1 in 4 trade union members now work in education

thAlmost 1 in 4 of trade union members are employed in education. According to the ONS 1.47 million of a total union membership of 6.2 million are now drawn from this sector. With almost half (47.7%) of all employees belonging to a trade union, the education has probably become the most organised. (In manufacturing, union density is now below 1 in 5 and in construction, only 1 in 8)

The ONS provides interesting –but in many cases, slightly alarming data, about the current state of the UK trade union movement, which is now less than half the size of its 13 million 1979 peak. The level of membership  decreased by 275 000 between 2015/16 alone, the largest overall fall since records begun.

In addition:

  • Just 32.5% of workers are trade union members (13.4% in the private sector ,  52.7% of public)
  • 4 out of 10 trade union members are over 50, but only 1 in 20 are between 18-24
  • 4 out of 10 members can be classified as ‘professional’ workers. 43% have degrees
  • Trade union density amongst female employees is now greater than it is for males
  • Over a third of ‘middle earners’ (£500 – £999 a week) and 1 in 6 of employees earning over £1000 a week are in unions. Only I in 8 of those earning less than £250 a week are TU members

Trade union can’t and won’t ignore these changes, but at the same time they will recognise these are as much the result of longer-term structural trends across labour markets as they are the consequences of draconian anti- trade union legislation or government policies and develop new strategies accordingly.

school-office-staff1That education workers now play a key role in the labour movement, provides both further impetus for greater organisational unity  (despite the NUT/ATL merger at least 10 different unions operate in the sector, often in competition with each other),   but also for creating more effective ways of working with student and parental bodies.






Young voters flock to Labour

Recently released data from the polling organisation YouGov shows the800_cp_montreal_student_protest_120223  extent of young people’s willingness to back Labour in the recent General Election, with the party enjoying over three times as much support from 18-24-year-old voters as the Conservatives – amongst 18 and 19 year olds, support was even stronger with 66% opting for Labour compared with just 19% for the Tories.

According to YouGov, 64% of students voted for Labour compared to just 19% for the Conservatives. This was a clear reflection of Labour’s manifesto commitment to end university tuition  fees  – the average amount of debt acquired per student has now reached more than £32,000 with a third of students  considering their courses did not provide value for money (Guardian 08/06/17)  Labour also pledged to restore Education Maintenance Allowances (EMAs) for post-16 students, to make Further Education courses free and to upgrade the quality of vocational education and apprenticeships.

At the other end of the age group, things could not have been more different, as almost 70% of 70 year olds voted Conservative and 58% of those between 60-69.  Participation levels were also much higher amongst older age groups, with 57% of 18-19 year olds turning out, compared to 84% of those 70 plus. YouGov also found that differences in the way various occupational classes voted were becoming much less significant and the tendency to vote Conservative declined as educational levels increased –with Labour enjoying a 15 % lead amongst graduates.

Young people’s support for Labour was not just the result of its policies or the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn – the party was far ahead of the Tories in its ability to use social media, so as to help neutralise the attacks on Corbyn by the official media. It was also the result of major efforts by student unions to increase registration, handing in hundreds of registration forms from their members just hours before the deadline.

With a highly volatile electorate, Labour will not take this support for granted and with dreadful employment prospects for young people  –even for those with degrees – it will need to develop clear policies that address job market insecurities, as well as continuing to improve educational opportunity. Nevertheless, the YouGov data provides many positives. 



Now even Pricewaterhouse considers a Universal Basic Income

robot-waving-13220988Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC) the global professional  services firm has entered the debate about the effects of artificial intelligence and robotics on employment. Calculating that 30% of jobs (some 10 million)  are at high risk, its predictions are about midway between those of Oxford academics Frey & Osborne’s  2013 prediction of 47% and OECD’s 2016 10%.

Integral to PwC’s predictions are a loss of 2.3 million jobs in the retailing and wholesale sector and a further  1.2 million in manufacturing, in other words, about half of the jobs in both of these sectors. It relates specific job losses to the nature of particular work roles, whether they are routine or non routine, but also to levels of education – the less an individuals qualifications, the more likely the chance of losing their job.

It’s long been argued that routine work is much easier to automate. But in an era when most young people who enter the labour market are overqualified for the work they do, it’s unhelpful to argue to suggest that job security can be protected and ‘the race against the machine’ prolonged by everybody being better educated. 

PwC is more accurate in its arguments about the potential cost of labour replacement and in its observations that the propensity for job substitution in the UK is lower than elsewhere, because this country is a classic example of a low wage economy and a result an economy with low rates of capital investment.

PwC is also right to be concerned about how automation will widen income inequalities – though it’s folly to suggest that workers with not enough qualifications can ‘race against the machine’ by getting more. Like others, PwC attribute too great expectations to education.  However although its not completely convinced about the case for a Universal Basic Income, PwC is joining a long list of organisations that are beginning to explore this issue.  


From a profits squeeze to a wages grab


Latest figures from the ONS, show the employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 who were in work) at 74.6%, the joint highest since records began in 1971. The unemployment rate has also fallen to 4.7%, down from 5.1% for a year earlier. It has not been lower since June to August 1975. Yet in 1975, it was a very different economy with a very different labour market. The UK was the 5th or 6th biggest manufacturer in terms of total output (it’s now 9th) with 1 in 5 still working in the sector (it’s now less than 10%). Harold Wilson was prime minister and a referendum on EU membership recorded two-thirds support.

Then, some 17 million people (approaching  40% of the workforce) belonged to trade unions compared to around 6 million today. As Andrew Glynn and Bob Sutcliffe described in their influential Workers, Capitalism and the Profits Squeeze – organised labour had been able to use its power to steadily increase its returns at the expense of profits. Capital could only resolve this by attempting to increase prices but could not fully win back what it had lost in wage negotiations because of increased international competition. Nevertheless in 1975, inflation reached a post-war peak of more than 25%

Today the situation could not be more different.  After approaching 65% of national income in the mid-1970s, the proportion of national income returns to labour is down to 55%. Alongside the fall in the wage share, there has been a general rise in the inequality of earnings. The most highly paid have taken an ever larger share.  The average full time person in work would be paid more than £7,000 more than they actually are if wages had kept up with economic growth and if the best paid had not increased their wages at the expense of everyone else.

Even if economic growth may have climbed to 2% per annum, this has been the result of an increase in size of the labour force not increases in productivity, with firms increasingly dependent on constant supplies of foreign labour. As a result per capita (per worker) income has barely increased at all. Meanwhile, the profit share (operating surpluses as a percentage of national income) rose from 24 % in 1980 to 28% in 2011.

The declining fortunes for workers is not simply a reflection of repressive trade union legislation. It’s also the result of significant structural changes within the labour market -the continued decline of traditional manual employment, where trade unions were always strongest, but also the ‘hollowing out’ of many ‘middle’ occupations. These have been replaced by huge increases in low-paid work at the bottom end of the service sector, the growth of casualised labour (‘zero-hours’ employment is approaching 1 million) and of bogus ‘self-employment’ –all areas where it is extremely difficult, though not impossible,  for trade unions to organise.

Whereas in the 1970s Labour politicians and many trade union bosses tried to sell ‘incomes policies’ as a way of controlling wage increases/inflation, today’s ‘precarious’ the labour market imposes its own discipline and as a result, as well calling for the repeal of anti-trade union laws, campaigners have demanded new types of state policies, for example, an increased minimum or ‘living’ wage and an end to ‘zero hours’. Demands for a Universal Basic or a ‘Citizens’ income to gain ground, which though accepted by Greens, continues to be largely ignored by Labour and union  leaders.

T-levels get the go ahead


Chancellor Philip Hammond’s ‘Brexit budget’ has                 confirmed the UK  government is to go ahead – and spend £500 million on the new ‘college based’ technical education pathway – now to be referred to as T-levels.  Based on proposals in last summer’s Sainsbury Review and the Cameron government’s Post-16 Plan, will it provide a major boost for the flagging FE sector and improve the quality and status of vocational learning?  As significant, will it help the employment prospects of those young people not continuing to university?

Since the late 1970s when in response to rising unemployment and the failure of ‘Youth Training’, 16 year olds started voting with their feet and remaining in full-time education, vocational education has grown and vocational qualifications continually redesigned, renamed and reconstituted – sometimes at huge expense (remember Labour’s 14-19 Specialist Diplomas?) 

But none of these initiatives have seriously challenged the dominance of academic education.  Neither has there been much evidence of vocational qualifications developing skills that employers really want or that they have  really been interested in them.  Alison Wolf branded many low level vocational certificates as ‘worthless’ in her 2011 Review and until now, it has been workplace based apprenticeships which have been promoted as the main alternative for young people not continuing to university.

The new T-level proposals however seek to establish a technical ‘middle’ pathway between academic education and apprenticeships, with one recognised set of qualifications spanning level 2 (GCSE standard) to degree equivalent, for 15 occupational areas that range from Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care through to Transport and Logistics.

On the face of it, the injection of funds into an ailing FE sector would be most welcome, but the amount Hammond proposes will nowhere near compensate for years of cuts and the closing down of courses. The money will also be ring-fenced, only available for the new courses and, we must also assume, only going to those colleges that will be reclassified as ‘Institutes of Technology’. There is also little recognition of the fact that more young people prefer to remain in school sixth-forms or transfer to sixth-form college, rather than go into FE.

 As for content of the proposed courses, we don’t know whether to expect a complete ‘rewrite’ or whether existing qualifications will be used. With the new pathway coming into effect from 2019 there isn’t much time for new qualifications to be designed and besides, vocational qualifications have already been streamlined to be included in the government’s current definition of Tech-Levels.  Neither do we know how employers will be involved, although there will be extended periods of compulsory work experience.

Responsibility for monitoring the new qualifications will reside with the newly established ‘Institute for Apprenticeships’ with government arguing this will enable the college and work- based routes to be closely linked. In fact, some of the 15 areas, ‘Protective Services’ for example, which includes a range of occupations from police and fire service staff to ‘maritime operations officers’ (coastguards) will only be accessible through apprenticeships.

Yet full-time college based study is very different to following an apprenticeship and on the contrary, it could be argued that the technical route has been reinvented because of both the shortage of opportunities for young people (total applicants still outnumber vacancies by 10-1 and only 25% of starts are by under 19 year olds) and the level at which most apprenticeships commence (60% being still at Intermediate/GCSE level)

If there remain issues about the immediate future of the new qualifications, there are also longer term uncertainties.  These essentially relate to the degree of correspondence between the proposed qualifications pathways and the actual workings of the labour market. In the Skills Plan, the importance of each of the 15  sectors is only expressed through the number of people employed in it, there’s no analysis of the general skill levels, specific skills shortages, the relative significance of some occupations rather than others. This reflects the fact that the UK labour market, compared to countries like Germany for example -which has continued to run successful technical pathways linked to apprenticeships and is often seen as an example of the way forward for the UK is largely unregulated – is not linked to anything that resembles an ‘Industrial Strategy’. 

The success of German vocational training is not simply due to better quality or its higher status, more so the continuation of a ‘social partnership’ between employers, government and trade unions ensuring that training and skills policy is related to actual employment needs. It remains to be seen whether, without any definite assurances of employment, significant numbers of young people will sign up for T-levels rather than continuing the academic track.

But there are also more fundamental issues. Even if the German approach has slowed down the decline of its manufacturing sector, the major changes to work and the occupational structure – particularly the collapse of many ‘middle jobs’ that are predicted because of increased automation cannot be ignored.  It’s also argued that as new digital jobs continue to replace traditional ones, everybody will require much greater generic rather than specific technical skills.


‘Bringing back the grammars’ – putting it in perspective

Newspaper headlines have announced the ‘return of the grammars’ and thnewspaper letters pages will invariably continue to publish harrowing accounts of the effects of selection on student well being and self-esteem.

But the 1944 tripartite model in which grammar schools occupied pride of place was a highly organised system, administered almost entirely through LEAs with children directed to a school on the basis of their performance in a nationally recognised, though locally organised ‘11 plus’. Under this system ‘failure’ was manufactured nationally and an inability to progress to grammar school usually meant accepting there would be little prospect of any real mobility in the labour market.

By contrast the current ‘internal market’ model has become like any other market, where in the name of ‘diversity’, schools, including those nominally remaining part of the LEA but also many still referring to themselves as ‘comprehensive’, use a variety of covert practices to select pupils and middle class parents are able to manoeuvre  to ensure they are more likely to secure places in ‘good schools’. Rather than providing clear passages into different sections of the labour market,   with approaching  half of young people staying in full time education until their early twenties, secondary schools are as much ‘positional’  rather than definitive,  a place at a high performing school only increasing the chance of further progress up the education escalator.  

Free Schools have become the most recent but also the ugliest example of this educational ‘free for all’,   resulting in duplication of provision, but also –as is the case with Hammond’s first budget, enjoying priority funding while other schools face a cut.  It’s also in Free Schools where local entry codes are most likely to be abused and where those parents who are able, throw their weight around at the expense of others.

We won’t know the exact details about how schools can become selective until a White Paper is published, but it’s the current system of schooling, rather than reintroducing the tripartite system that May now wants to take to another level.  So campaigns against ‘the grammars’ will want to offer a wider perspective.  Rather than simply being defensive, they will want to include positive alternative policies for how schools as a whole should be organised and how accountability and local democracy can be restored – the current system is not the one that the post-war comprehensive school reformers fought for. 

A good general education for everybody

The Guardian (Editorial February 20th) has now joined the attack on University Technology Colleges* correctly arguing that directing ‘non-academic’ students’ onto a vocational curriculum at 14 – what it terms ‘backdoor selection’ – is wrong.

Some five years after Alison Wolf’s review had slammed many qualifications for being ‘worthless’ in the labour market, the paper likens the low status of vocational education, compared with academic learning, to the old grammar and secondary modern divide and calls for specialisation to be delayed until 16. This is now what the government intends as it seeks to rebuild what the paper  describes as a ‘beleaguered’ vocational system through its Post-16 Skills Plan.

Redrawing the line of divide at 16 through the creation of a new technical route has led to alarm bells about the dilapidated state of the further education sector and the need for a major injection of funding. Nobody would dispute this, but what can be disputed is whether we need a vocational pathway at all? Employers have never taken it seriously and have continued to select recruits on performance in academic subjects, while significant numbers of young people with vocational qualifications continue to use them as alternative routes into higher education rather than to develop employment skills. With major changes in the occupational structure, particularly the collapse of ‘middling’ and technician level employment it’s even more questionable whether these sorts of qualifications are required.

Instead, surely young people need a good general education?  Current academic qualifications do not provide this and it’s these that need to be reformed, rather than vocational courses. But the nature and basis of academic learning is rarely challenged, not least because most of those concerned with education policy and curriculum development have benefitted from the status and security that it has provided for them.  Academics and educational professionals are very good at designing and redesigning vocational courses for other people’s children but are reluctant to visit their own back yard.