Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen Times Higher 20/04/2007
Raising the school-leaving age to 18 could do more than any other measure to widen participation in higher education. But not in the heavy-handed and incriminating way that the Government proposes.
Staying at school or going to college is now the norm for most 16-year-olds. But widening participation beyond that is problematic for at least four reasons.
First, the Government’s target of 50 per cent writes off “half our future”, as the 1963 Newsom report put it when referring then to those previously neglected by selective secondary education. Leaving school at 18 would be a shared goal for more young people if it signalled assumption of full citizen rights from that age. In countries with a republican tradition, these include an entitlement and expectation of entry to your local university. In England, universities that select only genetically “first-class minds” while failing the rest negate any entitlement to higher education. This Platonic principle is nowadays imposed on every tier of education to create a new tertiary tripartism with sixth-form A-level factories at the top, technical centres of vocational excellence in the disappearing middle and non-advanced further education at the bottom.
This makes selective higher education – with its hierarchy of researching, teaching and training universities meshed with tripartite schooling and further education – the second reason that the repressive raising of the school-leaving age will not widen participation.
Introducing vocational diplomas supposedly linked to employment will be no more successful than current vocational qualifications have been. Most schools don’t need them and, while some employers say they welcome them, in practice they continue to deskill and outsource their labour. Young people know that with few exceptions such “vocational options” are second best and unlikely to lead to secure jobs with prospects. They will therefore continue to sign up for traditional academic courses even though they know that glittering places at elite universities are available to only a few.
Third, widening participation is itself a cruel con. It is presented as professionalising the proletariat while disguising an actual proletarianisation of the professions in which wages and conditions deteriorate. Qualification inflation that outruns employment demand means that many school, college and university graduates lack opportunities to use their qualifications as they had hoped. Consequently, many students are running up a down escalator.
Students pay more for less in this worst of both worlds that combines a mass higher education for the many with an elite higher education for the few. In the latter, at best they teach themselves since academics are too busy researching. At worst, students’ experience is increasingly virtual and chaotic. Only big corporations benefit from the glut of certified, if not qualified, graduates that they sift through selection centres.
Last, and most obviously, widening participation is contradicted by raising fees. This explicitly links cultural capital with the money capital needed to acquire it in the “better” private and state schools. Class and ethnic differences are consolidated and heightened. Snobbery and racism raddle the system from top to bottom.
If fees were uncapped, the full-on market would make this transparent. It would no longer be possible for vice-chancellors to play the game of nearly all charging the same and so remove the market, as few could follow Oxford University to the £18,000-plus it needs to cover its annual undergraduate teaching costs.
If fees rise to the exorbitant rates already charged to overseas students, the researching elite may privatise itself out of a system where few teaching universities offering a “quality campus experience” could follow them. Teaching universities will merge with training universities and their associated further education colleges delivering competence-based courses for local employment to locally living students. This will turn large parts of “higher education” into further education while franchising foundation “degrees” to further education redesignated as “higher education”.
This process of market-managed consolidation has already begun closing “uncompetitive” departments, as institutions compete on undergraduate bursaries and other offers, while more expensive, longer and postgraduate courses cost more. The same thing has happened in further education to reduce the number of colleges since incorporation and it could also face schools under the 2006 Education and Inspections Act.
Those in the different sectors of education should learn from each other as they are increasingly in the same boat. So is education now more about social control than emancipating the minds of future generations? Certainly, criminalising those who leave school before 18 as the Government proposes will only increase the divisions in our increasingly violent and self-destructive society.
The Guardian 13/03/2007
Education make you fick, innit?” was how one further education student explained why he was not “aiming higher” for university. So it’s perhaps not surprising that many young people oppose raising the school-leaving age to 18. They echo the working-class children and families who saw the previous raising of the school-leaving age from 15 to 16, in 1972, as only disguising unemployment.
Educators have been more positive, but there has been remarkably little debate, possibly because the date for the change – 2013 – seems so distant. Employers are most enthusiastic as they always say they need more skills.
Yet simultaneously they introduce new technology to automate and de-skill, while exporting jobs abroad. What employers really want – and have largely got – is a glut of applicants, sorted by their qualifications. The government follows by offering vocational diplomas to re-engage those failed by academic schooling. But everybody knows “vocational” options are second best and often do not lead to jobs. Yet with 40% of the age range continuing to higher education via sixth form or college, staying till 18 is already normal for many.
Establishing it officially could emphasise the assumption of full citizenship rights and democratic responsibilities from that age. However, if the raising of the school- leaving age is to affirm adult citizenship, debate about the purpose of education must be reopened, since learning at all levels now plays an increasing role in social control. Dedicated obsessively to the vocational needs of the economy, education no longer aspires to emancipate the minds of future generations. Instead, it increasingly forecloses possibilities.
In this sense, education really does make you fick, innit? So, for those alienated by their previous academic and competitive schooling, their further two years in sixth form or college must have as little resemblance as possible to that previous schooling. Adequate financial support should be available to students from 16 to 18, with education maintenance allowances for all. Higher education fees must also be abolished, as these deter people who are unwilling to become indebted.
Adequate maintenance is required so students have time to pursue their studies, whether full- or part-time. Access courses need to be extended and prior experience recognised as an entitlement to pursue cultural interests, whether or not these relate to employment. This will help raise the collective intelligence of society. Education can no longer be limited to selection for employment. Encouraging an inquisitive and critical view of the workplace can prompt necessary change in the way employment and economy are organised.
To take advantage of the latest technology, for instance, we must recognise how technology has been applied to de-skill so many jobs. As a result, old divisions between mental and manual labour have been augmented by new ones that education is complicit in sustaining. In particular, a section of the former manual working class has been relegated to an underclass devoid of any meaningful qualifications and destined for a life of “Mcjobs” – if they find employment at all. To those in the “new working-middle” of this re-divided society, education seems to offer a way of avoiding relegation to the underclass.
But even Learning Unto Death does not guarantee secure employment in an economy where new divisions of knowledge and skill match widening social polarisation. Constantly seeking to test, differentiate and marginalise students, schools, colleges and universities reinforce the self-destructive society they helped create. The 50% target for higher education still writes off half our children. Raising the leaving age to 18 provides an opportunity for debate about a new direction at all levels of education and training