Harrison concedes, is unlikely to attract mass participation. ‘There was a problem here after a while with getting programmes running sufficient to keep a large staff of extra-mural tutors in business. This is where the WEA had great difficulties, in recruiting enough students who were prepared to commit themselves for three years to do work of a university standard, but if we couldn’t do that it meant that some of our staff tutors didn’t have classes, which was a tragedy for the university. The WEA had a missionary motive always. They were convinced that it was not enough to provide adult education; you had to stimulate people to want it. We always said that you have got to convince people of the need to come to the classes. Whether you did it through the earnestness of your approach or you did it by other things, you had to convince them.
‘All the students, of course, were voluntary, unlike internal students who had to attend their lectures, or who were supposed to. If people wanted to leave they could. And it was up to the tutor to hold the class together. It wasn’t just a matter of giving something out, it was a question of creating the class as it went along. The students were not prepared to accept everything you said as being necessarily so. They had all got inquisitive minds, otherwise they wouldn’t have come in the first place.’
Nevertheless, while Harrison and his colleagues saw themselves as part of a tradition that was genuinely popular, in the sense of being of the people, they were aware that they were reaching only a minority. ‘We tried very hard to get over this and to get beyond it. But, being honest, we knew very well that this was almost impossible. We didn’t look on adult education as being a fun thing. Raybould would have been shocked to think it was just something you did in your leisure. You had to give up precious time in order to take up study. This is a very old tradition in England, this idea that study isn’t something to do when you’ve got nothing better to do. You do it because it is worthwhile and will improve your whole life and not only because you are making yourself more socially effective, but in your personal relationships as well. That’s part of the English tradition that we inherited. The great triumph of the WEA was when, as a result of a class, some of the students went on to other forms of local action, becoming local councillors or trade union activists. This was what made it worth while.’
‘We talked a lot about voluntary bodies,’ Harrison says, ‘this was the great phrase that you don’t hear much now. The WEA was one of the great examples of that. But there were others and we tried to work with them as well, all kinds of bodies which, at the time, we thought of as, theoretically, being the basis of democracy. There were various arguments being put forward that this was the essence of western democracy, that there are centres other than government with which people can identify and only when you have got these bodies can you have a really functioning democracy. When the Second World War finally ended, there was enormous relief and, at the same time, a great grasping to go forward, which was why Beveridge was so well received. Adult education was part of that and adult learning, in all its forms, benefited from this. It wasn’t just the people who came out of the forces who wanted this, everybody did.’
Much of that impetus, Harrison thinks, has now evaporated. The biggest disappointment of all, he says, is the Labour Party. ‘All that we worked for in the past seems to be dependent on a very liberal government, which we always supposed would be a Labour government. That doesn’t seem to have worked out. New labour is really the new Toryism. The old labour politics have been ditched. And most of the things that I had hoped for from adult education have been lost as a result of that. My own conviction is that English society is extremely conservative. It’s very difficult to get change in this society. I knew that a long time ago. I had hoped that in the future things would get better. But they really haven’t.’
What changes would he like to see? ‘I think real support for the universities instead of multiplying them. What we need is something in the way of training in vocational subjects for people who want to be craftsmen and technicians and so on.’ He is suspicious of the Government’s 50 per cent participation target for 18–30-year-olds in higher education and of the likelihood that resources will be made available to make it work. ‘It seems to be a bit of a political ploy, quite frankly’. Universities – especially new universities – have been forced into competition, he says, ‘and competition, in our type of society, means dumbing down, offering things which, academically, don’t stand up in the way the old subjects used to do.
‘Of course, the context is so utterly different now from 50 years ago. Television was a social influence we didn’t have to deal with. Whether we could have coped with that, I don’t know. I look back now and see us as the last of the old tradition of adult education, beginning with the WEA and the universities. I put so much faith in education as a young man. I thought it would solve all these problems. When I went up to Teeside to talk to steel workers I didn’t see them as potential agents of the revolution. I thought that through education we could help people move forward without a revolution.’
I grew up in a house with few books. I think I can probably recall them all: Reader’s Digest editions of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, a battered paperback copy of Smiley’s People, with Alec Guinness’s bespectacled face on the cover, and a collection of Roald Dahl short stories called Kiss Kiss. There was also a four-volume collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. All of them mattered to me in some way – my recollection of them is extremely vivid – but it was reading Wuthering Heights as a teenager that really opened up the world of books to me. Although in some ways completely removed from the life I was leading at the time, it also felt incredibly relevant and compelling to me. The rawness and violence of the connection between the two main characters set sparks flying in my teenage brain.
There may not have been many books in our house but I did grow up with a sense that creativity and culture were important. My mum loved jazz and painting – was and is still a very gifted amateur painter, now running her own informal learning group for other artists – and we grew up to the sound of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. All of this fed my love of literature and culture. Leaving school at 16 and being forced to join a YTS, I would head into Liverpool each weekend and scour the book shops, devouring the Penguin Modern Classics series: Kafka, Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir were bringing me to life, connecting me with other worlds but also making me feel somewhat out of synch with my own. Music was important too, especially literary bands such as The Fall and The Smiths, whose work, particularly the writing of Mark E Smith, set my mind on new, unvisited pathways. The door was open.
Without this early exposure to culture, I doubt I would have taken the choices I subsequently took – to become a journalist, to go to university, to try my hand at writing, to undertake research and editing – or to do any of the jobs I have been employed to do. I would have accepted the verdict of my teachers. More than that, I suspect I would never have known about the world of books or felt comfortable in it. None of this, I should note, was stimulated or reinforced at school. I couldn’t relate to Shakespeare. I didn’t respond to John Steinbeck. I wasn’t given a chance to study music having failed a test intended to identify musical aptitude (not having understood what we were doing I copied my answers off the girl next to me – I can still recall the sick feeling I had on realizing that something I hadn’t attached any importance to was in fact very important indeed – there was no second chance). And my audition for the school choir lasted only a few bars into ‘Morning has broken’. So disengaged was I that, despite having a half-decent brain, I left school without any qualifications; in most cases not even turning up for my exams. Had I not found my own way in I would never have got to explore this new world or discovered in it some talent and interest of my own.
I mention this because I believe that everyone has talent and creativity and that it is only through exploration and discovery that they have the chance to find it and, if they are fortunate, find a way of living in the world that also satisfies them and answers their passions. This, to me, is so important. It is what, I believe, education is primarily about. Education opens doors: it shows us the world, it pulls back the curtain, it lets the light in. The thing that struck me most on my first experience of university was the latitude, the openness of it all, the chance to switch subjects, learn different things, the bloody amazing library. If you wanted, you could spend the day reading a novel you had picked up off the shelf. And the next day you could enroll on a short course about the author. One of my best experiences at university was a brilliant short course on Chekhov’s plays. Reading them aloud really brought them to life.
Of course, books and literature are not for everyone. But everyone deserves the chance to find that out for themselves. I have written elsewhere about how anxiety drives our education system – that anxiety is driven by the relentless sound of door after door closing on the future prospects of children and young people, far, far too early. We have created an educational culture which is characterised by high-stakes risk – for students, teachers and institutions – and which discourages experiment and discovery and leads inevitably to a narrowing of the curriculum and a consequent loss of opportunity. Access to a wide, culturally rich education is hugely important for everyone, but particularly for those least likely to encounter the creative arts at home. This was captured eloquently by David Blunkett in his famous foreword to the 1998 Green Paper, The Learning Age, for me still the high watermark in policy thinking about education in my lifetime (it also lends this blog its name). Mr Blunkett wrote:
As well as securing our economic future, learning has a wider contribution. It helps make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their community. It strengthens the family, the neighbourhood and consequently the nation. It helps us fulfil our potential and opens doors to a love of music, art and literature. That is why we value learning for its own sake as well as for the equality of opportunity it brings.
Sadly, the Learning Age Green Paper has proved less of a blueprint for subsequent policy-making and more of a marker for how far our ambitions have declined, for our country, for ourselves and for our children. In the 20 years since it was published, we have seen the education system gripped by a wholly wrong-headed utilitarian focus on skills, conceived narrowly as skills for work or economically useful skills. Adult education is now unrecognisable. Opportunities for adults to study creative subjects have dried up, to the point where such opportunities are now very few and far between, a trend only to a limited extent addressed by a growth in self-organised learning. At the same time, non-elite universities have been under pressure to narrow their study options and focus on subjects with direct employment outcomes.
Perhaps most criminally of all, schools – state-maintained schools at least – have seen creative arts subjects progressively squeezed out. A BBC survey of secondary schools found that 90 per cent of schools had had to cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject. Extra-curricular activities were also being cut back on, as schools dealt with real-terms cuts to their budgets, the report said. The latest cuts only reinforce the direction set under Michael Gove, who combined the characteristics of being the worst education secretary in living memory with being also the most arrogant. He believed that creativity had to be grounded in formal learning, failing to see what is obvious to any teacher: that creativity is a part of learning, and a vital part at that.
Depressingly, many are prepared to greet this grim, utilitarian reduction in opportunity as progress. Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Ofsted, told the BBC this week that a focus on core academic subjects represented the best route to higher study, particularly for working-class children. It is a depressing coda to our society’s failure to develop a fit-for-purpose twenty-first century education system that children are considered a resource to be only selectively invested in. I object to this on grounds of social justice. Why should the already privileged horde these opportunities? Why should millions of people have to live their lives with limited understanding of creative culture or the arts, forever at the window looking in?
But even from the narrow perspective of those responsible for the shameful devaluation of our educational offer, it makes no sense to squeeze the arts out of education. The creative industries bring billions into the economy and represent one of the few areas in which Britain might be said still to lead the world. Furthermore, creativity and the willingness to learn are key to our future economic competitiveness, in a global market that is changing, fragmented and transnational. As Ken Robinson argues, creativity is, at bottom, about ‘fresh thinking’, finding different ways of thinking about and doing things. It is also highly diverse – different, indeed, in every case – which means that only a truly broad, all-encompassing curriculum can hope to capture and develop every talent. It also means jamming each door firmly open and ensuring opportunity is genuinely lifelong.
For much of the twentieth century, the adult education movement in Britain sought to correct the imbalances of an education system that prepared the wealthy for a long, rounded, fulfilling life and the working class for work (and a much shorter, less commodious life). Not only do those imbalances remain, they have been getting wider. The pioneers saw an opportunity to create a better society without the need for massive political upheaval. Perhaps that is what those who disparage the role of the arts and creativity fear. Do we want a stale society in which privilege is endlessly reinforced and the fruits of culture restricted to an elite, albeit under the guise of meritocracy, or do we want a vibrant culture to which people of all classes contribute, freely and fully, and have an equal opportunity to lead active, engaged and creatively fulfilling lives? I know which kind of society I would prefer to live in.
For those who believe the UK government cares about addressing inequality or promoting social mobility these must have been a disappointing past few days.
Justine Greening resigned as education secretary in the midst of a botched cabinet reshuffle, only a few weeks after launching a ‘plan for improving social mobility through education’. Explaining her decision to turn down a lesser role and leave the government, she tweeted, ‘Social mobility matters to me and our country more than my ministerial career. I’ll continue to do everything I can to create a country that has equality of opportunity for young people’. It is a depressing footnote to the story of the Conservatives’ dreadful and ongoing mismanagement of the education sector that Ms Greening felt this was something she was better placed to do outside government.
A new education secretary, Damian Hinds, was appointed, a politician whose chairmanship of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility appears to have done little to blunt his enthusiasm for selective schools. Mr Hinds’ appointment is widely seen as an attempt to get the Prime Minister’s plans for the education sector – derailed by her colossal misjudgment in calling a snap election – back on track. Notably, Mr Hinds shares Mrs May’s enthusiasm for grammar schools, frequently styled by Mrs May as an engine of social mobility when, of course, they are nothing of the sort.
One of Ms Greening’s most endearing qualities as education secretary was her lack of enthusiasm for this strand of Tory thinking. She has also resisted the dismal spread of free and faith schools. Her scepticism is well founded. A 2016 report on grammar schools and social mobility by the Education Policy Institute found that the gap between children on free school meals attaining five A*–C GCSEs, including English and Math) and all other children is wider in selective areas than in non-selective areas – at around 34.1 per cent compared with 27.8 per cent. The report also found that high-attaining pupils perform just as well in high-quality non-selective schools as in selective schools. And while faith schools can boast greater exam success, this is largely down to social selection.
But, of course, the Prime Minister knows all of this, as I am sure does Mr Hinds, who has called for an ‘elite’ grammar school in every major conurbation and has advocated the expansion of faith schools. Despite this, they seem set to continue defending ideologically driven interventions, which do nothing for the life chances of the poorest children and help ensure privilege is passed on from generation to generation, as levers to address the very social problems they help cause. Evidently, this is not what Ms Greening had in mind when she wrote of ‘putting social mobility at the heart of education policy’. And that helps explain why Ms Greening had to go. Her genuine commitment to social mobility posed a threat to Mrs May’s own regressive, dangerous and evidence-free plans for education.
The challenge of social mobility, of course, is huge, as Ms Greening admits in the foreword to her plan. The Social Mobility Commission’s last state-of-the-nation report noted ‘a stark social mobility lottery in Britain today’, arguing that the country seemed ‘to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division’. A week later, of course, the Commission resigned en masse over the Prime Minister’s failure to make progress towards a ‘fairer Britain’. This should have been a very public disaster for the government, particularly as it has repeatedly pledged to make Britain fairer and ensure no-one is ‘left behind’. But, in the context of a still supportive, Brexit-hungry media and in the absence of well-organised, effective opposition, the government has continued to function in an almost frictionless way, despite lurching from crisis to crisis, propelled by its own internal dysfunction.
Against this backdrop, Ms Greening’s plan was an opportunity for the government to seize the social mobility agenda and demonstrate its commitment to it. And while the plan does not live up to its promise to provide ‘a framework for action that can empower everyone – whether educators, government, business or civil society – to help transform equality of opportunity in this country’, it nevertheless offers welcome recognition of the need for a radical shift and for greater policy coherence in our approach, and of the ‘vital role’ of education in delivering meaningful change. But instead of backing the plan, and placing social mobility at the heart of education policy, there is every indication that the government will return to the ancien régime of free and faith schools and selection, which benefit the already advantaged at the expense of the rest, while pursuing its ongoing programme of cuts to state-maintained schools and FE colleges, which have resulted in plummeting learner numbers and a crisis in teacher recruitment.
While the ambitions of the plan are radical – there really is no ambition in politics greater, or more important, than to ensure that where a person starts in life does not determine where they end up – the recommendations are not. There are some good ideas and welcome recognition of the potential contribution of technical and further education to improving social mobility (though it neglects adult education), but the scope of the plan is too narrow and, of course, there is no new money to deliver on its ambitions to ‘reverse these negative spirals and generate a virtuous cycle to unlock talent and fulfil potential’.
One point on which Mr Hinds and Ms Greening agree is that social mobility interventions should focus on early years. This is essential, of course, but it cannot be the whole story. We need a much more joined-up and comprehensive plan to begin to address these issues, and we need to realise that education can only do so much and that widening inequality makes social mobility much more difficult to achieve. The gap between the rungs on the ladder make failure to difficult to countenance and gaming of the system far too tempting.
That said, while education cannot address all of these entrenched issues, it still has a big role to play but we need to be much bolder in thinking across the education system. We need to boost early-years provision, but we also need to ensure parents have the skills and capacities to support their children’s development, and that means investing in adult education and the millions of adults who left school without decent basic skills. We need strong, diverse higher education sector, with fair access, diverse providers and flourishing part-time provision, but we also need to reshape the system so that the range of routes to a good career and decent life are as diverse as people’s aspirations, and that means improving technical and vocational routes and taking some of our eggs out of the academic basket. It also means focusing not just on the talented few but on how to create a system that offers opportunity for all, a system that is properly fair and comprehensive.
To do that, we need to think about the education system in the round and not in silos and ensure that opportunity is evenly spread and is open to all, ensuring place and community are at the heart of the education agenda. No community should be considered ‘left behind’ when it comes to education. As Ms Greening’s plan urges, effort and resource should be directed ‘towards the places and people where it is most needed to unlock talent and fulfil potential’. And we need to recognise that a culture of constant reform, cost-cutting, poor pay and escalating workload, as we have seen for many years now in the further education sector, is not conducive to improving educational performance. None of this is possible without a flourishing, well-funded further education sector. Nor will it be possible while educators are underpaid, overworked and overburdened with the demands of accountability.
What, perhaps, we need most of all is to talk, really talk. Never has British politics been more in need of dialogue. Labour has some good ideas on education but it needs to convince voters and that means talking to people who do not agree with them. Stable government is only possible through the effort to find common ground with our opponents. It is also through dialogue that we can begin to change mind-sets, overcome echo-chamber politics and dispel some of the myths of the instinctive, kneejerk populism of the right. A big problem, from national to neighbourhood level, is the loss of public spaces where we can meet and reduce the gap between us. Flinging brickbats from behind the barricades just widens that gap. Until we begin to close it, find our common ground and develop inclusive, evidence-based policies that command wide support, we will a struggle to find stable solutions to the problems that haunt us.
The Chancellor will shortly announce the details of his autumn budget. As usual, education advocacy groups will be watching closely to see if their part of the sector gets favourable mention.
Often, in education at least, good news in one part of the system is bought at the expense of another, less fortunate, part – usually FE or adult education. It’s a depressing indicator of the lack of coherence and system-wide thinking that has blighted education policy-making in England for years.
If I have one wish for this year’s budget it is that Mr Hammond will give us some indication that the government will move beyond this robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach and demonstrate some understanding that the overall coherence and consistent, fair funding of the UK education system matter.
The budget will be viewed, quite rightly, as an opportunity for the government to consider realistically the challenges and opportunities Brexit presents and to set out, in broad brush strokes at least, how the it proposes to respond. The nature of these challenges and opportunities is such that the government really has no option but to put education at the heart of its plans for the future – that is if it is serious about making a success of Brexit for everyone and not just the folks at the top.
The problem for the Chancellor is that for some time now successive governments have been heading in the wrong direction, underfunding the education system as a whole, while slashing funding for less-protected areas to prevent schools and universities feeling the pinch too much. The result has been a system that is incoherent, unfair and increasingly underfunded.
Only the steady flow of imported talent from outside the UK, mostly from the EU, has kept our vital services supplied with the high-level skills they require to run effectively. Until the Brexit vote, I think people were generally fairly happy to let this state of affairs continue, quietly brushing under the carpet our Premier League style poaching of talent cultivated at great expense elsewhere. But, really, it’s not ok. If we had asked tougher questions earlier, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now.
No part of the sector has suffered more from the underfunding of education in the UK than further education, and no part of society has been more neglected by our education system than adult learners.
For years, further education has been kicked from pillar to post by politicians keen to make their mark but with, by and large, little grasp of how the system works or what is at stake for the learners who populate it. On the rare occasion that a minister or secretary of state who cares about and understands the sector is appointed, their best efforts serve only to steady the ship, not change its course, before the next tsunami of myopic and narrowly conceived reform hits, usually driven by a determination to reduce costs or introduce competition into the sector.
It would be hard to find anyone in or around the sector who thinks the government has got it broadly right when it comes to further education, but we carry on as though, with only a few adjustments, it could all be ok. The looming spectre of Brexit means we can no longer afford to do this. Frankly, we never could. The cost of our failure to invest properly in the talents of our homegrown population can be seen everywhere, in the blighted hopes and aspirations of the young people and adults who leave compulsory education labelled as failures by a system that selects on the basis of wealth not talent.
Nowhere is the government’s failure to invest adequately more evident than in adult education. The latest government data show steep declines in the numbers of adults learning basic skills (six per cent in 2016-17 alone) and in the numbers participating in community learning, a critical means of engaging reluctant learners and empowering individuals and communities who have been left behind. It is often left to the providers of community learning to step in and pick up the pieces for those who leave the school system utterly alienated from education. For adults afraid of entering a classroom, whose educational experience has taught them to value themselves less not more, such providers offer critical, safe entry points, often leading to work or into further learning. This means that cuts in this type of provision are likely to have direct consequences for participation in other types of learning, as well as in the economy.
With an ageing population that scores low in international literacy and numeracy league tables, a long history of poor productivity hinging very largely on our tendency to neglect the educational needs of the majority of our people, and an overreliance on imported workers at both ends of the skills chain, recent cuts to adult and further education funding are, to put it mildly, counter intuitive.
These cuts have been both savage and unnecessary. In one year alone the adult education budget was cut by a quarter – and that on top of deep cuts inflicted in the preceding years. At the same time, part-time higher study has collapsed utterly, squeezing adults out of HE at a moment in history when the need for adults to reskill and move careers has never been more acute. As the OU’s Peter Horrocks pointed out last week, there has been a 56 per cent drop since tuition fees were trebled.
University lifelong learning, for so long a driver of progressive change in the system, has also been considered a price worth paying for a system which pulls off the neat trick of being both costlier to the tax payer and dizzyingly expensive for students with spiralling debts. In terms of costs to students, the English education system is now pretty much an outlier. And our eye-wateringly expensive system increasingly offers two kinds of education: a traditional liberal arts education for the mostly already privileged student at elite institutions; a vocationally flavoured higher education experience for the rest. In England, what you get for your tuition fees is determined not so much by what you pay as by what you can afford.
While increased investment is urgently needed across the board, it is important too that money is spent intelligently and coherently. This means ensuring that the expansion in apprenticeships is complemented by training which ensures people are ready to take on an apprenticeship as well as well-funded careers advice. It means acknowledging that family and community learning make a crucial contribution to getting adults furthest from education engaged in learning once again, and funding it accordingly. It means making sure ESOL provision is adequately funded so it can make a full contribution to the creation of flourishing, cohesive communities. And it means recognising that the benefits of education are not purely economic and represent a substantial public good that we should all be prepared to invest in. Employers too.
The failure of successive governments to see that the value of education cannot be measured purely in pounds and pence has significantly impoverished our education offer, in schools, in the community, in colleges and training providers, and in the university sector.
In light of these challenges we need nothing less than a national strategy for lifelong learning, with adult education at its heart. We need a strategy that joins up all the different interrelated strands and demonstrates active understanding of how they relate to and complement each other. Labour’s plan for a National Education Service, with its intellectual roots in David Blunkett’s much-admired Learning Age Green Paper (from which this blog takes its name), is a step in the right direction. It’s promise of greater coherence, fairer funding and wider access, and its recognition of the public good of education, represent at the very least something concrete to build on and improve. Above all, it offers the kind of definitive shift in the narrative we need. If the government is serious about making a success of post-Brexit Britain, it must act, decisively and comprehensively, to reverse years of underinvestment and reinvigorate our over-stretched, incoherent and underfunded education system, starting where the cuts have done the most damage: adult education.
‘Our society is stuck in a rut on social mobility,’ writes Institute of Education Director Becky Francis in a blog post published this week. Despite the efforts of successive governments, she writes, ‘the gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers … in education, income, housing, health … continues to yawn’.
Professor Francis cites a wealth of recent evidence to prove her point, including a report from the Education Policy Institute which shows that the most disadvantaged pupils in England are on average more than two full years of learning behind their better-off counterparts by the time they leave secondary school; and statistics from the Department for Education which indicate no improvement in the gap in university entry between those who received free school meals and those who did not in the seven years between 2008-09 and 2014-15. An estimated 24 per cent of pupils who were in receipt of free school meals at 15 had entered higher education by age 19 by 2015-15, compared to 41 per cent of the rest.
This makes for depressing reading, but it is not particularly surprising. While social mobility has been near the top of the political agenda in the UK for some time, efforts to tackle it have been half-hearted, at best, often loading pressure on the education system to turn around problems which are much wider and much more fundamental. This isn’t to say that the problems are insoluble or difficult to comprehend – just that solving them will take a much bigger effort and a much profounder change to the organization of our society than politicians like to pretend. In many cases, I am sorry to say, politicians have offered ‘solutions’, talked about ‘magic bullets’, in the full knowledge that they are nothing the sort. In fact, as they probably well know, the assumptions they accept about the limits of what it is possible to do make meaningful change to social mobility at best highly unlikely, at worst quite impossible. Despite years of overheated rhetoric, rather than narrowing, disparities in income, education and health look set to rise as we enter a further period of needless and self-inflicted austerity.
Professor Francis makes an eloquent case that, from a schools perspective, the key policy change should be ‘to find ways to support and incentivise the quality of teaching in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods’. This is important. I have direct experience of the difference a really talented, committed teacher can make to students’ lives and aspirations, albeit in a further education context, and I have seen the difference poor teachers can make, from school to higher education. It is clear that successfully incentivizing the best teachers to work in the most deprived schools, by whatever means, will make an important difference to outcomes. And it is evident, as Professor Francis also argues, that early-years interventions are often the most effective and best sustained.
But it is clear too that these, as isolated interventions, will have limited impact. Making a deep and lasting impact requires that we turn around the social and political trends that arrest and make more difficult social progress of this sort. The most obvious of these is the entrenched inequality that has come to characterise our society in past decades. There is a clear correlation between inequality and social mobility: the more unequal a society is the less socially mobile it is. And the UK is among the most unequal societies in the industrialised world. Part of the problem is that the rungs of the ladder have become too distant from one another and the cost of failing and falling down a rung becomes greater and greater. This partly explains why education has become such a high-pressure, high-stakes game, one which middle-class families have become adept at playing, further squeezing the life chances of the children of the less well off. It also helps explain why working-class students are happy to take on heavy debts to access higher education: in the high-stakes, anxiety-ridden education system we have created, the enormous costs of failing make the payment of exorbitant fees – the highest anywhere in the world – appear reasonable. The combination of such profound inequality with a gameable system and the pervasive myth of meritocracy – cultivated by politicians including Prime Minister Theresa May – is incredibly toxic.
Its impact can be readily recognised in the failure of elite universities to widen access to their institutions. A report from the Reform think tank, published this week, showed that England’s leading universities had made ‘incredibly slow’ progress in widening access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds on interventions which, I suspect, have ,in some cases, had more to do with satisfying the Office for Fair Access than making a genuine difference to their student profile. While, overall, English universities have increased access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the progress, predictably enough, has been skewed towards ‘lower- and middle-tier universities’, while the elite institutions live down to their reputation (hugely alienating from the perspective of prospective working-class students) as finishing schools for the already-privileged. The most dramatic gap obtains between private school students and those from state schools. In 2014-15, 65 per cent of independent school students entered a highly selective HEI by age 19, compared to 23 per cent of state school students, a gap of 42 percentage points (the gap was 39 percentage points in 2008-09). The tremendous loss of talent this represents is evidently thought a price worth paying for preserving the privileges of the fortunate few.
The fees regime, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, frequently vaunted as being an agent of fairer access (a myth that can only be maintained by ignoring huge swathes of evidence in favour of the bits you like), has, in fact, been a pretty much unmitigated and indefensible disaster in terms of widening access, not only creating what is effectively a two-tier university system but resulting in a 56 per cent collapse in part-time (mostly mature) student numbers and obliging the Open University, once a genuine agent of progressive social change, to massively inflate its fees, shutting yet further doors in the faces of working-class students. Its overall impact has been to make higher education more expensive for poorer students than for their richer counterparts while making the prospects of an ‘elite’ higher education seem yet more remote for working-class students who, despite the resistance of these institutions to admitting them, generally outperform more privileged counterparts with comparable grades.
It isn’t just mature and part-time higher study that has fallen into steep decline since 2010. Successive governments have made swingeing cuts to further education, and to adult skills, in particular, leading some experts to predict the imminent death of publicly funding adult FE. Only the activism of unions and representative groups, alongside the belated recognition that maybe training our homegrown talent wouldn’t be a bad idea in a post-Brexit, post-free movement Britain, have prevented adult education in FE from disappearing altogether. At the same time, as John Holford noted in a recent article, the narrowing of further education’s mission to a Gradgrind-like economic utilitarianism has made it increasingly difficult for colleges to fulfil their wider remit in their communities. The message to working-class students and prospective students from working-class backgrounds, wherever they study, could not be clearer: stick to what you know and keep your aspirations low. Aspire to a job and leave the joys of a broader, liberal education to those who can afford it. Hardly the stuff of an aspirational, learning society.
This constriction in opportunities for young people and adults has a major impact on the aspirations and achievements of children. As I have argued before, the role of the family is absolutely critical in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Family learning has a frequently neglected but hugely important role to play in motivating children and adults to learn, creating learning environments within the home and setting an example that can prove infectious. The restoration of funding for adult education should be part of a wider national effort to promote social mobility and combat inequality. This should also include a general increase in levels of investment in education, including in early years and high-level vocational and technical education (which has never been accorded due respect by UK policy-makers), bringing the UK to the level of comparable nations such as France and Germany, and the scrapping of the costly and dysfunctional fees system in higher education. Crucially, theses interventions should be part of a wider national conversation about how we reduce inequality, improve productivity and boost wages while redistributing wealth more fairly. We also need honest politicians who tell us the truth about the challenges we face and don’t spin us yarns about meritocracy and how education alone can overturn entrenched inequality. I don’t think any of this is rocket science. It just suits some of those who like things the way they are to pretend that it is.
We live in worrying times, don’t we? We test our children remorselessly and from an inappropriately early age because we are worried their performance is falling behind international standards. We send them to school earlier and press them harder than do most comparable countries; we also invest significantly less than most of them, citing our worries about money and the escalating debt. We continually reform our national skills strategy because we worry our skills system is less than ‘world class’ and our economy is becoming uncompetitive, putting huge pressure on further education to adapt and deliver on reduced budgets and under constant threat of a clobbering from our oppressive accountability system. And young people accept the reality of huge post-graduation debts because they fear the even greater costs of failing and slipping down the ladder. Wealthy parents spend a fortune gaming the system because they too are beset by the fear of downward social mobility – a grave risk indeed in our appallingly unequal society.
For very many of us, anxiety is the governing principle of our lives. Young people are wracked with anxiety about how they will ever be in a position to buy a house while those who do own their own homes are often weighed down by huge debts, unable to save or to think about retirement and forced, in many cases, to take on multiple jobs just to stay afloat. In some ways, I think Theresa May, in the brief honeymoon period of her dismal premiership, was right to highlight the plight of those ‘just struggling’ to get by. There are very many people out there who are stretching themselves to breaking point to do no more than simply exist. Where Mrs May was wrong, of course, was in thinking that she and her party were the solution to the problem rather than one of its foremost drivers.
It was, after all, her predecessor in power (another child of privilege so unacquainted with failure he couldn’t imagine it happening to him) who so successfully closed down debate about how much we should spend on public services by promoting the idea that overspending on things like health and education caused the financial crisis (and that another was looming – you know, like Greece – should we even think about spending as much on our children’s education as the Germans or the French spend on theirs). And it is her party that has ratcheted up the testing regime in schools, introduced more selection into schools (bad news and another cause of anxiety unless you can afford to rig the system and of course it is a system designed to be rigged), and made education dizzyingly expensive in a way that we are encouraged to think is financially necessary but which, in fact, is out of kilter with the cost of education in all comparable countries.
And somehow, in the midst all of this, we have voted repeatedly to be governed by those with least comprehension of the day-to-day toll of our anxiety-laden lives; a party of privilege and inherited wealth many senior members of which actively despise those at the bottom of the pile and have never experienced the worry of not knowing where the next meal is coming from or how they will afford a new pair of shoes or school uniform for their kids. Theirs is a different world of trust funds, debt-free liberal education, expensive internships, closed networks, risk-free investment and endless opportunities.
Doubtless they believe these opportunities should be available for them and their children – who wouldn’t – but it is equally clear that they do not want them to be available to us or our children. This is clearer nowhere else than in education. Building on the work of the last Labour government, which introduced and increased tuition fees, narrowed the further education curriculum and limited funding for part-time higher education, the governments of Cameron and May have overseen an enhanced vocationalism in FE and skills, cultivated a greater focus on selection (‘choice’) while reducing the overall budget for state-maintained schools, and created a hugely expensive two-tier system of higher education with elite universities, which offer a traditional liberal arts curriculum, dominated by young people who attended expensive private schools, while the rest, driven in part by anxiety about the career risks of non-vocational study, largely go to less prestigious institutions which offer more practical courses related to a job or vocation.
At the same time as countries such as China and Singapore began investing heavily in lifelong learning, recognizing the critical importance of skills renewal among the adult population and the need for education to prepare people not just for a job but for a life, the UK government, set on reducing the size of the state by any means and at any cost, took a wrecking ball to its own once enviably advanced lifelong learning system. The number of part-time students in higher education has fallen for seven consecutive years; last year alone by eight per cent – an overall decline of 61 per cent since 2010, when the coalition government introduced its funding reforms. The vast majority of part-time students, of course, are mature, adults who are already in the workforce who are combining higher study with a job, a family and other financial commitments.
Unsurprisingly, in this era of escalating anxiety, it is those with the most commitments, financial and otherwise, who have found themselves most excluded by the fees hike and the introduction of loans (this seems to have come as a surprise to the architects of the scheme though it was highlighted as a likely consequence, by NIACE and others, as early as 2010). As most part-time mature students tend also to come from less well-off, non-traditional backgrounds, this decline has also had a – largely unreported – impact on the social mix of our universities and on efforts to widen participation. As Claire Callender writes, the fall ‘has been greatest among older students, those wanting to do “bite size” courses, and those with low-level entry qualifications – all typically “widening participation” candidates.’
This shocking decline has caused barely a wrinkle in the brows of successive universities ministers. The present one, Jo Johnson (another politician who has had to claw his way to the top) has done little to suggest he considers the collapse of part-time higher education to be anything more than a minor inconvenience; regrettable, for sure, but a price worth paying to maintain the integrity of our costly and evidently failing higher education funding system. The line seems to be to stress the system’s relative success in increasing the numbers of young people from less-advantaged backgrounds (though the ‘top’ universities remain stubbornly resistant to change, continuing to act as finishing schools for the children of the very wealthy). Of course, this would look like less like success if part-time students were included in the same calculation – and it starts to look like serious failure if we also consider the institutions to which ‘widening participation’ candidates tend to gravitate.
The picture is no rosier in further education, where the government has savagely reduced the adult education budget to the point where usually conservative commentators were warning of its complete disappearance by 2020. Since then the government has attempted to restore some stability to the budget, but the cuts have been eye-watering, limiting the breadth and quantity of opportunity for older learners. In 2016-16 alone 24 per cent of the budget was cut, on top of year-on-year cuts amounting to 35 per cent of the total adult skills budget between 2009 and 2015. The range of provision on offer has narrowed too, reflecting largely discredited government choices about the skills that are economically useful, but also, I suspect, the tendency of people, driven by anxiety, to opt for courses they think will have a direct economic pay-off. Of course, this approach neglected – and continues to neglect – the importance of a range of other crucial skills, which are important in the workplace and in life more generally, such as resilience, creativity, problem-solving and, perhaps most importantly of all, a love of learning. As this year’s OECD Skills Outlook report suggested, the neglect of such skills makes little economic sense and is almost certainly harmful to productivity, where the UK traditionally performs extremely poorly.
Of course, the anxiety which drives people away from education and into compromised choices which do little justice to their real talents and aspirations, is part of a wider anxiety, fed by cuts to public services, rising household debt, growing inequality, pay restraint, insecure work and rising costs of living. For too long, the question of how much we should spend and on what has been off the agenda, as though we were too impoverished a nation to make serious choices about the kind of society we want to belong to. This year’s general election appears to have opened debate a little wider, though it takes place in the face of bitter resistance from the mainstream media and those who control it (who, by and large, whatever their populist pretentions, are rather happy with a status quo that privileges them and stifles the vast majority). My hope is that we can have a serious national conversation about tax and public spending in spite of this.
An Oxfam inequality index ranked the UK 109th in the world for the proportion of its budget it spends on education – behind the likes of Kazakhstan and Cambodia (no disrespect intended to those nations but the UK is evidently a significantly wealthier country with very well-established education institutions and a well-documented need to increase both its productivity and the basic skills of its population). Oxfam’s report also noted that tuition fees in the UK are the highest in the industrialised world, with the burden of student debt disproportionally borne by poorer students. It noted too that UK corporation tax has been cut further and faster than in most other rich countries, ranking the UK’s tax system 96th in terms of commitment to reduce inequality.
The government has approached Brexit without a plan – even for the Brexit negotiations themselves. Sabre-rattling and political posturing are, it turns out, no preparation for lengthy, complex and highly detailed negotiations across a huge array of topics. Little wonder EU counterparts are privately talking with thinly veiled contempt about David Davis and his team. But the government has let us down in a more profound way. It has purposefully stifled debate about the sort of society we can be, while effecting to have no choice about deliberate and ideologically driven decisions about funding which have had a calamitous impact on people’s lives. In doing so, it has denied hope of change or a better life to many thousands of people.
A general election which has been in some respects something of a foregone conclusion has, nevertheless, produced a campaign which has been both dynamic and interesting but also, from the perspective of genuinely progressive politics, profoundly depressing. It has shown just how very bitter the political divisions in UK society have become and highlighted how puerile, ill-informed and wholly unedifying our political culture now is.
Genuine open and informed, cross-party discussion about the real challenges the country faces and the real options available to us in terms of policy interventions now seems pretty much beyond us. Frankness is in vanishingly short supply and there is a lack of credibility at the core of both main parties’ policy platforms, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out. The Labour Party, while offering a costed and pretty well thought-out manifesto, has, nevertheless, been over-optimistic about the revenue its reforms will bring in and has done too little to bring the whole country with it. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been arrogant enough to leave costings out of the equation altogether, campaigning on an extraordinarily thin base which has nevertheless wobbled and shifted throughout a thoroughly awful and ineptly run campaign. Nor have they been frank about the impact of the continuation of the politics of austerity which has already seen public investment fall below levels necessary to maintain decent education and health services and will see these services cut more and more over the course of the next parliament. Not only are such cuts unnecessary, they run directly counter to international trends.
The most likely outcome now seems to be an increased Tory majority but a significantly smaller one than expected when May opportunistically called the election, citing national interest but thinking only of party. Labour may do better than expected but have not, I suspect, made serious inroads into the core vote of other parties nor have they established the sort of progressive alliance that could do serious damage to the prospects of a Conservative majority. Corbyn has impressed many people during the campaign, struck by his sincerity and commitment, but for many others, the traditional Tory and some UKIP voters, he remains seriously toxic, and, ill-founded and irrelevant as they may be, the ‘press the red button/terrorist sympathizer/magic money tree’ guff hits home with a lot of people.
May, on the other hand, has seen her star plummet, deservedly so, with her failure to rebuke Trump over his moronic rubbishing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan the latest example of her weak leadership and lack of moral substance. Her campaign has offered little in the way of constructive policy thinking (her own flagship policy of increasing the number of grammar schools is a socially regressive measure her own minsters find difficult to defend) and has seen a party with no plan for Brexit (beyond being prepared to entertain an option worse that a bad deal) present itself as the party with a plan for Brexit, while a PM whose leadership has been characterised by lack of backbone and a willingness to bend to the will of power has staked most of her hopes on being recognised as a strong and stable leader.
Labour, nevertheless, have run a decent campaign which has tapped into grassroots support, mostly in places where Labour is already strong, though I suspect it has made little impression in strongly Conservative seats where the weak messaging on tactical voting makes it unlikely we will see much change. Jeremy Corbyn is likely to hold onto most existing Labour seats which may be perceived as a success in some quarters but will disappoint many caught up in the apparent groundswell in support for the Labour leader. If, as is highly likely, Labour lose the election, they will need a leader capable of unifying the party and reaching out to all parts of the country if they are to contest the next election with a hope of winning. However, it seems likely Corbyn will limp on, for the time being at least.
Despite the likely failure of his campaign to land many blows on a governing party which, at the end of the day, is offering little more than the managed decline of Britain’s place and reputation in the world, Corbyn may, nevertheless, come to be seen as having created a worthwhile legacy, leaving something that a new leader can build on. For one thing, he has put the chronic underfunding of UK public services under the spotlight. And while his proposals for increases in top-end tax have prompted the worst sort of dog-whistle reactions in the increasingly rabid and right-wing British press, they have also allowed commentators and institutions such as the IFS to highlight how modest these proposals actually are by international standards. Corbyn’s plans, if implemented, would still place the UK some way behind the likes of Germany and France in the tax-and-spend league tables, as the IFS acknowledges. They certainly would not require the services of a ‘magic money tree’; nor, fairly obviously, would they ‘bankrupt the country’ (it is an indictment of our media that the previous Labour government is still widely – and wrongly – regarded as having wrecked the country’s economy through excessive borrowing). Whether they would lead a few corporations to consider leaving the UK is another question. I suspect, by and large, not, given the absence of substantially better terms in comparable countries.
Corbyn has also, quite properly, resisted attempts to put Brexit at centre stage of the election debate. He is surely right to put wider social and economic issues first. Our ‘plan for Brexit’ should be shaped by the vision we have for the sort of country we want to belong to; not the other way around. He has also adopted a measured thoughtful approach to discussion, which other leaders can learn from. I hope it can provide a basis for a more intelligent, all-embracing national debate about the kind of country we want to be. We are in severe danger of giving a huge mandate to a leader who is about to enter Brexit negotiations without having set forth a clear vision of the kind of Britain she wants to emerge post-Brexit. And, make no mistake, the kind of Britain we become will be strongly influenced by the outcome of these negotiations.
There is an opportunity here to launch a different kind of politics, with progressive parties taking a genuine lead in shaping genuinely national debate. With casual and unforgiveable recklessness, the Conservative party has taken the country to a place no serious commentator thought was in its interests. It now approaches crucial negotiations apparently misty-eyed at some vague right-wing fantasy of what we could become if only we turned our back on our most important trading partners and threw ourselves largely at the mercy of an infantile US president who is likely to name the NHS as the price for any prospective trade deal. It’s down to parties on the left of politics to ensure there is meaningful inclusive debate about where we want to go and who we want to be. We need, above all, to have a sensible debate about what public services we want and how we pay for them and we need that debate to be informed by an understanding of what things costs and what other, comparable nations are prepared to pay and to tax. This will be difficult. The level of debate is low and the noise from those who would rather this discussion did not take place will be huge. But it has to happen. Just as Labour forged its ‘Plan for Britain’ amid the rubble of World War II, we need a new ‘Plan for Brexit’ which is just as far-reaching, just as ambitious and expansive, just as full of hope and purpose. Like its predecessor it should tackle crucial issues to do with infrastructure, education, productivity, fairness, equality, health and social security, and it should aim to be inclusive. It has to carry people with it.
For my part, I have already voted (by post) for Labour and Mr Corbyn. My vote will hopefully contribute to re-electing a Labour MP in a constituency which has changed hands between Tory and Labour over the years (though it has been in Labour’s hands since 1997). I hope that, around the country, other people who favour a politics that is progressive rather than reactionary will also vote for the party with the best chance of unseating a Conservative candidate. I do believe that another, better politics is possible and I think a Labour government, or a progressive coalition of some sort, offers by far the best chance. Without it, I fear the government will continue to destroy yet more of the UK’s hard-won social infrastructure, systematically ruining the life chances of most of our children (those whose parents can’t afford to send them to private school or to have them coached through the 11-plus) and further cutting funding to the already cash-starved NHS, as a prelude to its eventual privatization. I fear the outcome of Brexit will be an isolated, impoverished, less environmentally secure UK, a friend to crooks, tax cheats and tyrants, eaten up by self-loathing and tantalized by the fantasy, backwards-looking politics of the right: the country that took back control but didn’t have a clue what to do with it. And I fear that the dwindling supply of foreign skills and expertise will not be met by a thoughtful and well-funded reinvigoration of our own education and skills system. The UK is now very much an outlier in its commitment to austerity.
Nevertheless, for all of this, I will turn my television on at 10pm on Thursday night hopeful of a result no serious commentator is predicting. In all likelihood, I will be disappointed, as will millions of others. It is going to hurt. But it is important people remain hopeful, even if they have to work hard to find a reason to. That is the challenge now, to nurture those increasingly elusive ‘resources of hope’, as Raymond Williams termed them; to use them to build something better. We must not allow the meagre politics of division and desperation, or the clamour of those who want us to talk and think about anything other than the things that really matter, to win out.
The draft Labour party manifesto, leaked last week, included some good ideas on education, such as the setting up of a national education service, which may turn out to be the one really big idea of Labour’s campaign. The draft manifesto also indicated that, if elected, Labour would do more than previous governments to reduce poverty and promote social mobility, introducing measures to redistribute wealth and using taxation to improve education and health services. Nobody would argue that these improvements depend on money alone – it has to be spent intelligently and in a well-evidenced, joined-up way – but equally there is no denying that by international standards we have invested too little and reformed too much in these areas.
There is welcome attention for lifelong learning and the role of continuous training in improving productivity in the leaked document, reflecting not only a growing recognition among policymakers that this has been neglected, but also the hard work of the likes of Gordon Marsden and David Lammy in forcing the issue up the agenda, nationally and within their own party. What I would have liked to have seen – and hope still to see – is some appreciation of the critical role of the family in bridging the gap between education and poverty reduction and, in particular, a commitment to supporting family learning as part of a coherent set of measures to ensure the effectiveness of educational interventions in addressing social issues such as poverty.
Family learning has been long neglected and, unlike lifelong learning, it is still to emerge from the shadowy margins of education policy thinking. But it feels to me, in many ways, an idea whose time has come. It has been shown to have a significant impact on the attainment of the children who take part in it, and an equally significant impact on their parents – whose desire to better support their children at school can be the hook that gets them back into education. A few years ago, I met a group of mums from Ely, one of the poorest districts in Wales, who got involved in family learning at their children’s school and went on to set up their own community projects, including a neighbourhood newspaper. Whereas at the start of their engagement, some had been afraid even to speak to their children’s teachers in the playground, they had become formidable advocates for their kids and for the community in which they lived. This is a very significant achievement but it is far from unusual. There are projects like this around the country, run by passionate educators, which demonstrate the huge difference family learning can make to the confidence, aspiration and achievement of the hardest-to-reach adults and children.
Just as importantly, family learning strengthens the bonds between the generations, encourages mutual respect and creates a more supportive, cooperative home environment. It allows adults to support their children and set them a positive, inspiring example. It shows children that their parents care about learning and about their learning, and it puts education at the heart of family life. It fosters the habit of learning, and a range of associated skills such as persistence, attentiveness and communication, and it bridges the gap between the classroom and the home, ensuring education does not end at the school gate. Research shows that children stand a better chance in life in their parents participate in learning. And, often, family learning is the key motivator for those the greatest distance from educational engagement. As educational interventions go, it is also inexpensive. And certainly it is much less expensive than dealing with the fall-out of blighted lives and frustrated opportunities in communities in which disadvantage is passed on from generation to generation and hope is in vanishingly short supply.
Family learning should be part of a coherent national approach to work, education and disadvantage that includes better support for further education and lifelong learning and steps to improve access to higher education for people from poorer backgrounds, including adults. Labour’s draft manifesto includes some laudable commitments on this score which should be part of a wider national conversation about how we pay for public services, including education, and whether we should look to increase our spending on areas such as education and health where we lag behind comparable countries. One thing that struck me about Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in France was the new French President’s willingness to put such questions in a sensible and straightforward way and his appreciation of the importance of establishing broad appeal. Yes, of course, you can have more of x, but more of x will be costly and will mean more taxation for some in the population – and that is a decision for us all to take together. If only we would capture some of that tone in UK debate about public services. The UK’s strongly pro-austerity, pro-government media acts like an attack dog at the merest suggestion of an increase in spending, slavering dementedly about ‘fantasy economics’ and ‘magic money trees’. Though it masquerades as serious journalism, this is a major impediment to the kind of debate we desperately need to have.
We need a serious national conversation about whether education, wealth and power should be more evenly distributed in our society. We need to ask whether we want the circumstances of a child’s birth to be the primary determinant of their life chances. To ask such questions isn’t Marxism – it is what politics should be about: priorities and how to pay for them. There has been a concerted effort, over many years, to prevent such a conversation taking place. Perhaps now, with an undeniably real (though for many not especially palatable) choice placed before the UK electorate, we can begin to have one. My fear though is that the divisive, tribal nature of British politics (and the entrenched and very powerful interests that like it that way) will prevent it. Long-term, successful change is impossible without a high degree of consensus, and consensus can only be built through open, inclusive democratic dialogue.
Today is the UN’s Day of Families, a day focused, this year, on the role of families and family-related policies in promoting the education and overall wellbeing of their members. We must ask whether we want to be the sort of society that neglects those families who can’t afford to stump up large sums of money for their children’s education – or the sort of society that values all its people and helps them learn to value themselves. Education must be at the heart of such an enterprise, with the role of family learning in bringing generations together and supporting the growth of more resilient and prosperous communities finally, and fully, recognized. The kind of society I dream of belonging to puts people first, no matter what their background, and invests to help them realize their full potential. That means putting families and how they learn and grow at the heart of our thinking. We should see the wellbeing of families and the opportunities they have to learn as inextricably linked.
The OECD’s 2017 Skills Outlook report was published this week. It argued that the world has entered a new stage of globalisation in which countries’ capacity to compete in global markets depends on the willingness of governments to invest in the skills and education of their young people and adults and on the quality and level of the education and training provided. It should be read with concern by policymakers and practitioners from all parts of the education sector – everyone, in short, in a position to influence educational outcomes and strategy. For the UK, the message is clear: only by reversing the recent direction of thinking about policy and investing both in the skills of adults and in the provision of a wider, less rigid curriculum can we hope to remain internationally competitive in this brave, and potentially quite ruthless, new world of ‘global value chains’ and increased labour market volatility.
The report uses the language of economic growth, productivity and skills for employment so familiar from the grinding utilitarianism of recent UK education policy. But it arrives at a very different place: one where people matter more than qualifications and competitiveness emerges not from a narrow focus on employability but from the implementation of a wider curriculum which values so-called soft skills such as communication, self-organisation and, critically, a readiness to continue learning throughout life, alongside strong cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, problem-solving) and more job-specific, routine skills. I hope education policy-makers in the UK will be open to the possibility that, for quite some time now, they have been headed in the wrong direction.
The position of the UK, as described in the report, is mixed. The UK was ranked ninth out of 28 countries for the proportion of 25- to 64-year-olds in education and training – ahead of the likes of Germany and France but behind Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. However, the report also notes that the ‘skills characteristics’ of skilled worked ‘struggle to meet the requirements of the technologically advanced sectors’. These skills characteristics, the report says, needed to ‘better align’ with ‘industries’ skills requirements to maintain or deepen specialisation in these industries’. This kind of specialisation is key to participation in what the OECD terms ‘global value chains’ – in which workers from different countries ‘contribute to the design, production, marketing and sales of the same product’. The report suggests a link between increased participation in global value chains and increases in productivity. To spread such productivity gains across the economy, the report says, all firms, including small firms, need workers with a mix of skills, including cognitive and soft skills.
Productivity has, of course, been a major issue for the UK economy for years. It seems a lifetime ago that then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne dubbed the UK’s low productivity the main economic challenge of this parliament. Two years on, Osborne has stood down as a Member of Parliament and is editing the Evening Standard, the UK is heading out of the European Union and a new Prime Minister has called another General Election, urging voters to strengthen her hand in a negotiation which looks increasingly likely to lead to a hard Brexit. In this incredibly febrile and fast-changing environment, one thing has not changed, however: productivity remains a key challenge for the United Kingdom, perhaps the key challenge when it comes to achieving a prosperous future for the UK. It is well-known that the UK has a long-standing and growing productivity gap with other western economies. The UK’s Office for National Statistics’ most recent estimate (2014) found the UK’s productivity (output per hour) to be 36 percentage points behind that of Germany.
Intelligent investment in education and skills is key both to improving productivity and ensuring global competitiveness and to the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals and communities (there is an argument from social justice every bit as compelling as the economic argument). But in far too many cases, and for far too long, ministers have failed to deliver anything like the step change required. For much of the education sector, and for further education, in particular, a culture of profound policy instability has been established by successive governments. Meanwhile, ministers have invested heavily in poorly judged policy interventions, implemented with scant regard to evidence or research, while reducing expenditure where it has been most needed, particularly on adult skills and education. Despite two decades of relentless policy focus on FE and skills, the UK continues to perform poorly in terms of literacy and numeracy skills, while, as the report shows, failing to supply the skills demanded in technologically advanced sectors. The UK has for some time been dependent on the supply of skilled individuals, most from Europe, to plug some of the gaps in the skills of its population. With Brexit looming, the UK is going to have to rely much more heavily on homegrown talent and this should prompt a major rethink of priorities in education.
Adult participation in education, which the government should be prioritising in an ageing society in which 90 per cent of the 2025 workforce is already employed, has been in steep decline. The adult skills budget has borne the brunt of cuts to further education, falling by 40 per cent since 2010, while part-time student numbers have collapsed by 56 per cent in just five years – an unsurprising outcome of huge fee increases and the offer of loans to groups known to be debt averse. At the same time, the adult curriculum has narrowed, focusing ever more rigidly on a very limited understanding of the skills required for employment. The government has been incredibly slow in recognising the growing importance of lifelong learning and the skills and talent of its own people. It remains to be seen whether the resurgence of interest in lifelong learning amounts to anything more than a few lonely straws in the wind.
This is a terribly depressing picture but an unsurprising one. For some time now, our political class has seemed perversely indifferent to the political and economic reality in which it finds itself. UK politics has been conducted in a bubble in which concocted fears prompt fake outrage and dominate policy discourse, while real specters loom unnoticed on every side. The government’s decision to reject the Lords HE Bill amendment to remove students from the net migration target is one of many recent policy interventions which reflect this. Likewise, the appalling and unwarranted decision to prioritise the creation of a new generation of grammar schools, which will further reduce opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged and ensure that more of our best talents go unfulfilled, reinstating a system that saw many thousands of children branded as failures at age 11. A recent study in Kent showed that grammars ‘understate the true academic abilities’ of poorer children. This, again, is not a surprising finding given that selection is not intended to promote social mobility – it is about ensuring that privilege is passed on and the poor know their place and stay in it.
All of this is evidence of a government not only impervious to evidence, but indifferent to the real needs of people struggling to keep their lives and families together – people who want not more selection and competition but the guarantee of a good education for their children no matter where they live or how much they earn. This is not a fantasy – it is a reality for many advanced countries around the world (the report gives some examples). Yet the UK government, which could attempt to legislate for the good of all, prefers to see most state schools, including very many excellent ones, struggle for survival, while throwing money at pet projects which benefit only a minority. We are further than ever from the sort of fairly funded, genuinely coherent national education system we need.
It is evident that a change of direction is needed but there is little prospect of one, at least in the short- or medium-term. Even if a future government came to power with a different approach to the current (and, in all likelihood, next) one and a genuine commitment to fair access, equality of opportunity and lifelong learning for all, it would find it challenging to replace the infrastructure of adult education and civic society which this government and its predecessor have done so recklessly dismantled. The waste of human potential, now accepted by most mainstream politicians as inevitable, is appalling and wrong. It is wrong because it does not have to be this way. We could do things differently, we could be the sort of society which values everyone equally and which offers the chance of a decent education to everyone, irrespective of background. The fact that we don’t and have no intention of doing so is not only an indictment of our political class and culture, it is also evidence that we are failing to nourish, care for or fully value what the OECD rightly identifies as our most important asset: our people.
Investment in people’s education is where this starts. We need more of it and we need to do it more intelligently, taking seriously the evidence of what works and what doesn’t. As the OECD’s report makes clear, investing in people and their skills has a direct pay-off in terms of economic and social outcomes, and is the key factor in supporting countries’ success in global markets. It is also indicative of a decent and civilized society. Low wages and long working hours are no recipe for economic or civic renewal, certainly not if we want a fair, flourishing and vibrant democracy in which a person’s future is not determined by the circumstances of their birth. My worry is that we are no longer prepared to aim that high.
So, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap general election. The result of the election, as things stand, is likely to be a substantially increased majority for the Conservative Party, a significantly strengthened hand for the PM, a greater likelihood of ‘hard’ Brexit from the EU and the single market, and the further erosion of popular support for the Labour Party, the future of which now looks bleak indeed.
It saddens me enormously to have to acknowledge this, as a lifelong Labour supporter and sometime member; but we need to be realistic about the challenges we face if we are to begin to address them. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn when he first stood for leadership of the Labour Party. I knew little about him at the time but he easily outshone the other candidates at hustings and promised a change of tone and direction that I welcomed. I hoped for a unified party and a leader capable of creating a shadow cabinet with a place for everyone, and I took Corbyn’s promise to deliver this seriously (in fact, it was this that finally led me to prefer Corbyn to Yvette Cooper, the candidate I favoured initially but whose campaign was poor). Unhappily, for all his apparent decency and concern for issues I too believe in, he has not been able or willing to deliver this.
By appointing John McDonnell as his shadow chancellor, Corbyn gave an immediate indication that a genuinely unified party was not a part of his agenda at all. He must have been aware that this is precisely how this appointment would be read by other MPs. In making it, he in one stroke undid the good work he had done in promising an open, all-embracing style of party leadership. So much for straight-talking politics. I accept that Corbyn and the party have not been helped by the antics of some rebel Labour MPs, but Corbyn too has done little to build bridges between wings of the party, while many of his supporters seem bent on splitting it, ousting many excellent and hard-working MPs in the process. Perhaps Corbyn too is more concerned with changing the Labour Party than with changing the way the country is run. He now faces a general election at the head of a bitterly divided party, with an exceedingly thin-looking shadow cabinet and what is effectively a shadow cabinet in waiting sat behind him on the back benches.
Even accepting that Corbyn’s heart is in the right place and that he has some decent policy ideas capable of winning popular support, it has become patently clear that he lacks not only the requisite management and leadership skills to run and carry with him a major political party but also the high-level intellectual skills to challenge government policy, as demonstrated by his faltering and often embarrassing performances at PMQs. Many of the attacks on Corbyn have been unfair and are plainly politically motivated but I think his supporters are deluding themselves if they believe his woes are entirely of the media’s making. There is now a firmly entrenched public perception that Corbyn is unelectable. This impression, one that is, frankly, unlikely to be turned around in the space of a few weeks, is down partly to media bias but also, and undeniably, to his own words, actions and performance. It is, I regret to say, likely to prove fatal, unless Corbyn can demonstrate that he is capable of fronting a wider coalition of views and expertise. Frustrated at Corbyn’s inability to organize a creditable opposition to what, in my view, is the most deceiving, cynical, reckless and bitterly divided government in living memory, I allowed my membership of the party to lapse last year. It gives me no pleasure at all to say this, knowing how deeply divisive this issue is among Labour members, including some of my closest friends and family. Even now, there is a part of me that is desperate to be convinced by Jeremy Corbyn and his team.
If things look bleak for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, they look bleaker still for the country. Like most followers of progressive causes, I am used to disappointment, but the double blow of the 2015 Conservative general election outcome and the Brexit vote has been pretty hard to take. The pain is particularly acute since the government, and the coalition before it, have pursued – and continue to pursue – policies which will make the majority of people poorer, increase inequality, diminish opportunity and undermine democracy. The current Prime Minister, like her predecessor, happily puts party political considerations above the stability and security of the country. She is a shallow, unsympathetic and deliberately divisive leader whose flagship policy – the resurgence of grammar schools – is evidentially groundless and morally indefensible. She is taking us backwards to a society in which the circumstances of a child’s birth determine their life outcomes and employers are free to exploit the unlucky second tier of our education system, untroubled by the hard-won workplace legislation May and her ilk dismiss as ‘red tape’. Far from sharing Theresa May’s sense of a country ‘coming together’, I see one bitterly divided by covert class war, I see people passionate for change but unable to channel their passion and I see people desperately throwing blame where it does not belong.
At home, in the UK, many believe they have made a bold and brave choice, taking back control – and, in their view, sovereignty – from invisible bureaucrats, freeing up Great Britain to become truly great again. They see those who disagree with them as a threat to the democratic mandate they believe they have won, as ‘saboteurs’ who should be ‘crushed’, perhaps, to use the Daily Mail’s words. Viewed from Europe, where I am part of an international workforce drawn from some 28 countries around the world, the perception is rather different. For the most part, the people I meet like and respect the British; they are smart enough to know that we are more than a few moronic football supporters chanting Sun headlines in a Madrid bar. They are not angry or upset about Brexit, and they don’t want to punish us for it; though they are aware of the spread of vacuous nationalistic jingoism and irresponsible anti-immigration rhetoric that helped produce it (in many cases, of course, they are familiar with this from their own countries). I would say that, by and large, the most common response is perplexity about a decision which will see the UK lose much and gain little. There is a general perception that we have voted to leave with little understanding either of what we are leaving or of where we are going. And, for the most part, people feel pretty sad about it.
So, where do we go from here? The past few months have, for me, been the most depressing and least hopeful in my own political lifetime, but change is always possible, and, as ever, the options are wider than people are encouraged to believe. It is not too late for Corbyn to reach out to the wider party, which he must do be effective as a leader. He needs to be the kind of leader who is not afraid to trust the expertise of others in his party, to disperse power and responsibility and be genuinely prepared to open up key positions to people with whom he disagrees. In terms of policy, Labour should try to put clear water between it and the Tories on Brexit. It should make clear it is the party of soft Brexit, actively engaging with European partners as part of a single market and highlighting the very significant benefits of free movement. It’s agenda here should be clear, offering a genuine alternative to all those who feel alienated by the hardening of government rhetoric – but it must also try to widen the debate. The Government and the media are keen to make the general election a re-run of the EU referendum. Labour needs to show that there are bigger issues at stake and that this is a vote on the kind of Britain we want to see: closed, narrow-minded and belligerent, a low-wage haven for unscrupulous employers and tax evaders or open, caring, cooperative, democratic, careful about the friends we keep and keen to be an active partner and good, progressive example in Europe, even if we no longer have a seat at the EU table.
Progressive voters will need to think tactically and progressive parties, Labour included, will need to work together if change is to be more than a possibility. They need a common plan. The one contingency the Conservative Party probably won’t have planned for is a genuinely coordinated, well-planned coalition of progressives, with Labour at its heart, reaching out as well as in, engaging across the party and beyond it, and demonstrating genuine unity of purpose in creating a Britain that is worth living in, whether it is part of the EU or not. If this doesn’t happen, I fear bleak and difficult times lie ahead.
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