An Open Letter to John Humphrys


 Patrick Ainley

The BBC recently ran a series of programmes on the mess that education – and schools in particular – have become. With John Humphrys’ ‘Unequal Opportunities’ (BBC2 20/9) the Corporation gave it their best shot and yet what were the conclusions of this tour of England’s schools?

 Humphrys endorsed the suggestion of a Liverpool pupil that private schools be abolished but conceded this was ‘impossible’. He also admitted ‘the sharp-elbowed middle class’ were reducing parental choice of state schools to survival of the most academically crammed. This included those parents (half of all in London) who could afford to pay for private tutors if not private schools.

 Then Humphrys sympathised with dynamic and exemplary headteachers chivvying their inner-city pupils to aim higher with the caps and gowns of ‘real education’ – ‘grammar schools for all’, as Harold Wilson promised. Or ‘private schools for all’, as Michael Gove now proffers, building on New Labour’s academies with his free ‘independent state schools’. ‘All rather hopeless really,’ as Humphrys himself might have concluded.

 But the national obsession with education can only be comprehended by looking at it historically as Humphrys hinted when he related how he left grammar school at 15 to join his local paper as a cub-reporter, adding that this is no longer possible. He did not ask why not.

 The answer lies in the 1944 Education Act that brought the grammar schools into the state system and left the private schools out of it. Simplifying grossly, there was then an intended correspondence between schools and the post-war social pyramid of upper (private), middle (grammar) and working (technical schools for skilled workers and secondary moderns for unskilled). This in turn corresponded with divisions of labour in the economy between top-level managers, middle-level professionals and skilled and unskilled workers.

 Keynesian demand management of the economy allowed 30 years of more or less full (male) employment which built up the welfare state and permitted some upward social mobility from the working to the middle class. This period came to an end coincident with but not as a consequence of the introduction of comprehensive schools.

 Since then unemployment has returned along with the collapse of apprenticeships, the raising of the school leaving age and the warehousing of youth in colleges and universities. The last only being possible for nearly 50% of 18+ year olds because they and their parents have been persuaded to mortgage their futures for the HE that now seems the only means to what used to be called ‘a proper job’. As the education bubble bursts there is growing disillusion with this whole system of overschooling and undereducating.

 The Liverpool schoolgirl’s suggestion of abolishing private schools (or at least for a start their charitable status) so that everyone goes to their local state school is certainly the root and branch solution that was deliberately dodged by the 44 Act. (Though the geographical selection by residence away from residual public housing segregated by race and region would need some compensating for – more than the Coalition’s ‘pupil premium’ is likely to offer.)

 But since, as Humphrys would say, ‘this ain’t going to happen’, let’s face the fact that education alone cannot compensate for the economy. The country, indeed the world, cannot just educate its way out of economic calamity. To an extent this is recognised by calls for a return to apprenticeships, which is what the Coalition proposes for the half our children who don’t cram their way to university.

 These will be apprenticeships without jobs however because automation and outsourcing has reduced employer demand for skilled labour. Now deskilling is reaching up the employment ladder to reduce formerly secure professionals such as teachers to the level of waged labour subjected to new public management working to targets in semi-privatised state services. There is thus no longer any correspondence between education and employment leaving everyone running up a down-escalator of depreciating qualifications to avoid relegation to ‘vocational’ courses that lead nowhere.

 On top of this economic transformation is a social one as the old class pyramid has gone pear-shaped. New technology has erased the mental/manual division between middle and working classes, while simultaneously a section of the formerly unskilled working class has been reduced to an ‘underclass’. So a new middle-working class is sandwiched between the snobs and the yobs as has been said.

 There is no turning this new social pyramid back into the old one. Instead, jobs have to be found for the half of all 18 year-olds not still in education. It is not as if there is not enough to be done to rebuild the shattered lives of outcaste Britain, let alone ameliorate impending climate catastrophe.

 This latter consideration is perhaps the most conclusive reason for ruling out the delusion of a return to business as usual. Yet this hope motivates the desperate youth queuing for higher education. Cuts and fees will only make their situation worse so the most compelling argument for maintaining free HE is – what else are they all supposed to do?

 And while chatter about education bores on, we all know that impending cuts are going to ratchet up the whole selective process. Meanwhile the graduatisation of a new tranche of jobs mainly in retailing but also in what can be called para-professions, squeezes out the less academically qualified who would previously have taken them. This increase in unemployment is currently being disguised by the extent of part-time working.

 At least the obsession with education gives an opportunity for students and teachers at all levels of learning to return to what should be their chief purpose of critically learning from the past so as not to repeat its mistakes in the future. Education could start by learning from its own past!

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