Education for Liberation No2 November 2010
Last summer, thousands of well qualified school leavers failed to get into university and thousands more leaving university failed to get ‘graduate’ jobs. The unemployment rate for 18-24 year olds has continued to remain at 17%, well over twice that for the population as a whole and may do so for at least another decade (two decades in some parts of the country) if recent TUC predictions about employment and the economy are correct.
The crisis facing the class of 2010 has been exacerbated by the recession, but not caused by it. Rather, it’s a culmination of more general changes taking place in the relationship between education, class and economy. The difficulties experienced by the class of 2010, will also be faced by those leaving education at the end of the current academic year. There will be even greater pressure on 2011 school leavers to get a university place and avoid the fee increases planned for the following year.
Whatever happened to social mobility?
For years socialists and reformers have campaigned for increased educational opportunities for working class students, yet rates of relative social mobility – the rate at which children from the working class ‘move up’ and replace those from the middle class in professional and managerial occupations have remained static. What did happen in the post-war period and up to the 1970s was that the number of these sorts of jobs increased at a greater rate than the size of the middle class, so comparatively large numbers of working class students moved up alongside their middle class counterparts – rather than displacing them. This period also coincided with the growth of comprehensive schools and the post-war expansion of higher education, but these were a consequence not a cause. New Labour attempted to revive this approach, arguing that increased globalisation of the economy would bring more highly skilled and highly paid jobs. Those with qualifications would benefit at the expense of those without, as the number of low skill jobs, particularly those in the manufacturing sector that were often filled by young people, would disappear. The reality however has been rather different.
The class structure turns pear shaped
Blair and Brown put their faith in an expanding middle class, but the huge increase in the level of qualifications held by the population has not been met by increases in employment opportunities. Quite the contrary, rather than becoming ‘diamond shaped’ as the expanding middle class thesis implies the class structure has turned ‘pear shaped’. While it cannot be disputed that there has been an increase in the amount of ‘white collar’ employment, up from just 30% of all jobs in 1965 to over 55%, the middle has ‘hollowed out’. If employment in ‘managerial and professional’ occupations continues to be significant it still only represents about 30% of the population at the most, with the growth of a new raft of low paid casualised jobs at the bottom of the service sector – not to mention the emergence of a new ‘customer services’ proletariat in jobs that require little prior-knowledge, just a low level of generic competence that most people already have. Only requiring ‘keeping paper work to kept to a minimum and instructions kept simple’ as ex-Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy described the skills his supermarket needed (Daily Mail 14/09/09).
The decline of manufacturing – now providing about 12% of employment has also meant a decline in the skilled manual occupations on which the post-war apprenticeship system was based on; while the ICT revolution in the office has eliminated many clerical occupations in accounts, ordering and processing. These trends are even more pronounced in the United States where Labor Ministry data shows the greatest fall in employment taking place in some skilled craft occupations – and the increases in the number of new professional occupations like ‘software engineers’ ‘management analysts’ and ‘medical scientists’ occupations receiving salaries of $75 000 plus, being much less significant than the increase in ‘personal care’ and ‘home aids’ on salaries of around $20 000.
UK statistics also show that even if the ‘average’ gross income is still over £450, the ’middle’ income comes out at £375 and that in the last 5 years, the bottom ten per cent of households have experienced a £10 fall in weekly income compared to a £50 rise for those in the top ten percent. The US Census Bureau puts the ‘average’ American salary at about $43000 for the end of 2005 and has also calculated the ‘middle’ to be just $32000. TUC research also shows that at the bottom of the income tree, more than a fifth of all employees earning less than £6.75 an hour, with the New Labour sponsored Hills Report showing the greatest concentration of wages to be in the £6.00 to £6.99 band This is even more the case amongst Britain’s 8 million part-time workers, but the report still shows 10% of full-time workers earning less than £14500.
The most worrying development however has been in the number of people now classed as ‘economically inactive’- standing at over 9 million and almost a quarter of the population 16-64. It’s true that large numbers of these are students, carers or are registered as long -term sick, but official government figures show 30% of those in this category ‘wanting a job’. This suggests that thousands of people have simply given up looking for work and that adding these and the 1.15 million part-time workers who would rather be working full-time, to those officially jobless, would give an unemployment rate of over 15%.
Education and the elite
Of course, the inequities at the very top of the occupational hierarchy continue unabated. With 75% of judges 70% of finance directors and 45% of top civil servants still being privately educated, private education has been seen by more and more parents as the only way to guarantee entry to elite universities from which top professions recruit from – with about 11% of students in London and the South-East now attending independent schools. Yet these schools can no longer rely on state schools to teach working class students to ‘know their place’, in the way they did before and they increasingly have to protect their exclusivity. For the moment independent and ‘elite’ state schools are relying on measures like the new A*at A-level, but they’ll increasingly look towards ‘alternative’ qualifications like the Cambridge Pre-U. There’ll be further divisions between ‘soft and hard’ subjects, but also greater ‘diversity’ in the state sector as schools seek to create new identities to keep ahead of other schools. In this respect Toby Young’s ‘free school’ initiative is as much about differentiating his school in terms of the curriculum – compulsory Latin at key stage 3 etc – as it is breaking up the LEA or privatising the service.
New strategies needed
Rather than education failing to provide the skills needed by the economy – a common employer moan – it is the economy that has failed education, with research/surveys telling us that at least one in three graduates feel they are in jobs that don’t need degrees. In other words, young people as a whole are increasingly becoming ‘overqualified and underemployed.’
All this poses new issues for reformers and teacher unions. Thousands of working class young people have been encouraged to see learning as a commodity, a ticket for mobility in labour market. (Middle-class families have always been aware of how education is the most important form of ‘social capital’) But with young people having to work harder just to be able to stand still in the jobs queue, education is now in danger of losing its legitimacy. Though demoralisation will clearly set in amongst those who know they won’t be able to get their university place or afford the likely fee hike, there will inevitably be a trickle down affect to younger students. Even more so for the 40% of the cohort who don’t have the exam passes to start more advanced study sixth-form study and who, displaced by more ‘qualified’ entrants to the jobs queue, will likely end up ‘downwardly mobile’ and earning less than their parents. Is the education system – considered by Marxists to be both an important form of class control and class reproduction – becoming increasingly dysfunctional to capitalism?
While we should continue to campaign for increased resources for education, the above arguments also show that we cannot simply ‘educate our way out of recession’. In other words, teacher unions also need to promote employment policies that guarantee that there will be permanent full-time jobs available for young people if education is to maintain legitimacy.
But teacher unions still need to be able to develop their own direct responses to what Gove, Young and the Headmasters Conference (representing the top independent schools) refer to as the ‘dumbing down’ of the curriculum – a view which, in the absence of alternatives, is in danger of being adopted by increasing numbers of secondary teachers and which can only lead to more anti-comprehensive policies. Campaigning for a good general education for everybody requires us to develop an alternative curriculum in which ‘academic’ knowledge needs to be broadened. As well as developing particular workplace skills, ‘vocational’ learning should incorporate an understanding of the social and political aspects of the workplace.