GCSEs, class and inequality

I’m always struck at this time of year by the huge amount of pressure we place so early on the shoulders of young people. That pressure is evident in the relief of the students (and their parents) who gain the GCSE results they are hoping for, and in the despondency of those who don’t.

As someone who left school at 16 with no qualifications I always feel a desire to reassure people that, just as doing well in your GCSEs is not a definitive measure of your worth, not getting good GCSEs is not the end of the world either. There are plenty of opportunities down the line, plenty of ways of making good and doing something useful in your life. There are as many ways to become a success as there are people to become successful.

This was true in the 1980s when I left school. I was able to take GCSEs and A-levels at my local college, get onto a ‘pre-entry’ journalism course and start out as a reporter at a good regional paper at 19. A few years later I left my job to take a degree as a mature student, funded by my local education authority (seeing all of this in black and white I’m surprised at just how definitively the language dates me).

Many of these opportunities are still there, though the costs, of course, are much higher – eye-wateringly so in the case of higher education. Yet, as the latest UCAS figures show, this is not necessary deterring people, even people from the least advantaged backgrounds, from accessing higher education. And, while part-time numbers show no sign of returning to previous levels (and this remains extremely bad news for us as a society, a democracy and an economy – as well as for the diverse sort of higher education system the government says it wants to see), full-time mature student numbers appear to be picking up.

This is welcome news for the government, which will see the latest figures as a vindication of its reforms, and, in particular, of the underlying fairness of the fees and loans system it has introduced. Evidently, the generous loan terms the government was able to offer have been a factor in maintaining student enrolment numbers, but there is another more important reason, I think – the same reason that 16 years olds approach GCSE results day with so much apprehension: the costs of failure in our society can be huge and are much, much harder to reverse than they were, for example, in the eighties when it was still possible to enter a profession like journalism without a degree or even a decent set of A-levels.

This is why discussions of social mobility often founder – they do not first address the underlying problem of social inequality. Social mobility, of course, cuts both ways. You can go down the escalator as well as up. One of the main reasons middle-class parents have become so adept at hoarding opportunity – and excluding others from it – is that the gap between those who do succeed, gaining a degree from a good university and accessing the professions, and those who don’t and find themselves grinding out an existence close to the poverty line, has become so great that the consequences of failure are too enormous to contemplate. And every parent wants the best for their kids. It’s a fight, and pretty bloody one, almost from the off.

Of course, in Britain (or do I mean England?), we love putting someone in their place. Weighing someone up, by the way they speak, the way they dress, whether or not they went to university, or, if they did, which university they went to, is close to a national sport. Selection, at 16 or 18, plays nicely to something fundamental about our national psyche: vocational or academic, Russell Group or red brick, pre-1992 or post-1992, Oxbridge or any of the others – it’s even played out among the upper echelons, in the refined thuggery of the Bullingdon Club and its ilk.

It’s obvious too that the ways in which we select, though in some respects plainly unfair, are just as plainly doing a good job, from the point of view of preserving advantage and ensuring the distribution of opportunity remains unequal. For that reason they are incredibly hard to change (imagine what the Daily Mail would say!) – just as our absurd system of taxpayer-supported public schools is considered politically unassailable, though it is at the heart of much that is unfair and divisive in our society.

The same kind of snobbery runs through the educational offer you can expect to find at the kind of institution or course to which you are selected. The kind of rounded, liberal education capable of producing George Davie’s ‘democratic intellect’ is increasingly the province of the privileged few, for whom history, culture, politics and the arts are considered a part of day-to-day life, essential preparation for a fulfilling existence. For everyone else, preparation for employment is all that is needed (though it’s becoming clear that simply preparing someone for work is no adequate preparation for work).

The result of all of this is more entrenched social inequality and a working class which struggles to assert its political voice or which, in many cases, has given up on politics altogether. This will no doubt be celebrated by some – one dimension of the triumph of Thatcherism over organized labour – but it is disastrous for democracy and for our society as a whole. The voiceless working class bears the brunt of austerity politics while great institutions like the NHS are gradually picked apart for profit without democratic mandate. The vast amount of talent and enterprise that is permitted to go to waste is horrible to think about. The narrowing of opportunity for adults to study what they want, for reasons other than employability, is a serious indictment of our civilization.

Sixteen is depressingly early to write someone off, yet, all too often, this is the routine outcome of a combination of selection and few second chances. There is a human cost to all of this. Huge social inequality is not just damaging to economic growth it makes people at the bottom feel worthless, that they are less than human. It also cultivates a sort of indifference, bordering on contempt, among those at the top for those ‘below’ them. Crucially, I think, it prevents people from recognizing their commonality, and their common needs – those things in virtue of which we really are all ‘in this together’. Narrowing educational opportunities – particularly the kind of liberal adult education opportunities that inspired the likes of the Pitmen painters and have now all but disappeared – makes it that much harder for people to see further or to find ways to effect social and political change. It is difficult to see where the kind of fundamental change we need will come from. But it is just as difficult to imagine how we can continue as we are. Perhaps a place to start is with the recognition that people not only need resources and opportunities to move up the social ladder but also that these resources and opportunities must be available throughout life – rather than for a fleeting moment on which all of one’s future life chances appear to hang.