Lost Generation? New Strategies for Youth and Education. By M. Allen and P.
Ainley Pp 186. London: Continuum. 2010. £16.99 (pbk). ISBN 9781441134707.
As the election process for the next leader of the Labour Party in the UK gets underway (summer 2010), some are arguing that the candidates and their Party should not be over apologetic but should celebrate the last government’s record of achievements between 1997 and 2010. This valuable book, with its broad overview and detailed dissection of policy and provision across youth, education and training, makes it very clear how specious any such defence of the meagre fruits gathered from three substantial parliamentary majorities would be.
Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley race through and review the history of formal education at a pace, focusing mainly on the failure of ‘New’ Labour’s attempt to provide ‘Education, Education, Education’. The book is engaging, punchy, well documented and carefully researched. In four substantial chapters we move through ‘jobs without education to education without jobs’, ‘over-tested and uneducated’, to ‘overqualified and underemployed’, and finally to a consideration of a seemingly lost transitional phase between childhood and adulthood. While much of the content of the book will be familiar to many readers, nevertheless its scholarly approach takes it into a diagnostic and forensic territory well beyond mere rhetoric and dogma, and the reader’s interest is maintained throughout.
The final chapter (excepting the afterword) picks up the book’s subtitle and outlines the authors’ ideas on ‘new strategies for youth and education’. The fact that only one fifth of the book is focused on this issue raises an interesting question about the title of the book and whether it is perhaps misleading. However, following the expert critique of the flawed and contradictory ways in which New Labour sought to improve education, training and youth transitions, the authors seek to identify some ‘new directions’, risking the music hall rejoinder that they ‘shouldn’t start from here’. They present a broad scenario of an alternative approach and future, characterised by relevance, democracy, equality, radicalism, community engagement and greenness. While admitting that prospects are not bright, they remain positive – although they could be seen as occasionally clutching at straws. This reviewer had trouble getting to grips with some passages, including:
’Using education to promote economic reconstruction and democracy would empower people to take an active part in a broader democratic discussion about the best policies for sustainability, economy and employment. Such an approach would represent an inversion of the ‘master–servant’ relationship of education to the economy.’ (p. 138)
’. . . private schools . . . might . . . retain their ‘independence’ but become mutual institutions, prevented from charging fees and instead enrolling children from the surrounding area, in accordance with principles agreed locally . . . As with universities, their extensive facilities would constitute ‘social property’ available for community use.’ (p. 153).
While the need to try to stay cheerful in impossibly depressing circumstances is understood, such writing begs the question of identifying (let alone controlling) the necessary cultural and political levers to effect any such changes. Given the manifest and manifold barriers, for instance to the second excerpt (including the law, property rights, communal disbelief or indifference, individual and familial self-interest, the absence of a functioning labour movement, as well as general political lack of imagination and inertia), it is as if the country referred to is simply not the one under discussion in the book, or the one in which we live. We may wish otherwise but we can only ‘start from here’.
Early on the authors claim that ‘this is not an ‘academic’ book’ (p. 9), arguing that its immediacy and currency avoids the pitfalls and delays of formal academic research which mean that ‘findings can be only of historic interest’. This may be true, although the production of accessible and authoritative writing, analysis and summary, on complex and contested issues, of the type that characterises this book and which many will warmly welcome, is clearly based on expert long term scholarly and personal engagement.
Another response is that, around election times, history moves fast and can appear unforgiving to the authors’ (or a reviewer’s) determination to remain up-to-date. With the majority of the chapters written in Summer 2009, and an Afterword in Spring 2010, already (in late May) events have redefined the territory so painstakingly charted. The eurozone crisis (i.e. the possible insolvency of states rather than mere banks) impacts on judgements about the correct balance between Keynesian public spending and urgent deficit reduction (overseen by a Liberal Democrat minister in a coalition government), while the targeted approach to HE student numbers adopted by New Labour seems likely to be discarded as unsustainable although, in homage to the German approach, vocational training through FE may be boosted (at the behest of another Liberal Democrat). Watch this space.
Manchester Metropolitan University.
© 2010, Heather Piper