What should we teach young people about work and economy?




Education for Liberation conference  

November 14th 2009 : Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley


Most schools now provide ‘vocational alternatives’ to conventional academic courses but, even in FE colleges, these are largely classroom and textbook based ‘applied’ courses which, with a few notable exceptions, develop little in the way of any practical skills that will help young people in the future.  Students who end up on courses like business studies, health and social care or leisure and tourism generally do so because they are considered less able academically.

Worse still, few, if any of these courses allow opportunities for any wider analysis of what really goes on in the workplace: in other words, they lack any social and political dimension and don’t stretch any further than the narrow confines of one particular subject area. This is true of a lot of FE and HE courses also.

With hardly any young people moving directly from school to the workplace, ‘careers education’ often becomes something primarily about where to continue studying post-16 ; or how to access ‘apprenticeships’, many of which are now provided by  training organisations rather than employers and no longer provide any guarantee of a job.

Most young people leave compulsory schooling with little in the way of any ‘economic literacy’.  Courses about ‘economic awareness’ invariably concentrate on immediate issues of personal finance or take the form of ‘enterprise days’. The reality is that  though leaving school in an era where 1 in 5 young people are unemployed, few will have enjoyed any real opportunity to discuss why this may be so!

Even if, as a result of the turbulent times we live in, there has been a significant increase in the number of young people wanting to study Economics, this still remains an abstract and elitist, not to mention, a distorted subject. One with little reference to everyday events and with syllabuses and supporting materials emphasising ‘boom’ rather than ‘bust’.

 There are alternatives: American educationalist John Dewey called for a critical vocationalism where, alongside ‘trade skills’, the teaching of economics and politics would ‘bring workers in touch with the problems of the day’ while19th century radicals called for ‘really useful knowledge’ where the practical skills demanded by employers were mixed with discussion about why the class structure was like it was. This can be seen as the origin of a polytechnic education that combines theory and practice. Today, some teachers, despite the constraints of the National Curriculum and the straightjacket of GCSE and A-level assessment requirements, still manage to bring a radical dimension to areas like history or citizenship, producing materials about industrial disputes and other workplace issues. We need to develop networks of teachers but also encourage the NUT and UCU to promote radical alternatives for teaching about work and economy as part of more general alternatives for learning.

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