Will a whole class will have to stay behind?
June 28, 2015 4 Comments
Social class still determines most people’s life experiences in the UK.
Inequality in wealth, health, social networks and the contrasts between privilege and poverty are marked, as shown in an OECD report of February 2015: Income inequality data update and policies impacting income distribution. The Equality Trust has also published a recent report, The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK, which shows that:
- The poorest 20% of society have only 8% of the total income, whereas the top 20% have 41%.
- The richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50% own just 9.5%.
Definitions of social class might have changed over the years, but it is evident that educational experience and achievement is closely linked with people’s likely prosperity and well-being. The Teach First charity’s website explains:
In the UK, the link between low socio-economic background and poor educational attainment is greater than in almost any other developed country.
Educational inequality starts early, before a child even starts school. Figures show a one year gap in ‘school readiness’ between 3-year-olds, and a 15 month gap in vocabulary development between 5-year-olds, in the richest and poorest families.
And the gap doesn’t stop there. It continues and widens throughout school and has an impact throughout a child’s life. At GCSE level, nearly 50% of children claiming free school meals school meals achieve no passes above a D grade.
All of this has a knock-on effect on future earnings – the more you learn, the more you earn. In fact, over the course of a lifetime, a graduate from a Russell Group university will earn on average £371,000 more than someone who left school with fewer than 5 good GCSEs.
Lifelong learning is for everyone, but some have more catching up to do than others and more obstacles in their way. Adult education, including access to part-time learning, has been a proven way to deal with some of this inequality, giving people chances to improve their prospects, whatever their background or previous educational achievement. Family learning can lead parents to more rewarding lives and also break into the cycle of educational disadvantage for their children during their early years of learning,
The benefits of adult learning are well-evidenced but the further and adult education sectors are under seige as consecutive rounds of cuts devastate colleges.
Austerity is blamed.
We had austerity after the second world war, but the response was different. Working-class MPs such as Aneurin Bevan, Manny Shinwell and Bessie Braddock were colourful figures in the post-war Labour government. They championed the rights of working class people and applied their direct experience of life. The welfare state and the NHS were formed during this time of severe economic challenge and the 1944 Education Act introduced free secondary education for all. Several politicians and policy advisors of that era were involved in adult education movements such as the WEA.
So why don’t more of today’s politicians see FE and adult education as priorities? As politics have become more exclusive, is there a widening gulf of understanding between politicians and many of their constituents whose lives and educational experiences are very different from their own? Of course, adult learning has some political support across all political parties. It’s interesting that politicians such as Vince Cable and David Lammy, who have expressed unsolicited support for adult education, cite personal experience of their families benefiting from adult learning.
A Sutton Trust report, Parliamentary Privilege, from February 2015 assessed the educational background of Parliamentary candidates.
- Almost a third of new candidates who were set to stand in May’s General Election with a reasonable chance of winning were privately educated.
- 49% of Conservative candidates and 19% of Labour candidates were privately educated, compared to 7% of the population.
- 55% of candidates went to Russell Group universities, with 19% attending Oxbridge.
Who is representing people who rely on – or want the chance of fulfillment offered by – further and adult education?
It’s easy to have a pop at politicians and probably unproductive. Being an MP is an unattractive job for many people, with constant, often very personal, public criticism. It must be very disheartening to be a conviction politician in a social media age. We need better channels for constructive dialogue with them, or to use existing channels such as MPs’ surgeries more effectively. Our job is to convince them of the current strategy’s risks and that there is an alternative to cuts. Their job is to understand their constituents’ lives and to work on their behalf to improve them.
The irony of cutting FE courses is that it is likely to halt any fragile progress towards a more classless and equal society. The worst case scenario is that a whole class, already thwarted by their earlier educational and life experiences, will have to stay behind, even though other, more ambitious, approaches have been successful in a previous time of austerity.