Locked into poverty: Britain’s political choice

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has been in Britain. He described a country in which ‘areas of immense wealth’ exist uncomfortably alongside areas of acute deprivation, characterized by cash-strapped and overstretched public services, rough sleepers and food banks, where millions of children are ‘locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping’. His report pulled few punches. A fifth of the British population – 14 million people – live in poverty, with 1.5 million destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. By 2022, child poverty rates are projected to be as high as 40 per cent. ‘For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace,’ he wrote, ‘but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one’. Worst of all, and most importantly, he pointed out that all of this was a political choice, the result of ‘mean-spirited, often callous policies’ about which the British government remains ‘determinedly in a state of denial’.

The reality described by Philip Alston will, I suspect, be familiar to most people living in Britain. Food banks are now commonplace, as are families who rely on them. The Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank network, handed out 1.2 million food parcels to families and individuals in need in 2016-17. The Independent Food Aid Network estimates that there are more that 2,000 food banks in operation around the UK. Homelessness has also increased significantly since 2010, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), with a 60 per cent rise in the number of homeless families (including 120,540 children), driven, the NAO said, by government welfare reforms. The shocking rise in the number of rough sleepers is evident in every town and city in the country. Work is no longer a sure-fire route out of poverty. Some 60 per cent of people in poverty in Britain are in working families, often struggling with debt and poor housing, sometimes doing multiple jobs to make ends meet. It is a similar story for many of those living just above the poverty line, juggling low-paid, low-quality and insecure work, combining long hours with demanding family commitments and living in impoverished neighbourhoods where hope is in short supply. All of this – the poverty, the job insecurity, the homelessness, the stress and hardship of low-paid work, and, perhaps most of all, the absence of hope of things getting any better – are feeding Britain’s growing mental health crisis, not to mention the slow-down in life expectancy the UK is experiencing. These are all signs of a society in crisis.

Professor Alston’s analysis of the causes of this crisis are similarly hard-hitting. ‘Austerity’, he argues, has been driven not by a commitment to economic reform (the ‘living within our means’ mantra) but rather ‘a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering’, a ‘revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it’. ‘Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned,’ he continues. ‘In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty’. Local authorities, especially in England, ‘have been gutted by a series of government policies’, effectively halving their funding and preventing them from playing their vital role as a ‘social safety net’. Libraries, meanwhile, ‘have closed in record numbers, community and youth centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold off.’ The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately on the poor, women, ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities, the same groups likely to be hit hardest by Brexit.

In his conversations with ministers, Professor Alston encountered a combination of ignorance, disbelief and indifference, a refusal to accept that in-work poverty exists and an unwillingness even to engage with the issues in a serious way. He will not, therefore, have been surprised by the reactions of the Prime Minister’s office, which said that Mrs May ‘strongly disagreed’ with the findings, or the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, who declared the report to be ‘political’ and couched in ‘inappropriate’ language. These reactions were predictable, perhaps inevitable from a government which has carefully spun a number of myths about itself, notably the myth that austerity has been unavoidable, a necessary measure justified by the need to save the country from bankruptcy in the wake of the previous (Labour) government’s overspending on schools, hospitals and social care. This narrative has a powerful hold on the public’s imagination in Britain, where a substantial proportion of the electorate believes that decent schools for all and a well-funded health service are unaffordable, despite the very obvious examples to the contrary offered by neighbouring northern European countries. Professor Alston challenges this narrative, arguing that the reforms were neither necessary nor, in purely economic terms, effective. While billions have been taken from the benefits system since 2010, they have been offset by the costs created elsewhere as underfunded hospitals, mental health centres, local authorities and police forces attempt to deal with the problems created. ‘Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so,’ Professor Alston writes in the conclusion of his report. ‘Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.’ Little wonder the government would rather attack the language and political nature of the report than deal with its substance.

The findings of the UN envoy represent a wake-up call and should prompt urgent action and a substantive change of direction from the government. Sadly, this seems unlikely from a government that is so in thrall to the fantasy narrative it has created that it is prepared to legislate against problems it knows do not exist, while allowing real problems such as poverty, probably the biggest challenge we now face as a society, to fester, unchecked. Nevertheless, the report represents an opportunity to take stock of where we have come to and to consider whether we really want to continue along this road. It can be read as a sort of draft manifesto for positive change in Britain. Alongside the misery of child poverty, the calamity of homelessness and the personal tragedy of women forced to sell sex for money or shelter, Professor Alston also recognised ‘tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbors supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services’. These are all things on which we can build, but I fear it will be to little avail if we are unable to create a different political narrative for Britain, one in which voters are not blinded by a false choice between austerity and bankruptcy. This is hugely difficult in a country increasingly divided by class, political perspective and geography, but it is essential that we find ways of talking to one another across these divides, of developing a meaningful consensus based on shared values. We need to decide who we want to be.

Poverty and inequality make these conversations difficult. Part of the reason poverty is so little reported is that it is simply not a factor in the lives of most leading journalists, who are drawn increasingly from backgrounds of privilege. Unsurprisingly, millions of people in Britain now feel wholly unrepresented by the media, their voices unheard, their views – or a caricature of them – routinely attacked or ridiculed. They feel acutely the ‘disconnect’ Professor Alston refers to between their own lived experience and the rhetoric of government ministers. As economically and socially damaging as Brexit is likely to be, it may also be an opportunity to reassess. We surely do not want to go further down the line of cutting back on public services, welfare, workers’ rights and conditions, in order to fund further tax cuts for the wealthy. This option is on the table and is, as I write, a strong possibility, but it would be a disaster on an unprecedented scale, a bonfire of Beveridge and the welfare state and a shredding of the social contract that has been weakened by stealth by successive governments. We need to find ways to mend this fabric, restoring the role of local authorities in fostering community and connection, reversing the appalling loss of important public spaces such as libraries, community centres and adult education centres and creating opportunities for people to access education that is not narrowly about training for a job. We need to revive education for democracy, for public value, citizenship and a good society. The government has been fond of telling us it will not pass on the legacy of debt to future generations. Instead, it seems set to pass on something immeasurably worse, an impoverished and divided society, shorn of its values and compassion, in which privilege is hoarded and poverty is a life sentence. It is about choice. I hope Britain makes the right one.

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Education and Britain’s inequality crisis

Britain has an inequality problem. It is probably the biggest problem it faces and it is getting worse. Increasingly, how long you live in Britain depends on where you live. Life expectancy has stalled since 2010 and in some cases has gone into reverse. People living in rich parts of Kensington and Chelsea can now expect to live on average 16 years longer than their poorer neighbours in the same council area. Wage growth has stalled for all but the already very rich, whose salaries continue to soar (executive pay went up 11 per cent last year alone). The mean pay ratio between FTSE 100 CEOs and the mean pay package of their employees was 145:1 in 2017 (compared to 128:1 in 2016). Income inequality, already higher in Britain than in almost all other European countries, is growing. Work in Britain is no longer an effective defence against poverty. One in eight workers live in poverty – 3.7 million – and, of the 12 million working-age adults and children in poverty, 8 million live in families where at least one person is in work. Meanwhile, a fractured and self-contradicting government, tied up in introspective knots as it steers the country towards a Brexit outcome that only a minority of right-wing zealots want and that will worsen the lives of the worst-off still further, has no answers and seemingly no interest in doing anything about it. 

Britain looks increasingly like a country in need of an intervention. We are locked in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour, aware of the harm we do ourselves and others but seemingly unable to stop doing it. Politicians often talk about the problems Britain faces, commissions are set up and inquiries launched, critics are co-opted and reports published, often with the best of intentions – but there is no appetite in government to deal with the underlying causes, or even to talk about them openly. And for much of the mainstream media, the day-to-day struggles of people living with poverty are simply off-radar – a foreign country which, in the best English tradition, they would rather sneer at than try to understand. We are, increasingly, in denial about who we are and where we are going, puffed up by self-delusion and beset by imaginary bogeymen, frequently mistaking our friends for our enemies. We need to acknowledge this and begin talking honestly about the challenges we face. The starting point for any intervention – and the first step to recovery – is acceptance: we must, first of all, accept that we have a problem with inequality and that we are, as a society and as individuals, in crisis because of it. We also need to accept that none of this is inevitable – it is the result of the choices we have made – and that we can change it.

It is increasingly clear that the inequality crisis means that very many people in Britain now face difficulties that make their lives unmanageable. Inequality, as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson show in their new book The Inner Level, is not just about material goods and wealth; it ‘eats into the heart of our immediate, personal world’, increasing the social distance between people and making us ill at ease with each other, becoming, in short, ‘the enemy between us’. They point to evidence from a Mental Health Foundation Survey, which found that 74 per cent of adults in the UK were so stressed at times in the past year that they felt ‘overwhelmed and unable to cope’, with one-third reporting suicidal thoughts. Socioeconomic inequality ‘strengthens the belief that some people are worth much more than others’, they say. ‘In more unequal societies we come to judge each other more by status and worry more about how others judge us … [Inequality] increases status anxiety in all income groups, from the poorest ten per cent to the richest tenth’. This can take the form of ‘lack of confidence, feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem’, resulting in ‘high levels of depression and anxiety in more unequal societies’ and leading to greater alcohol and substance abuse. Those living in relative poverty, no matter what their material living standards, tend to experience a feeling of failure and a ‘strong sense of shame and self-loathing’, while the rich tend to flaunt their worth and achievements, to ‘self-enhance’; and ‘become narcissistic’. Interestingly, Pickett and Wilson report, more unequal societies are also more likely to have high levels of personal debt as people ‘try to show that they are not “second-class people” by owning “first-class things”’.

Inequality is corrupting, in all sorts of ways. Not only is it a driver of depression, alcohol and substance dependency, debt and acquisitiveness, it is also inimical to the health of our democracy, allowing the wealthy to exercise a disproportionate influence over government and its institutions. As the Economist reports, the political influence of the rich tends to increase as inequality grows – they are able to spend more on political donations and are much more likely to have regular personal contact with elected officials. More insidiously, they have the power to shape public opinion, through ownership of media outlets, the financing of ‘nominally apolitical think tanks’, and so on. These efforts are sometimes ‘used to influence the result of a particular vote’, such as the vote on Britain’s EU membership. However, ‘it is often deployed more subtly, to shape public narratives about which problems deserve attention’, focusing attention on matters of ‘social order’, such as crime and immigration, rather than issues of economic justice.

Inequality also inhibits social mobility – the gaps between the rungs of the ladder make the risks of failure that much greater, and make education a high-stakes, high-risk endeavour, which incentivises system-gaming of one form or another. This means that the wealthy are better able to monopolise positions of power and influence within society, something that is exacerbated by systems of first-rung internships and the prohibitive costs of living in London. This, in turn, helps ensure that senior positions in the media are dominated by people from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, pushing the lives and concerns of working-class people still further down the news agenda. Much of the bias this creates is unintentional. The appalling neglect of further education and technical qualifications in the national media, for example, is down as much to ignorance (they are for ‘other people’s children’) as it is to a deliberate policy of exclusion.

We seem to be approaching what Danny Dorling describes as ‘peak inequality’, a situation where ‘the town you live in is so segregated that the school-aged children do not mix – not between schools, not socially, not at all. Peak inequality is where the best-off people in your workplace demand “housing allowances” because they could not possibly live near those who clean their workplace, or those who ensure the photocopier works, or who keep the computer servers working night and day.’ If this situation is not immediately familiar to you, you probably do not live in Britain. As Dorling notes, inequality now ‘pervades every aspect of our lives in Britain in ways we now accept as normal’. We see it in our over-crowded railway carriages (and often near-empty first-class carriages), in our under-funded public services, our impoverished schools and hospitals, our booming (and publicly subsidised) private-school sector, our shabby, sometimes derelict public spaces and the ongoing ‘cleansing’ of old working-class neighbourhoods. Inequality is everywhere. It is saddening to see how accustomed we have become to political failure, to things no civilised society should tolerate.

So, what can we do to change things? Education has a crucial, underpinning role to play, although it is only one part of the story. To really change things, we need a huge shift in political will, backed by a broad national consensus about the kind of society we want to be. Such change would inevitably involve a substantial redistribution of wealth, a reduction in health inequalities and a properly funded health service, fairer pay and greater pay equality (with curbs on soaring executive pay, which has leached also into the public sector), and more affordable housing. But education can often be the start of such change, which is why I attach so much importance to it. Specific educational interventions can make a big difference. I want to talk about three.

First, we need to level the educational playing field to ensure equal opportunities for all. Britain is a complete outlier internationally in deliberately perpetuating a two-tier school education system, in which the majority of wealthy parents send their children to private schools, where they meet other privileged children and greatly improve their chances of attending an elite university and being successful later in life, and the rest send their children either to a state-supported selective school (often dependent on living in the right area, access to academic coaching, etc) or to a ‘bog-standard’ state school, which, like the parents who send their children there, is likely to be struggling to provide basic educational necessities for their kids. The current government has deliberately exacerbated an already bad situation, by reducing real-terms funding for state schools while finding extra money for selective schools to expand. Astonishingly, and in the face of all evidence, ministers implementing these policies claim to be acting to promote social mobility. This is an example of the kind of Orwellian doublespeak now routinely employed in government departments, and it is a particularly bare-faced example. The reality of their policies is a reinforcement of social inequality, selection based on class or wealth, with middle-class parents (who have the knowledge and resources to do it) incentivised to game the system in favour of their children, panic among parents desperate to get the best option available for their kids, and greater consciousness of failure in selective areas among children who have not made it to a selective school (in effect, the presence of a selective school turns neighbouring state-maintained schools into ‘secondary moderns’). The great irony of this is that all of it, including the elite private-school system, is subsidised by ordinary tax-payers. Getting poor people to pay for this must rank among the greatest con-tricks on public opinion of all time.

The term ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ was coined by Tony Blair’s attack dog in chief, Alastair Campbell, to justify his government’s promotion of specialist schools and academies. Subsequent Conservative-led governments have reinforced this rhetoric, emphasising choice and diversity rather than uniformity of quality, and systematically reducing the funding available for the education of ‘other people’s children’. It became perfectly clear, particularly under Michael Gove – the worst, most arrogant and irresponsible education secretary in living memory – that the life chances of poorer children were a price worth paying for the government’s experiments in selective education and their attacks on ‘the blob’, the rump of experts, academics and teachers trying to educate kids in spite of the mess created by Gove and his moronic acolytes. Parents want choice, we were/are told. But in fact parents want nothing of the sort. What they want is bog-standard schools – schools that are of a bog-standard high quality and offer the same opportunities to every child – and a system that is fair for everyone, no matter where they live or how wealthy they are.

Uniformity of quality in school education is generally regarded as rather a good thing in countries other than Britain. No-one minds sending their kids to a ‘bog-standard’ school when the standard is uniformly good. When I moved to Hamburg a couple of years ago, people looked at me uncomprehendingly when I asked where the best schools in the city were located. Generally speaking, they told me, they are all good. There is no mainstream private school alternative and the social mix of state schools reflects that. The parents of the children in my son’s school include neurosurgeons, architects, GPs, teachers, nurses, lawyers, police, retail workers and cleaners – not a mix you would find in many British schools where social segregation is, for the most part, the norm. The reason for this is that the British education system has developed to perpetuate privilege rather than to challenge it, to compound advantage and to stifle equality of opportunity rather than to promote it. If we had set out from scratch to design a system for just this purpose, it would look something like the system we now have. To change this we need to follow the example set by Finland, as set out by Melissa Benn in her excellent Guardian ‘long read’, by abolishing divisive, privilege-entrenching fee-paying schools and establishing a genuinely nationwide comprehensive system. The reforms in Finland, as Benn notes, helped close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students and turned Finland ‘into one of the global educational success stories of the modern era’. With sufficient political will, we could achieve this in Britain too. The best and surest way to improve our education system and ensure it is fair and well-funded is to have a single system in which every parent is equally invested. We would soon see public funding for schools rise. Taking away the multi-million pound state subsidy for private schools and redirecting it to struggling state schools would be a step in the right direction, but it is nowhere near enough.

My second intervention is to increase support for those who have already been through compulsory education to improve their lives and prospects and those of their families, particularly their children. The past two decades have seen a remarkable erosion in opportunities for adults to learn, whether in the community, in work, in further education colleges or at university. It is important that this decline is reversed, and in a way that acknowledges the importance of wider learning: learning that makes us more creative, confident, ambitious, resilient and sensitised to learning, as well as work-ready. Adults who have been failed by our faulty and systemically unfair education system deserve a second chance. This is crucial not only for them but also for their families. Parents are desperate to support their children through school but many lack the knowledge, skills and confidence to do so. Working-class parents in particular often still bear the scars of their school education: some need support with basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, others, labelled ‘thick’ or ‘stupid’ at school, find the classroom a scary, intimidating place. These are all issues they need to overcome to engage fully in their children’s education. This is why I think family learning is a particularly useful intervention, and something that should be a much more recognised – and much better funded – feature of our educational terrain. It not only provides parents with a powerful incentive to engage in learning, often for the first time since school, but has also been shown to have a substantial positive impact on the attainment of their children. When it comes to pupil performance, there really is no substitute for parental engagement. And when it comes to adult engagement, there really is no more compelling motive than the desire to better support our children.

Family Connections, a Belfast-based project funded by the children’s charity, Barnardo’s, provides an excellent example of how family learning works. The project takes as its premise the idea that ‘children will do better at school if their parents are involved in their education’ and aims to build ‘the capacity of parents to embed learning in the home environment’. It has four main complementary and connected strands: work with children; work with parents; work with children and parents; and work with community. Each strand reinforces the others, inspiring kids and parents alike, and supporting them in creating the sorts of rich learning environments more-privileged children can take for granted. This kind of support is critical in enabling children to do well in education. It can be as simple a matter as reading with a child. Reading for pleasure has been found to be an even more important predictor of future educational success than socio-economic background, and home environment is the critical factor in fostering this. Research also suggests that if we can get more people reading we can increase empathy, improve their relationships with others, reduce symptoms of depression and improve wellbeing. The value of family learning includes but, importantly, goes beyond improved educational achievements for children and parents, and includes well-attested benefits in terms of confidence, self-esteem, motivation, self-efficacy, health and well-being, employability and increased community involvement. Despite the well-documented benefits, funding for family learning has been in decline.

A third and, for me, absolutely critical intervention is to invest in people’s civic and political education. We need to revive spaces in which people can come together and discuss the things that matter to them and their communities and we need to revive the tradition of education for active citizenship, which has been part and parcel of the British adult education system for well over a century (though it has been in deep retreat for several decades). People need to find a way out of their algorithmic echo chambers, to find means of locating common ground with others, including, especially, those they disagree with. Rather that hurling insults across the cyber divide we should be seeking out common spaces in which to exchange ideas, persuade and discuss – spaces in which, in Hannah Arendt’s words, we can ‘think against the grain of received opinion … question and challenge [and] imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives’. Democratic governments have a responsibility to support this, as do the leaders of all educational institutions in receipt of public funding. It is, for example, a crucial, though neglected, part of the mission of our universities. We can learn here from Sweden, where adult education came to be seen as an essential part of ‘building democracy from below’ and of including and empowering excluded members of the population. As Magnus Dahlstedt puts it, ‘adult education was understood as a domain of democratic fostering’ whereby ‘adult learners learn how engage in a debate, listen to other’s arguments’ and are, by participating, ‘fostered into democratic citizens’. This tradition is still alive in Sweden though it is largely forgotten in Britain, where, not so long ago, it was the primary concern of adult educators, and from where the Swedish model took much of its early inspiration. Raymond Williams described it as the ‘central ambition’ of the adult education movement in Britain, ‘to be part of the process of social change’ rather than just a consequence of it.

Renewing this neglected part of our educational tradition is particularly challenging but I think it is of growing importance, given current threats to democracy, the polarising effects of social media and the distorting mirror our unrepresentative and unaccountable media, dominated by private interests and private money, holds up to reality. As a society, we desperately need to have an informed, open and collegial conversation about the sort of society we want to be, not more self-defeating group-think. Do we want to continue subsidising private schools to the tune of millions of pounds while funding for state education is cut? Do we want a two-tier education system in which opportunity is so unevenly and unfairly distributed, to the extent that we routinely write off the chances of half the school-leaving population? Do we really want to continue running our public services down, hollowing out local government and under-funding health services, while the already wealthy take more and more to the point where they can afford to turn a blind eye to the civic vandalism taking place all around them? What is our collective vision for the future of the country post-Brexit? These are important questions that we need to ask ourselves that concern actual choices, not facts of life or unchangeable laws of national life. At this crucial point in British history, we need an informed, national and local conversation, supported by civic and political education.

Our failure on inequality is in part a failure of the imagination – a failure to think differently or to believe things can be different. It is also a failure of values, conscience, courage, optimism and critical thinking. The statistics quoted at the start of the article have become depressingly normal, as have the excuses, the pretence that inequality is either inevitable or justified by the superior talents of the rich. We have grown accustomed to the idea that we cannot possibly have the nice things the Scandinavians, or for that matter the French or Germans, take for granted – decent state schools in every neighbourhood, a good, inexpensive transport infrastructure, pleasant, well-maintained public spaces, a well-functioning health service, an education which does not load poorer students with a lifetime of debt. But inequality is not inevitable – it is the result of political choice and it can be changed. To change things, we need real political will and vision from government, as well as a willingness to talk frankly about what the challenges are and what options are available to us, including, crucially, the option to do things differently. One reason for people’s alienation from politics is that, in most cases, this latter option simply does not seem to be on the table. We need to empower people to play their own part in shaping the country of the future. Years of ideologically driven austerity, tolerance of outrageous pay inequality, the neglect of working-class communities around the country, a profoundly cynical and undemocratic media and our continuing support for an education system that compounds privilege have brought us to crisis point. But what happens next is in our own hands. We can continue down the current road, ignoring the warning signs and allowing the poison of poverty and inequality to spread, or we can turn around and go in another direction. I very much hope we will do the latter.

Ways of making sense: Adult education and democracy

What would Britain be like if the governing principle of policy-making was to ensure the maintenance of a well-functioning democracy in which everyone had an equal opportunity to belong, have a say and be successful? Clearly, it would be a radically different society to the one in which we live now. For one thing, it would be a society with a clearly defined and well-understood social contract, a wide consensus that adequate public funds should be collected to support a range of basic services essential to human flourishing, and that they should be supported at a decent level. This would mean a clear-headed and informed commitment from those with the most to give up a greater share of what they have in order to maintain good-quality schools, hospitals, libraries, infrastructure, etc. And it would imply a political culture in which it was possible to propose increased investment in public services without being told that your plans will bankrupt the country or lead to communism. This imagined Britain would probably also be a place where economic considerations did not overrule all others and where leaders who espouse views inimical to our own commitment to democracy and decency would be challenged rather than courted. Finally, and importantly, it would be a society in which a far wider value was attached to education and where adult education, widely conceived, was recognized as essential to the successful functioning of democratic society, and supported appropriately.

I was thinking about these issues in relation to Brexit and the UK’s 2016 referendum on membership of the EU. The referendum was a hugely flawed democratic exercise, notable for the well-documented interference of a foreign power bent on undermining European unity, obscure and extremely shady funding arrangements, the breaking of electoral law (by the Vote Leave campaign), the misuse of private data, the complete absence of any programme for delivering a workable Brexit, and the outright lies and distortions of senior politicians and press supporters, mostly in the cause of leaving the EU. It also managed to deliver perhaps the worst possible result, from a democratic perspective: a 52/48 per cent split in the vote. This made the genuine will of the people impossible to discern, particularly as a very substantial majority either voted against leaving the EU or did not feel sufficiently exercised by the matter to vote at all. It was not helpful either that the question presented to the British public was simplistic to the point of being purposefully stupid. In such circumstances, perhaps the worst thing a government could do would be simply and uncritically to take that verdict as the will of the people and ignore the concerns of close to half of those who bothered to vote. Yet not only has the government resolutely pursued this line, making zero attempt to find a compromise or a way of addressing the will of the 48 per cent, still less to launch a national conversation on the matter, it seems now set on a course that will deliver a ‘no deal’ Brexit, with the Prime Minister unable to command support within her party for a deal that would be acceptable to the EU and reduced to putting forward a plan she doesn’t believe in, in full knowledge that it will be rejected.

The referendum was called by David Cameron in order to bring peace among warring factions of the British Conservative Party. Instead, it gave extremists within the party the opportunity to take their fight to a larger stage, where it is the future of the country, rather than just a political party, that is at stake. Still more troublingly, that struggle has been effectively hijacked by Putin’s Russia and other interests determined to break up the EU. As he has in America, Putin has supported and forged links with racist politicians and other populist forces at national level in the UK to challenge and undermine national and international democratic institutions and structures. While the extent of Russian influence is unclear, there can be no doubt that Putin will be delighted with the outcomes both of the last US presidential election and the UK EU referendum, as well as with the chaos that has ensued from both. The remarkable spectacle of a US president, fresh from humiliating a feeble and flailing UK Prime Minister determined to forge a trade deal at any cost (including to her dignity and that of her office), publicly taking the word of a corrupt and murderous autocrat above that of his own intelligence service, was perhaps the most notable milestone to date in the decline of western liberal democracy.

Democracy is being challenged by new forms of autocratic government, abetted by a foolish, disreputable and reckless US president and a feckless and divided UK government (and opposition), which is drifting away from Europe without map or rudder at a time when democracies (if that is what they are and want to be) desperately need to stand together and defend their values. All of this is symptomatic not only of the rise of populism around the world but of the failure of western democracies to defend their values adequately at home. The UK is a case in point. Over the past decade, the language of fascism has been allowed to creep back into British political discourse, while dangerous, ill-founded and racist views have been given a platform in the mainstream media without sufficient critical challenge. This is perhaps no big surprise when it comes to much of the right-learning press, which has pumped out xenophobic and anti-EU bile for decades (and, of course, the Daily Mail has form when it comes to backing fascists). But the BBC too must take a large share of the blame for its uncritical, evidence-free presentation of opposing views and for the repeated exposure it has given to the likes of Nigel Farage, without challenging their views or credibility, or asking where their funding and support comes from. Perhaps more importantly, though, most politicians and most of the media have been prepared to quietly write off the hopes of communities around the country and the people who live in them. It is ironic that these neglected communities in voting to leave the EU have invested their faith in people who very largely see their lives and futures as wholly acceptable collateral damage in their efforts to stick it to the EU, cut workers’ rights, dismantle the NHS, keep their party together, avoid EU tax scrutiny or further their desire for power (please select as appropriate).

Watching all of this unfold can be an incredibly disempowering and isolating experience. This is particularly so if you are poorly informed or lack the capacity or opportunity to really engage critically with what is going on. For far too long, as a society, we have failed to take seriously the notion that an engaged and well-informed citizenry is the best route to a flourishing, resilient democracy and the best defence against its erosion by malign internal and external forces. This came home to me while reading about the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), a remarkable experiment in education and democracy that developed – under the inspired guidance of social entrepreneur W.E. Williams – during the Second World War. It was established in 1941 by the War Office to provide weekly current affairs talks and discussions for service people, led by regimental officers and supported by the fortnightly publication of pamphlets on issues ‘of topical and universal importance’. These sessions included discussion of alternative ways of organising society and were supplemented by a scheme to provide military personnel with three hours of compulsory education per week, one hour for military training, one for general subjects and personal interest, and one for education in citizenship. Williams felt strongly that serving men and women should not only have access to basic information about the war, but also have the opportunity to take part in the discussions that would shape the country that emerged from the conflict. This was, in the words of General Sir Ronald Adam, President of the British Institute of Adult Education, ‘a great manifestation of democratic faith’. It demonstrated both a remarkable trust in the capacity of ordinary people to contribute to the future shape of post-war Britain (through Churchill personally intervened to block a paper on the Beveridge Report being published) and a lived commitment to raising political awareness to stimulate democratic engagement.

This understanding of education as a vital support to participatory democracy has been part and parcel of the adult education movement in Britain since the 1919 Report and earlier, in the commitment of the Workers’ Educational Association to ‘true education’ which ‘directly induces thought’. This has been intermittently recognised by government across the decades but this recognition has become increasingly rhetorical, as funding has been systematically redirected to adult education for basic skills and employability, and education for wider purposes has been cut, ruthlessly, by successive governments, but particularly under the austerity-themed governments of Cameron and May. Adult participation in further and higher education has been in freefall while many of the spaces in which non-formal adult education has traditionally taken place, such as public libraries and community centres, have disappeared with the savage reductions in public support for local government. We often hear about the public’s diminishing faith in politicians and the political process, but little is said of the corresponding decline in politicians’ faith in the public: to make decisions about their country’s future, to decide what is best for them educationally, to exercise meaningful, informed choice at elections or to engage meaningfully with political decision-making within their own communities. Both these trends nourish and support each other, creating a downward spiral in mutual esteem and respect that is (as we have found) extremely harmful to democracy and the political process. I spoke recently to a Swedish academic who expressed surprise that in the run-up to the EU referendum there had been no attempt to stimulate engagement through adult education – this, he said, had been the case in Sweden in the run-up to the 2003 referendum on membership of the Euro. It was also characteristic of the lively build up to the referendum on Scottish independence, where local authorities, adult education providers and civil society groups took the initiative in creating spaces in which discussion on key issues could take place. Instead of promoting this kind of meaningful engagement, both leave and remain campaigns plumped for a mixture of lies, fear-mongering and mud-slinging, with a spot of Nazi-inspired, racist propagandising thrown in for good measure. What should have been an opportunity to stimulate a genuine national debate was squandered in the cause of jingoism and complacency.

The loss of critical and creative adult education spaces has never been more keenly felt. With much of the adult education infrastructure systematically dismantled we face a long, upward struggle to reconceptualise adult education as something more than a source of basic and workplace skills. We are some way from the Swedish example, where the links between adult education and democracy are acknowledged and the infrastructure for a campaign of mass adult education exists. But perhaps the current vacuum in British politics created by Brexit, in which the government does not govern and the opposition no longer opposes, also creates a space for other alternative ways of doing democracy. The Swedish study circle model, in which adult learners come together to share views on a particular topic and to learn from one another, is an excellent example, fostering both democratic engagement and inclusion. If we are serious about education for active citizenship, then education must go beyond simply describing what democratic citizenship is about – it must give people the opportunity to participate in democratic deliberation, recognising this as a signifier of inclusion in a democratic society, while acknowledging that democracy’s mutable nature requires continuous engagement, as well as constant vigilance. Adult education can create spaces for attentiveness and remembering, where cynicism can be challenged, hope fostered and preconceptions overturned. It encourages agency, critical thinking and respect for others and their opinions. In times when democratic values and institutions are under attack and ‘alternative facts’ vie with the truth for airtime, learning can be the basis of resistance and simple connection with others can be a revolutionary act. As the wartime pioneers of adult education realised, when darkness is closing in around us, education is the bright hope that can guide us to another place.

The instrumentalist turn

Book review: UNESCO’s Utopia of Lifelong Learning: An Intellectual History by Maren Elfert

This fascinating and highly readable book describes how the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) shaped the notion of lifelong learning and promoted its adoption as a global educational paradigm. It offers an account of UNESCO’s utopian thinking about lifelong learning and the forces that shaped this, while also considering critically the tensions and ideological challenges that resulted in the prevalence, globally and at country level, of a less-than-utopian, instrumentalist approach to lifelong learning some distance from the expansive humanism of its early theorists.

It is a book that Maren Elfert is, perhaps, uniquely qualified to write. As she notes in her introduction, she worked for many years for the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) during which time she ‘became increasingly troubled by the gap between UNESCO’s humanistic discourse and the reality of “results-based management”’. One manifestation of this, she notes, was the demand of funders for a narrow, instrumental approach to projects which left little room for the organic development of the work and treated human beings ‘as means rather than ends in the teaching and learning process’. This approach, she found, ‘contradicted the humanism and the concept of education as a human right that UNESCO propagates’.

The dissonance Elfert identifies between these two distinct perspectives, and her evident, keenly felt discomfort with it, is the fuel for the book. I suspect that Elfert’s unease will resonate with many readers and not only those who work in lifelong learning at an international level. In more than a decade working for NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) in the UK, I witnessed the dramatic narrowing of policy-makers’ thinking about adult education and lifelong learning, and experienced the sharp contrast between the warm, expansive language used by politicians to talk about lifelong learning and the depressing instrumentalism of their actions. These actions, in which all three main UK political parties were complicit, resulted in a profound and sustained constriction in adults’ opportunities to learn, and the destruction of much of the lifelong learning infrastructure that had been many decades in the making. Another casualty of diminishing political support for lifelong learning broadly conceived was NIACE itself, and while its successor organisation, the Learning and Work Institute (the result of a merger between NIACE and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion), continues to include lifelong learning within its remit, the loss of a distinctive, dedicated voice has been keenly felt.

Elfert describes the evolution of UNESCO’s thinking about education from the immediate post-war period, when the organisation was founded, through the publication of its two landmark reports on lifelong learning (Learning to Be and Learning: The Treasure Within) to present-day economistic approaches to lifelong learning. Much of UNESCO’s early thinking about education was spurred by its response to the misuse of education for political purposes during the war and the atrocities to which it contributed. A ‘humanistic and emancipatory approach’ emerged, Elfert writes, that ‘aimed at bringing out the full potential of human beings and enabling them to shape their societies towards greater democratization and social justice’. This utopian strain of thinking saw education as a human right with ‘intrinsic’ value and rejected any form of instrumentalism in education, which is to say, any attempt to subject education to other, extraneous purposes.

Elfert deftly describes how ‘lifelong education’ emerged as an educational paradigm during the 1960s, with much of the impetus deriving from Paul Lengrand who popularised the notion of éducation permanente, in France, as one of the founders of popular education movement Peuple et Culture, and internationally, as head of UNESCO’s adult education department. It was not until the Faure report of 1972, however, that lifelong education was presented as a key organising principle of UNESCO’s work. Faure’s report, Learning to Be, represented ‘the first time the organization launched a report setting out a vision for the future of education globally’, seeking to establish lifelong education as ‘the new global “master concept”’ for education. The report reasserted the ‘humanistic’ vision for education set out by UNESCO’s founders and defended it against what Faure saw as the growing prevalence of an ‘economistic’ worldview in education. It proposed the creation of a ‘learning society’ in which education was available ‘for all throughout life, inside and outside of institutions’. The aim of lifelong education, the argument went, was not merely to produce economically useful workers, but to foster the development of a new type of society, in which opportunities for personal fulfilment and active democratic participation were evenly distributed.

As Elfert describes it, while Faure produced ‘an inspirational document that was ahead of its time’, its immediate influence was limited by a combination of economic recession, political pragmatism and escalating Cold War tensions. It appeared at a moment when neoliberal thinking about education was becoming more and more prevalent and human capital theorists were popularising an understanding of education as, essentially, a tool of economic development. This change was being felt within international organisations such as UNESCO, as well as within nation states, and it wasn’t until 1996, and the publication of Learning: The Treasure Within, better known as the Delors report, that UNESCO again presented so ambitious a statement of the value and wider purposes of lifelong learning. Delors consciously contrasted the position taken in his report with the ideologically alien ‘neoliberal’ thinking that had become politically dominant in Britain and in the United States (under Thatcher and Reagan, respectively). He resisted the idea that education was a means to an economic end, and argued instead for education as a right, a means of supporting people to reach their full potential and of creating a fairer and more socially just society. The report emphasised ‘learning throughout life’ and stressed both its ‘lifelong’ and ‘lifewide’ dimensions, noting the relevance of leaning to all spheres of life. Famously, this vision was expressed in terms of the ‘four pillars of learning’: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together.

While the adult education community received the report favourably, Elfert writes, many critics ‘did not consider it practical enough and criticized it for resorting to “the language of idealism and dreams”’. It was overshadowed by the Education for All agenda, on which it had little impact, and by ‘the hegemony of a neoliberal lifelong learning discourse’. As a result, as Elfert notes, it had ‘negligible’ impact at the level of education policy; it was a ‘non-event’, in the words of Kjell Rubenson. Even within UNESCO, interest in it was ‘short lived’. In the meantime, ‘education moved further down the economistic path, jeopardizing more and more UNESCO’s utopia of a just society’. In a final chapter, Elfert shows that while lifelong learning became an established part of educational discourse around the world, lifelong learning policies ‘display a predominantly economic and instrumental interpretation that focuses on the provision of skills for individuals for job-related purposes, which has little to do with UNESCO’s “maximalist” version of lifelong learning’. The language of rights has been replaced by a discourse of responsibilities – principally, the responsibility to acquire and maintain the skills necessary to be a productive worker. The success of lifelong learning as an important educational paradigm has been achieved at the cost of its ‘revolutionary’ and political aspects.

This attenuated vision of lifelong learning as an endless cycle of training and retraining, shorn of its all-important lifewide dimension, will be familiar to UK readers who will have witnessed the systematic destruction of the country’s once world-leading adult education system over the past two decades. The trend has been exacerbated by a prolonged period of austerity and retrenchment in public spending, in the UK and elsewhere, following the financial crash. For UNESCO, Elfert notes, this climate has resulted in a tension between its ‘humanistic tradition’ and the demands of its donors. Nevertheless, I think she is right to argue for the continuing relevance and importance of the ‘maximalist’ notion of lifelong learning, which both Faure and Delores defend, and to assert its relevance to the ongoing struggle between ‘humanistic-emancipatory’ and ‘technocratic-rationalistic’ worldviews. A Elfert notes, lifelong learning is inextricably bound up with the ‘hope that human beings can change their world for the better’. Current threats to the democratic way of life, and the ongoing transformation of the world of work, certainly seem to point in the direction of a broader notion of lifelong learning, which recognises the importance of creativity, resilience, adaptability, and political and civic understanding. The story Elfert tells is a fascinating and important one, and she tells it wonderfully well. While the subject matter may appear relevant only to a fairly niche audience, I found it directly relatable to the national context in which I worked for many years, in ways that helped illuminate it. It also poses important questions to those who advocate for lifelong learning at an international level. I hope it will be very widely read, as, certainly, it deserves to be.

 

 

Making the connection: Health and adult education

The third Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 3), published by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning in 2016, highlighted the impact of education on health and wellbeing and urged policymakers to strengthen the links between education and health. Adult education, in particular, it reported, had a demonstrable positive impact on:

  • general health, reducing absenteeism at work and in education and enabling people to better fulfil their family and community responsibilities;
  • behaviours and attitudes (e.g. reductions in alcohol consumption and smoking and increased sexual health awareness), stimulating greater personal responsibility for health;
  • life expectancy and an extended period of life without limiting disabilities; and
  • mental health, lowering rates of depression and promoting better coping strategies and greater life satisfaction.

Self-esteem and self-efficacy are other important outcomes of learning, relevant to improved mental health and wellbeing in particular, as highlighted by Cathie Hammond in The wider benefits of Learning: The impact of education on health, family life and social capital (Schuller, Preston, Hammond, Brassett-Grundy and Bynner, 2004). Hammond also reminds us that education and wellbeing need not always have a positive impact on self-esteem and self-efficacy, for example if a student’s experience raises expectations that cannot be met or reinforces negative self-impressions. Nevertheless, the picture overall is an overwhelmingly positive one.

At a societal level, these individual benefits result in increased human capital and more active citizens, a reduction in healthcare costs due to increased use of outpatient care and a decreased use of inpatient care, and a more active, productive, self-reliant population. The benefits are well-evidenced (through the work of the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, for example), yet, in practice, while most countries say they recognise the benefits of adult education to health, few do much to support or promote these benefits, and effective coordination between health and education budgets is rare.

It is increasingly obvious that this needs to change. The cost of healthcare has been a hotly debated topic in the UK in recent weeks, for example, with many questioning whether the NHS funding model is broken and universal, fee healthcare no longer affordable. However, the problems facing the NHS are not unique to the UK’s healthcare funding model. They are typical of all countries where populations are ageing (and, in fact, far from being broken, the direct taxation model remains, according to the King’s Fund, among the most efficient ways to fund healthcare). Nevertheless, with costs rising steeply, something has to give, and endlessly increasing investment in treating illness is not much of a blueprint for the future. With people living and working longer, it is crucially important that countries find ways to coordinate their policies on health, mental health and education, especially adult education.

As GRALE 3 shows, even small investments in education can have large returns for health. Yet in many countries – and certainly in the UK – investment in adult education has been declining. Adult learning is often squeezed out when education budgets are cut and the tendency of policymakers to work in silos makes it difficult to make a persuasive case for using a portion of health spending, however small, to fund adult education. Equally, it is a challenge to convince employers that it is worthwhile investing in staff development opportunities that are not directly related to job performance. Employers are understandably reluctant to invest in something that seems to be of no direct benefit to them and tend to regard it as an unaffordable luxury, but, in fact, organisations such as MerseyTravel and Arriva in the UK, which have adopted such policies, often in collaboration with unions, report real benefits in terms of staff morale, loyalty, retention, absenteeism and the culture of the organisation. Ford’s new campaign to raise mental health awareness in the workplace is another example of a company recognising that worker health is not a peripheral concern but something employers must take seriously and invest in.

One of Sir Alan Tuckett’s innovations as Director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education was to introduce a scheme to fund the small-scale learning of all staff – the one condition was that the learning had to have absolutely nothing to do with their day jobs. This was a brilliant idea, which led people in all sorts of different directions – I recall one colleague taking a butchery course, while another took ukulele lessons (later touring with a band). But what was interesting, I think, was the impact this had on people’s sense of wellbeing at work, their feeling of belonging and the intellectual culture of the place. This kind of ‘seriously useless learning’, to borrow Alan’s phrase, can give people a start in a new career, help them cope with depression and other difficulties, improve their self-esteem and confidence (and consequently their relationships with others), reacquaint them with learning after a lengthy absence, and ignite a real passion for learning. And, of course, these benefits ripple out, into people’s families and communities. The scheme was a great example of an organisation living the kind of change it wanted to see in wider society.

Even in times of severe financial constraint, the case for investment in adult education as a means of reducing health costs and supporting the health and wellbeing of populations is strong. However, as GRALE 3 makes clear, it is not only a matter of investment and, in fact, relatively modest increases in spending can have a huge impact here. Equally significant is the coherence of policy-making and the coordination between sectors. Yet, in too many cases, compartmentalisation and poor interdepartmental collaboration limit the positive impact of education on health and wellbeing. Only 20 per cent of respondents to the GRALE 3 survey felt collaboration between health agencies and adult education providers was effective. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is, in effect, an invitation to this sort of collaboration, as GRALE 3 points out. Its 17 goals are ‘inseparable’, which is to say they cannot be achieved singly but only through considered attention to all and the way in which they interact. It demands that areas usually kept apart in policymaking are brought together and encouraged to talk. There is something here on which policymakers can build.

The truth though is that none of this will happen without far more engagement and proactivity from the wider public, to whom the goals of the 2030 Agenda are largely unknown. Disparities in engagement reflect deeply entrenched inequalities in education and health, which, of course, compound each other. Another key finding of the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning was that engagement in adult education courses predicted greater levels of civic and political participation. Countries serious about addressing these inequalities will already be investing in the lifelong and lifewide learning of their citizens, recognising that without intervention the benefits of education for health will tend to coalesce among those who have already benefited the most. The societal and economic benefits are considerable but many countries, I fear, will consider an increase in civic participation to be a cost rather than a benefit. Nevertheless, the cultivation of a culture of lifelong learning is probably the most constructive thing any country struggling with the rising costs associated with an ageing population can do, and it is arguably a precondition for achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Certainly, those goals will not be met without the civic and political engagement of citizens.

Some countries are already moving along this road. Others, such as the UK, seem to be moving backwards. The failure to invest in the skills, talents, aspirations and creativity of everyone in society, at every stage of their lives, looks increasingly wrong-headed, given the challenges we now face. Countries need healthy, active, resilient and flexible lifelong learners who are able to adapt and retrain throughout life if they are to be competitive, productive and successful. And people need and deserve the opportunity to realise all they can be, whoever and wherever they are, as a matter of social justice. After a decade or so when many governments, the UK included, have substantially reduced investment in the learning of adults, despite the increased acceptance of the wider benefits of lifelong learning, maybe it is time to change course.

The ‘left behind’ need hope not hollow words

Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, UK Prime Minster Theresa May gave her Easter message, describing the inspiration she took from her faith and the praising ‘the triumph of the human spirit’ in overcoming serious adversity such as that presented by the Grenfell Tower fire. The short address was replayed throughout the day by the BBC with a soft-spoken reverence usually reserved for occasions of state, juxtaposed with in-depth coverage of the Sunday Times fishing trip to identify supporters of Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn who have made anti-Semitic comments online.

Mrs May’s message ticked many of the usual boxes. Acknowledgement of the country’s ‘dark moments’? Check. Praise for the emergency services? Check. Admiration for ordinary people working to make their communities better? Check. But for those working at the front line of our emergency services, struggling to meet increased demands with reduced funding, or those working hard in their communities to ameliorate the harm done by years of political neglect and austerity, I suspect these sentiments will have provoked derisive laughter rather than delight at having their work recognised. The association of these sentiments with a belief system founded by a man who dedicated his short life to helping the poor and vulnerable and to encouraging the rich to do the same was just another pointed irony in an Easter message that was as hollow as an Easter egg.

The mismatch between the Prime Minister’s supposed core beliefs and the policies of the governments in which she has been a senior figure was thrown into still sharper relief today. A report from school leaders painted a shocking picture of destitute school children in poor parts of England and Wales and ‘filling their pockets’ with food from the school canteen. Headteachers told how they were having to provide basic services such as washing school uniforms and paying for budget advice for parents to fill the gaps left by budget cuts to councils and social services. They also described how they had provided sanitary products for pupils and bought them coats and shoes in winter.

At the same time, a new survey from the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Education Union found that, of 900 teachers, 60 per cent said that child poverty in their schools had worsened since 2015, with one in three saying it had got significantly worse. All this at a moment when school costs are increasing and the government has reduced school funding in real terms.

Theresa May’s launched her premiership in 2016 by pledging to help the ‘left behind’ and ‘just managing’ and build a fairer Britain. A little over a year in, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission resigned en masse in protest at her government’s failure to address Britain’s ‘burning injustices’. May’s failure to appoint a replacement has, reportedly, had little to do with the availability of appropriate candidates and everything to do with an inability to find anyone who would consent to do the job while refraining from criticism of the government’s policies.

This is not particularly surprising. May’s flagship policy for improving the life chances of the poor was to increase selection in schools through the introduction of more grammar schools. Few, other than a handful of Tory ideologues, were convinced by this intervention, perhaps because of the complete lack of supporting evidence for it. The evidential gap was further highlighted last month through research by Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui which showed that grammar schools worsen social stratification but do not increase pupil achievement. Dividing pupils into the most able and the rest from an early age, the researchers concluded, ‘does not appear to lead to better results for either group, even for the most disadvantaged. This means that the kind of social segregation experienced by children and young people in selective areas of the United Kingdom, and in selective schools and countries around the world, is for no clear gain … the findings mean that grammar schools endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results. The policy is a bad one and, far from increasing selection, the evidence-informed way forwards would be to phase out the current 163 grammar schools in England.’

Given the weight of evidence against it, any further expansion of selection in education, as envisaged by current education secretary Damian Hinds, could only be explained by ideological motives or by a desire to further reduce social mobility and increase segregation. Any government serious about addressing inequality and social mobility would look closely at how to reduce the stratification in the education system, from private schools to our increasingly two-tier higher education system. Around the world, successful economies are opening up their education systems and creating opportunities that are genuinely lifelong and lifewide. Britain, meanwhile, appears in thrall to a vision of selection grounded in class and social snobbery. The weight of our illusions keeps us from rising higher.

The low priority successive governments have attached to social mobility is reflected in the comparative neglect of further education, where state investment is likely to have the most social impact. The low status of the sector is evident from the number of ministers and secretaries of state who have been responsible for it over the years, and the really remarkable policy churn FE has been subject to over several decades. No service could reach its full potential under conditions of near-constant reform and ever shifting expectations and priorities. There is also a major funding gap between FE and HE which will need to be closed by some means if the UK is to deliver the higher-level technical skills it will require to compete on equal terms with comparable countries.

Justine Greening, the only recent education secretary who has taken social mobility seriously, was sacked shortly after producing her ‘plan for improving social mobility through education’. Her ambition was admirable though the proposals themselves, while positive, were not nearly radical enough to ‘transform equality of opportunity in this country’. The problem needs to be approached in a more comprehensive and joined-up way, with the place of further education considered in the context of the wider education system and significant resource put into spreading opportunity more evenly and creating routes for people at every stage of life. Ms Greening’s ‘social mobility pledge’, intended to encourage employers to engage more with schools and colleges, is a good idea, but it needs to be part of a much wider, longer-term strategy that is not afraid to challenge the sacred cows of selection, the private school system, A-levels and mass higher education.

Education is not a silver bullet when it comes to social mobility and inequality. Real change would require strong political will in every department of government. To be lasting and fundamental it would also need public support which, I fear, will require a shift in our political scene as yet undreamt of. But, for all that, it is not a bad place to start. If we can challenge the perpetuation of inequality of opportunity in education we can certainly change it elsewhere. For that, though, we will need real leadership and commitment at the top of government, and a genuine willingness to challenge beliefs and cultural norms that hold working people back and allow the privileged to horde opportunity for themselves and their children. That would be an Easter message worth sharing.

Politics, democracy and the NHS

In the early 1990s, my grandmother became seriously ill. She had a stroke; caused, it turned out, by a tumour in her brain. One morning she was taken by ambulance to a crowded NHS hospital in Liverpool. No beds were available. She was placed on a trolley in a corridor where she remained, untreated and undiagnosed, for the next eight hours. The tumour, we later discovered, was inoperable, and she died not long after, cared for by family and the excellent MacMillan Nurses.

This was what the NHS was like at the time. Chronically underfunded, under-resourced and terribly stretched, often past breaking point. Stories of people being left on trolleys for hours because of the shortage of beds were common. Nevertheless, things got better. Funding was increased, waiting times improved, and, within a decade, the service was unrecognisable to the one we encountered that day in Liverpool. Of course, the economy was doing well, but it is not always the case that when the economy improves so too do our public services. Most importantly, healthcare became a priority of public policy.

Of course, there remained occasional examples of truly appalling care, notably in Mid-Staffordshire, but these were very much exceptions. Yet while the crisis persisted, many commentators pointed to the NHS’s funding model: Yes, of course, we all love and value the NHS, they explained patiently, we all want it to remain as it is, free to all at the point of care with the same quality of care available no matter what your income, but it just isn’t affordable, I’m afraid. We have to change the funding model. Privately, politicians drew up plans for a private healthcare system in the UK.

Now, once again, the NHS is in crisis. As before, the background is cuts to funding and a lower than average (compared to comparable countries) spend on health and social care as a proportion of GDP. And, as before, the funding model is in question, with commentators pointedly wondering whether it is possible to have an adequately funded system in which access is unrestricted and the level of care universally good. Clearly, funding is a huge challenge. But before we throw away what is truly great about our healthcare system, we need to think hard about what we want it to be, who we want to be, as a society, and what our priorities really are. We should not just talk about the NHS as though it is a closed system, with a discrete funding stream on which decisions made elsewhere don’t impact. We need to think much bigger, taking into account issues such as poverty and wellbeing which place a strain on health services.

I do not want to say that the NHS is perfect or that it could not operate more efficiently and effectively. There are clearly things we could change, such as its focus on treatment rather than prevention. There are major cultural and educational issues too. And we need to be smarter when it comes to promoting active ageing, ensuring, in particular, that older people have opportunities to continue learning (a hugely important area which appears to have fallen out of fashion, even among its traditional advocates). But the NHS remains one of the most efficient health services in the world, despite its funding concerns, and the challenges it faces, principally demographic, while substantial, face every health service where populations are ageing. Furthermore, as the OECD has pointed out, ‘There is no health care system that performs systematically better in delivering cost-effective health care’. And general taxation remains an efficient way of raising funds, as the King’s Fund has pointed out.

Evidently, we will have to pay more in future but that is something most, I suspect, would be prepared to do. We should at least be aiming to match the EU average for health care spending. The argument that since other, different European healthcare systems are doing better in some respects, the NHS funding model doesn’t work, ignores the fact that these systems are better funded. There is, in other words, no prima facie case for abandoning the healthcare funding model we already have. The point I want to make is that, by all means, let us have a conversation but let us at least have an honest and open one in which all options are on the table.

The problem we face in the UK is that genuine choices, matters of our priorities as a society, are presented to the public as unavoidable outcomes of circumstances over which we have no real control. There just isn’t enough money to go around. Choices made by other countries, to better fund their health services or their education systems, are made to seem extreme, utterly unaffordable, the stuff of fantasy. Even the relatively modest proposals presented by the Labour Party in its last manifesto would ‘bankrupt the country’, we are told. Instead of the informed national conversation we so desperately need, we have a shouting match between those who supposedly think everything is affordable and those who think nothing is (or pretend to).

This is what I find so utterly discouraging about political debate in the UK. Not only do we lack a consensus as to the kind of society we want, or any meaningful sense of a social contract which might encompass all of us, we also have a media and political class which seem determined to prevent such a discussion taking place. When Jeremy Corbyn become leader of the Labour Party, promising a different, gentler style of politics, I hoped that he might be open to an inclusive debate within the party, to bring its different wings together – something that mirrored the kind of conversation we need to have as a country. Instead, the party now reflects its own divisions and those of the country more clearly than ever.

I don’t agree with those who believe that progressive policies can’t win at the ballot box. But I do think that meaningful, lasting change, needs inclusive politics that brings people out of their echo chambers and makes genuine debate possible. You cannot expect change to last if it is imposed on people who do not understand it and do not feel included in it. The British political landscape is a terribly divisive place right now, and there are far too few straws in the wind to make hope of change realistic. With Brexit looming ever closer, we are coming face to face with a reality which seems inevitable but which many people cannot bring themselves to accept, given the huge costs to the country it represents, and the damage it will do to people’s lives, particularly in places that are already struggling. The evidence on which people voted in the referendum is tainted, as are many of the people and organisations who campaigned on the leave side. Yet, even in these circumstances, there is hardly any mainstream political challenge to Brexit.

People feel unrepresented. In very many cases, they also feel desperate. Schools are struggling. The NHS is in crisis. Politics itself is in disarray. We are drifting into the future with no destination in mind and no map to guide us. Those who suggest we might pause a while to think about where we are going are pilloried in the press. How can we be dashing towards such radical change without any hint of a conversation about what kind of society we want to be? There is a gaping hole in the middle of British politics where just such a conversation should be taking place.

Politics is about choices. And democracy should mean we get to have a say about those choices. Any attempt to deny or limit those choices is, in effect, a subversion of democracy. There are many more options on the table than we are led to believe. We cannot have everything but we can have more and we can have different. We need to start being honest about who we are and what we want to be.