Background paper for NEU post-16 Conference


Education without jobs?

Martin Allen

‘Post-16’ education’ is a relatively new concept. Fifty years ago, 40 % of working class[i] students left school without any significant qualifications (many of these being ‘early leavers’ with no grades in anything).  At that time, there were clear transitions to local employment, especially for the boys. Though much of this may have been low-skilled work, there were also around 200,000 apprenticeship openings – again mostly for boys.  Essentially ‘time serving’, they at least included day release at FE colleges. School sixth forms tended to be made up of middle-class students (in 1974 only 5% of young people achieved three A-levels) but those from working class households who did stay on, (or were able to enter grammar schools) could enjoy some upward social mobility, largely because the number of white-collar /managerial and professional jobs was expanding. It generally was not necessary to continue to Higher Education to secure one of these.

Things changed from the late 1970s, when ‘youth jobs’ began to decline. Unemployed school leavers were coerced onto government funded ‘training’ – aka Training Without Jobs according to one contemporary critic.  As a result, but also encouraged by progressive reforms, particularly the introduction of the GCSE, working-class young people stayed in full-time education voluntarily. Many of this ‘new sixth’ enrolled on vocational education courses. These represented a new learning paradigm.  Based around a more student-centred pedagogy, it sought to develop the ‘soft skills’ considered necessary for changing work places. The ‘new vocationalism’ as it became known, stood in stark contrast to academic study.

Increased staying on also took place in the context of claims by Tony Blair & Gordon Brown about how the new ‘global’ economy would increase opportunity for social mobility – for those who were better qualified. The New Labour years saw mass participation in post-16 with 75% of 17-year-olds in full-time education at the end of 2010, while a third of the cohort progressed to Higher Education – though invariably ‘new’ (post-94) universities. The number of students following Advanced GNVQ, (officially at least) equivalent to A-levels reached new levels for a vocational course.

There were efforts to ‘modulise’ courses, to close the division between academic and vocational learning and a new category of Applied learning was established, yet Blair rejected proposals from Tomlinson to scrap A-levels. Thus, by the time Labour left office, the post-16 curriculum remained binary (and class based), a continuation of the ‘pathways’ approach established by Dearing a decade earlier.  Subsequent attempts to ‘reinvent’ work-based apprenticeships and to establish new T-levels have reinforced this.  (The 2021 ‘Skills’ White Paper proposes new higher level vocational qualifications delivered in FE.)

But the economy and the labour market were also changing. To begin with, the number of ‘middle jobs’ continued to decline.  With little interest from employers, many students used their vocational qualifications for university entrance. Contrary to Blair & Brown’s optimism, the number of low- skilled, low- paid, ‘precariat’ jobs continued to increase and if the number of professional and managerial jobs expanded, there were nowhere near enough for those qualified to do them.  Thousands of young graduates (up to half, according to some estimates) and particularly many from working class backgrounds, without the necessary social contacts now end up ‘overqualified and underemployed’ and the education system can be likened to ‘running up a downwards escalator’ – where you have to move faster and faster simply to stand still. Rather than reflecting skills, qualifications have become ‘credentials’, determining what you can do in the future.   Rather than ‘levelling up’, let alone social mobility, more are being pushed down. Today most working-class young people can find employment, but not the work they really want.

While still significant throughout education, social divisions are now entrenched further up the education system. There are huge funding differences within post-16, particularly between schools and FE and of course, between the private and state sectors, while relying on private tutors to ‘cram’ for exams is beyond the reach of many on lower incomes.  Post -16 divisions are reflected in an increasingly tiered higher education system, with ‘elite’ universities for the few (upper-middle classes) and ‘mass’ universities for the many. Some urban institutions are now ‘working class universities’ reporting half of their students coming from the lowest social groups.   

Moving forward

It is important to confront these educational inequalities and also restart discussion about an alternative curriculum with a general or common core for all students. There are also questions to be asked about whether we need separate vocational pathways, let alone new T-levels? There are also issues about assessment, with post-pandemic research suggesting working class students might be disadvantaged by school based/college-based assessment (!)

Most of us would like education to be more than something that helps you get a job, but working-class young people continue to want positive economic outcomes from their time in full-time learning. So, we need to demand better employment opportunities and smoother transitions from education to work. There are big questions about economic policy here, maybe outside the brief of education activists, but there are issues about how relationships between post-16 institutions and local employers can be improved and how apprenticeships made better.

[i] In the past, the ‘working class’ has been used to describe those doing manual work, but today it clearly must include many occupations within the service sector, even those doing ‘professional work’ that may have been deskilled and ‘proletarianised’.  In the post-war period, the occupational structure looked like a pyramid.  Blair & Brown thought it was becoming more diamond shape, as the ‘middle’ expanded. Some say today it represents more of an ‘hour glass’, but I would argue it is more ‘pear-shaped’ (!).

One thought on “Background paper for NEU post-16 Conference

  1. Excellent summary which we can make basis of our new publication. Send to me and I will add ‘skills’ stuff!

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