Education for Liberation
Journal of the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance No 1 April 2010
If Ofsted, SATs, league tables, rising workloads, the never ending culture of target setting and performance management continue to be the most visible shortcomings of New Labour’s ‘standards agenda’, then official statistics showing 950 000 18-24 year olds out of work, are the most damning indictment of its failure.
Blair rode into office proclaiming ‘education, education, education’ would be at the top of the policy agenda. In fact it would become the main economic policy of the government, as the globalised economy of the 21st century would, it was argued, provide endless opportunities for those young people gaining high levels of educational qualifications; while shutting the door on those who did not.
Under constant pressure from government to ‘improve’, schools pushed the level of performance in GCSE and A-levels to a plateau considered impossible 25 years ago when up to 40% of young people finished their secondary education with almost no exam qualifications. 67% of secondary students now gain 5 A*-C passes at GCSE and there are well over 800 000 entries for A-level. This is not to deny that large numbers of young people still leave education with very little, or that increased level of participation in higher education has bypassed the poorer sections of society. Nevertheless, as recently as June 2008, the DCSF announced that the number of ‘NEETs’ those young people ‘not in education, employment or training’ had fallen to 9.4% as the proportion of young people staying in full-time education continued to increase. Meanwhile over 40% of the cohort was moving to some form of higher education.
The current economic crisis has meant that government intentions to further reduce the number of NEETs, have taken a sharp knock – on the contrary almost 14% of 16-18 year olds now fit this category and there are a million NEETs 16-24. More significantly, the recession has exposed the shallowness of New Labour assumptions about education and increased economic performance. Rather than enjoying the benefits of highly skilled, but also highly rewarded employment, thousands of young people who have completed secondary, further and now even higher education during the time of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown can’t find a job – 20% of those unemployed in the 18-24 age group have degrees. Thousands more remain ‘underemployed’ – invariably still working in jobs that they hoped remaining in full time education would enable them to avoid. Though representing 40% of current joblessness, even in more prosperous times, when Brown told us there would be no more return to ‘boom and bust’- youth unemployment remained well above average.
Why have employment prospects for young people declined so much? The first thing to understand is that specific ‘youth jobs’ no longer exist. Though thousands may enrol on ‘apprenticeships’, the days when completing an apprenticeship secured a job for life are long gone; neither do businesses recruit ‘office juniors’. In the past, many working class young people drifted into unskilled work often in manufacturing. While it is true that the number of factory jobs have declined, it’s a myth to believe that there is not plenty of unskilled work available. Indeed Mcjobs continue to dominate much of the employment in the service sector According to one prediction; in 2020 over 7 million jobs will still require no qualifications. A major problem is that young people are now in direct competition with adults for many of the new low paid ‘Mcjobs’ in sectors like retailing. Neither are things helped by employer representatives continuing to regard young people, despite being the most highly qualified generation so far, as lacking basic skills and being unfit for work.
Secondly, levels of educational performance have increased at much faster rates than the skill requirements of many jobs. Because of the uncertainties of the modern day labour market, most young people understandably to decide to delay labour market entry in favour of full-time learning. Turning large numbers of young people into ‘students’ while reducing levels of youth unemployment also creates a situation akin to trying to walk up a downwards escalator. Just as you have to run faster simply to stand still, young people at school, college or university, have to work more to achieve less. A situation where the benefits of continuing in full time education have to be offset against rocketing costs, can only be compounded if, as expected, university tuition fees rise, regardless who wins the election.
So what’s the answer? The most immediate demand should be a call for the creation of proper and permanent jobs for any young person who wants one. In establishing the ‘jobs fund’ and guaranteeing a job for young people unemployed for 6 months, the government has at least recognised that youth unemployment is the result of a lack of demand by employers rather than inadequacies of the individual and that the cost of keeping a young person unemployed is at least equal to the extra revenue generated by giving them a wage packet. The scheme however only provides employment for a further 6 months and often at the national minimum wage.
In opposition to Cameron’s ‘new Tories’ we must continue to support increased participation in higher education; demanding that there is free, high quality provision for all those who apply. However, as education begins to lose its legitimacy as a way of guaranteeing ‘employability’ we have to argue for a different type of curriculum that encourages young people to be more critical and schools and colleges less subservient to the economy and the labour market. What’s the point of taking ‘business studies’ courses for several years, if at the end you don’t even know why you can’t get a job?