Education has become like running up a down escalator

‘It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place,’ said the Red Queen to Alice.


                                Think Piece’ for National Union of Teachers .       

                                               Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley

While most teachers rightly consider that education has an intrinsic value and isn’t just about passing exams, for most of their students and invariably their parents, a ‘good education’ enables you to ‘get on’ in life and to pursue career aspirations and material goals as well as intellectual ones. Many may say it was ever thus but this article focusses on the changing relationship between educational qualifications and social mobility and examines the implications for teachers.

 Going up

In the 1950s-’60s ‘white-collar’ managerial and professional jobs expanded, creating opportunities for some working-class children to move up. The move towards comprehensive schools was a reflection of this change, but also facilitated a society that was slowly becoming more ‘open’. Higher education also grew and more people entered jobs in the expanding welfare state, including teaching.

Sociologists call this type of social mobility ‘absolute’ upward mobility, compared with ‘relative’ mobility – when the same number move up as move down. For this latter to take place, there would need to be a reduction in the differences in education performance between different groups of children. Improving ‘relative mobility’ is much harder to achieve, with research continuing to show that attainment gaps between middle and working class children remain – although girls have closed the gap on boys.

  In the post-war years, educational qualifications were only considered necessary for white-collar jobs or for progressing through sixth-forms to university. Even in the mid-1970s, almost half of young people left school with few or no qualifications – often at the earliest opportunity. The raising of the school leaving age to 16 in 1972, while supported by educationalists, was opposed by many youngsters and even some of their parents. Jobs were still plentiful and large numbers of school leavers continued to enter industry where trade apprenticeships were also available, though mostly for boys. Without the qualification requirements that they now have, they often depended on who you knew to get you in.

And going down

With the rise in youth unemployment at the end of the 1970s and into the ’80s, staying on rates increased. Young people preferred to remain at school in what was called ‘the new sixth form’ or go to college, rather than the succession of youth training schemes they were offered. As a result, although from this year it will be compulsory to remain in education or training until 17 (18 in 2015), in many ways this has long been the norm.

 Pass rates in examinations have also reached levels that would have been considered inconceivable 40 years ago – with well over two thirds attaining 5 GCSE passes. A-levels, once a qualification for the elite few, now have about 700,000 annual entries, with around one in three candidates obtaining an A grade. Though numbers have dropped, approaching 40% of young people still enter higher education, a sector where girls now outnumber boys.

There are different explanations for these changes however. On the one hand, it’s argued that young people have been ‘pulled’ into staying on in full-time learning because jobs require much higher levels of skills – or at least qualifications. This has made more opportunities for upward social mobility in an increasingly globalised labour market. Young people are also more ambitious and less likely to accept the sorts of lives their parents led. Parents are also more ambitious for their children and have more choice of school. As a result, opportunities have been widened and examinations made more accessible. Governments have also instigated ‘school improvement’ policies and are less tolerant of failure.

 On the other hand, it’s argued that young people have been largely ‘pushed’ into staying on as the sorts of jobs that used to be open to youngsters have disappeared. Rather than there being major skills shortages in the economy, there is a ‘jobs queue’ for employment. Gaining particular types of qualifications, or ensuring that you attend certain universities allows you to move further up the queue.

 At the same time, the education system is increasingly like trying to run up an escalator that is going down. Just as you have to move faster and faster to stand still, in schools, colleges and universities, you have to work harder and harder, simply to keep up with everybody else! Far from upward mobility, many fear losing their place in the jobs queue and ending up worse off than their parents.

 So it’s not that education has failed the economy, as politicians and business leaders constantly assert, and more that the economy has failed education. Thus, many young people find that after spending years in full-time learning, they are ‘overqualified and underemployed’. Despite increases in tuition fees, young people are still applying for universities in large numbers because they understand that even if many jobs don’t require degrees to do them, with more and more graduates in the labour market, employers increasingly ask for them.

 Gove’s answer

These tensions run through the Coalition government’s education policies. Michael Gove has claimed, for example, that his curriculum reforms are about raising standards so as to improve economic competitiveness. Gove argues that under Labour standards did not really rise but education was ‘dumbed down’ and less privileged children were denied access to the ‘core knowledge’ needed to move on in society, while awarding boards – eager to attract business – made their  exams easier to pass.

 As a result, Gove argues, Britain has continued to fall behind other countries in international league tables, especially in ‘the basics’. To rectify this, key features of the education systems of successful economies need to be imported. The curriculum should concentrate on transmitting high status knowledge, like the public schools do and the old grammars used to. In place of ‘play’ and ‘personal development’, primary education should concentrate on preparing children for secondary schooling and restoring the authority of the teacher. Examinations have also to be made more ‘rigorous’ with ‘grade inflation’ eliminated.

 Gove and his counterpart in higher education, David Willetts, have also suggested that many young people were persuaded to go to university when this was not necessarily the best option for them. They say the economy needs more apprenticeships and better technical education as much as it needs more graduates.

 We would argue that these policies have little to do with improving economic competitiveness or increasing social mobility. Gove’s eagerness to copy the methods of other countries (for example the rote learning of Pacific Rim countries) is highly selective and politically opportunist. Finland, cited in the government’s 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching as a high performer, has been largely ignored since because Finland has no league tables, no ‘independent’ state schools, a very relaxed approach to learning and a student-centred curriculum.

 It’s true that rates of social mobility have fallen since the abolition of the grammar schools, but this is largely the result of changes in the economy, so bringing them back won’t restart upward social mobility. In particular, the number of high skilled, well paid, professional and managerial jobs has not expanded in the way that governments predicted they would. The occupational structure is not becoming more diamond-shaped as more rise to the middle, it’s  going pear-shaped, with a huge increase in low paid jobs at the bottom of the service sector and the disappearance of many ‘middling’ occupations as information technology is applied to automate, deskill and outsource employment. In fact, low wages and insecurity are evident in more and more occupations, with many professional jobs being broken down to become ‘bite sized’ so as to be carried out by ‘para-professionals’.

 What’s the alternative?

The real problem for Michael Gove is that too many young people are succeeding in education. The Coalition’s education reforms are more about reversing many of the initiatives and opportunities of previous decades to restore education as a form of social control, than they are about education for social advancement. They aim to ‘price out’ young people from higher education and instead promising employment through expanding apprenticeships – a promise that is unlikely to be delivered, given the quality of many of the apprenticeships on offer and the fact that most employers don’t need apprentices.

Education has increasingly become a ‘commodity’, valued for what it can buy and not something in its own right with its own intrinsic worth. One in four parents nationally now fork out for private tuition – often of very doubtful quality – simply to try and ensure that their children are able to ‘keep up or get ahead’.

Despite these changes, teachers continue to support young people with their aspirations; but without a different type of curriculum that encourages rather than divides learners and different sorts of exams and other assessments that – instead of penalizing and marking them down, reward student effort and enthusiasm – the ideas promoted by Mr Gove and his supporters in the press are in danger of becoming entrenched

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