Creativity, culture and the ‘true worth’ of education

Last week, education secretary Nicky Morgan suggested that qualifications should be linked to income in order to show their ‘true worth’. This week, the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value warned that creativity, culture and the arts are being ‘systematically removed from the UK education system’. These developments are not, of course, unrelated. They highlight a deplorable – and largely unchallenged – narrowness in current policy thinking about education, a grotesque reduction of the value of education to a crude utilitarian calculation of future earnings typified in the steady erosion of lifelong learning and the disappearance of vital public learning spaces such as libraries. The critical infrastructure that is being lost includes some of the jewels of the British education system, such as university continuing education, and will be incredibly difficult – perhaps impossible – to replace.

Nicky Morgan’s words were shockingly blunt and, in black and white, look pretty crass, but they are not particularly surprising. In fact, they articulate one of the most fundamental principles of this government’s approach to education, one that now runs through policy in every part of the education sector, from primary level to university: the only real value is economic value – and the only education a skeletal state impoverished by an ideologically driven programme of austerity measures can afford to support is education that has an economic return.

It was this thinking that, under the previous government, drove the introduction of the ‘ELQ’ rule denying funding to anyone studying in higher education at a level equivalent to or below the highest level at which they had previously studied. And it is this thinking that has driven the current government’s attempts to introduce a market into the skills system by putting money directly in the hands of employers and in its recasting of university students as consumers. It is felt by primary school children as young as five who face inappropriate tests and selection at an age when children in most developed countries haven’t even begun formal schooling and are learning in other, less pressured ways. And it is experienced by every prospective adult learner who finds that the opportunity to return to education has either disappeared, narrowed beyond recognition or relevance, or become prohibitively expensive.

Of course, all of this is part of a bigger trend towards the marketisation of parts of our lives in which, formerly, the market was thought not to have a place – or at least to have only a marginal place. As Michael Sandel argues, once we begin to put a price on goods such as education, health and political influence it becomes much harder to be poor. Increasingly, wealth determines access to health, good schools, higher education (especially the elite universities) – and, of course, politicians. In a society such as ours the poor are not only poor, they are disenfranchised, excluded, without access to many basic goods (not just material ones), and, for very many of them, also without hope (the absence of hope is perhaps the greatest unexplored public health issue of our times). Perhaps worst of all, when markets become an end rather than a means, political debate is stifled, it becomes trivial, managerial and, for the vast majority of people, incidental. The gap between politics and the people politics is about – those, at any rate, who are not in a position to buy access – grows ever greater.

Behind all of this, justifying everything and making the impossible possible in policy terms, is the spectre of austerity: an unnamed threat so amorphous and ill-defined, so universally endorsed by the mainstream parties and political journalism, that it can make almost anything seem a price worth paying. And because the implied cause is excessive public-sector spending – and not, of course, the financial crisis and reckless rich so seldom mentioned in connection with austerity – it is here that cuts must be made: disfiguring, anti-society cuts which penalise the poorest and most vulnerable (those whose reckless demands for decent schools and health care have put us in this mess), and in which all three main parties are to varying degrees culpable.

The impact of this trend can be seen very clearly in education, where it has distorted our values, our ways of talking and our sense of value as professionals – even our capacity to articulate clearly what it is that we think valuable about what we do. This is no better illustrated than in adult education. Since David Blunkett, in his foreword to the 1998 Green Paper The Learning Age, stressed learning’s ‘wider contribution’ in helping ‘make ours a civilised society’, developing ‘the spiritual side of our lives’ and promoting active citizenship, strengthening family, neighbourhood and nation in the process, there has been a steady attenuation in policy thinking concerning the benefits of education (despite large amount of evidence to the contrary). Skills and employability became the order of the day as funding focused increasingly on young people and shifted to provision that was expected – in some magical way, almost – to secure our economic future. The results included a much narrower and more expensive offer for adults, the closure of university lifelong learning departments across the country and the loss of well over a million adults to publicly funded provision. Despite our decade-long pursuit of ‘world-class skills’, under Labour and the coalition, the UK continues to show poorly in international league tables, with productivity proving equally resistant to improvement.

Labour’s ambition had narrowed so much that shortly before the 2010 election, when I approached the three main party leaders to set out their position on adult learning, David Cameron was able to position his party in the space the Labour government had lately abandoned, expressing a view of learning as being ‘about broadening the mind, giving people self-belief, strengthening the bonds of community’ – values, he added, that ‘Labour don’t seem to get’ – and citing its wider benefits, particularly in boosting active citizenship and helping make savings in other areas, such as health and crime. Despite the warmth of the Prime Minister’s words, the reality has been rather different. The coalition has continued to press for ‘world class’ skills, making employment and economic demand the drivers of their education reforms – and, like Labour before it, choosing to focus on the supply side of skills rather than address underlying issues concerning the demand for skills and skills under-utilisation. Despite playing well in the context of the coalition’s early emphasis on ‘big society’, the wider benefits of adult education were quickly forgotten.

This trend has been reinforced by the onward march of austerity, which has seen funding cuts in all areas of education, but particularly in adult education. Funding for adult qualifications not considered economically useful has been withdrawn, while further education colleges have had to cope with massive cuts – amounting so far to around £260 million – to the adult skills budget. Promises to protect schools funding will make this budget even more of a target in the next Parliament.

In higher education, mature students have been the main casualties of the coalition’s reforms to HE in England. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13 the number of first-year mature (21-plus) students in the English system fell by 37 per cent, with post-1992 institutions, which traditionally cater for more mature students, hit particularly hard. The story is even starker for part-time students, the vast majority of whom are mature. Part-time student numbers in England fell by 46 per cent between 2010-11 and 2013-14, according to HEFCE. And while it has performed better than national trends, the Open University has lost more than a quarter of its total student numbers. The causes of the decline in part-time and mature study are complex, but involve a toxic combination of increased fees, debt aversion among older people, wage stagnation and the prevailing economic climate, employer reluctance to invest in the education of their workers and the ineligibility of part-timers to maintenance support.

Elite higher education remains geared to young people and, in particular, to highly privileged young people who understand how to work the system and are supported by state-sponsored private schools in doing so. Despite the sterling work of outreach teams within many of these institutions, the in-built advantage they offer to pupils from wealthy backgrounds ensures that they continue to maintain privilege and perpetuate disadvantage. Sadly, this division is characteristic of the whole education system, where, increasingly, a rounded, liberal education – one that encourages creativity and cultivates an interest in literature, culture and the arts – is largely available only to the rich, who can afford it. The Warwick Commission report found that creativity and the arts are being ‘squeezed out’ of schools, with big drops in arts subjects at GCSE. Pupils from families with the lowest incomes fare the worst. Children from these families, the commission found, are least likely to be employed in the creative industries, while people from privileged backgrounds are overrepresented. This divide was reflected in the lack of diversity in arts audiences, the report said. The wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse eight per cent of society make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatre-goers. There was a danger that we were creating a ‘two tier creative and cultural ecosystem’, one commissioner warned. What happens at school is reinforced by the internship system which effectively denies a start in many creative industries to any but the most affluent.

As the Warwick Commission points out, this is bad both for the economy and for society. It is difficult to see how we can thrive as a nation while we deny so many the opportunity either to discover or develop their talents. But we lose more than this. A rounded creative education makes people more open, critical and tolerant. It helps them engage as citizens and fosters an interest in equality and democracy. It makes people question and it makes them hope. Crucially, perhaps, it makes them want more, for themselves and for their communities – something governments may be reluctant to encourage given how unequally social, cultural and economic goods are currently split. These are all critical functions which, for much of the twentieth century, adult education helped provide for many of those who were failed by the education system first time around. I think we need this more than ever. Children require an education which prepares them not only for the workplace but for civil society and democracy, which helps them become good parents, good neighbours and active citizens. And adults need spaces in which to access second chances and the resources they need to stay engaged – they need creativity and context as well as workplace training. I don’t say government should be paying for all of this but it has a role and responsibility which it shouldn’t be permitted to duck. To talk as though these things don’t matter or are not a crucial part of what makes us who and what we are is a kind of betrayal. To respond to the challenges we face as a society and as an economy we need to be smart, resilient, creative, open and engaged, as well as literate, numerate and job-ready. And, as the Warwick Commission argues, everyone has a right to a ‘rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life’. Our failure to cultivate and support these capabilities, in our adults and young people, is a much more dangerous legacy to pass on to our children than the legacy of public debt.

Education in the age of austerity

The three main parties have begun to unveil their manifesto promises ahead of the general election in May and education has been centre stage. Last week the Prime Minister promised to protect the schools budget though, it turned out, only in cash terms. This means that, under a Conservative government, the budget will go up as pupil numbers increase, but per-pupil funding will, in real terms, fall as inflation and other demands on the schools budget increase. The Liberal Democrats were more generous (in the circumstances they can, perhaps, afford to be), undertaking to ‘guarantee education funding from nursery to 19’ and pledging to protect the schools budget in real terms. Nick Clegg promised to fight ‘tooth and nail’ for these commitments in any coalition negotiations. Then, yesterday, Labour leader Ed Miliband pledged to protect the Department for Education budget, also in real terms, maintaining investment in schools, sixth-forms and further education colleges (for 16 to 19 year olds) and protecting early-years provision, if Labour wins the general election.

The schools budget has, up until now, enjoyed real-terms protection, in line with undertakings made by Chancellor George Osborne in 2010. The loss of the ring-fence would leave schools in the unprotected territory so familiar to further education colleges, many of which have struggled to remain viable in the face of eye-watering cuts. Even if it is maintained in real terms, and increases in line with projected increases in pupil numbers, rising pension and National Insurance costs will take funds away from teaching and learning. Funding for 16 to 18 year olds in England has already been heavily cut, from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 years olds from last September (while schools funding has been protected, the overall DfE budget fell by 7.5 per cent between 2010–11 and 2014–15). Stability in funding for this age group is expected this year but there could be more pressure on this budget and it will be interesting to see if Conservative plans for cash-terms protection for schools extend to 16–19s.

Funding stability for schools is to be welcomed. But in the prevailing policy climate there is bound to be a cost. Ring-fencing areas of public spending has a huge effect on the areas outside the ring-fence, as further education has discovered over the past five years. The overall Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) budget was reduced by a quarter between 2010–11 and 2014–15, with a further six per cent cut imposed this year. Ewart Keep has estimated that, on current projections, the overall reduction in the BIS budget between 2010 and 2018 will be 42.5 per cent. The bulk of the cuts so far have fallen in adult further education. The government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16, which means an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 million in 2010–2011 to £2 billion in 2015–16. Professor Keep suggests that ‘cumulative cuts of 60 per cent or more in funding for adult skills do not seem an unrealistic expectation’. The continued privileging of certain parts of the education budget could mean even bigger cuts in a sector with which few politicians or civil servants are even remotely familiar (as the current skills minister admitted shortly after his appointment). This poor level of recognition combines with further education’s unprotected status to make the sector a relatively easy target for cuts.

Further massive reductions in spending on post-19 further education and skills are all but certain. Perhaps that is why adults did not feature noticeably in the education announcements of any of the major parties. Few would disagree with Ed Miliband’s statement that the emergence of a new, stronger and more resilient economy depends on investment in ‘the talents and education of all our young people’. But it surely does not depend only on the education of young people. The fact that 70 per cent of the 2020 workforce is already in employment – while half of the current workforce is not qualified beyond Level 2 – demonstrates just how important adult education is in meeting the needs of an economy in which higher-level skills are becoming increasingly important. Of course, it is right to put the needs of children and young people first. Getting things right at school pays dividends in every area of national life and is, without doubt, the smartest investment any government can make (provided it gets it right). But, for various reasons, some more entrenched than others, it does not work for everybody – far from it – and we simply cannot afford to write off those who do not succeed first time around. Of course, we should maintain schools investment, but we need to invest strongly and intelligently in the skills and education of adults as well.

Unhappily, it seems, increasingly, that we unable or unwilling to do both. Whichever party holds the balance of power come May, austerity will continue, with spending reductions biting ever deeper into an already beleaguered sector. All the main parties support ‘cutting the deficit’ and ‘balancing the books’ – they differ only as to timescale. There is little challenge to this consensus, notwithstanding the devastation austerity politics is causing in parts of the public sector. Since 2012 the pace of deficit reduction has slowed and the government has allowed its targets to recede somewhat. The economy has begun to grow and employment is rising (though tax receipts have not followed suit – a reflection on the sort of low-pay, low-status jobs the economy is creating). But, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned in the wake of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the pace of austerity will soon again quicken, with ‘colossal’ cuts to come in the next parliament. Although £35 billion of cuts have been made thus far, £55 billion more are still to come. The Treasury has scheduled an average 17 per cent real-terms reduction in spending across government departments between 2015 and 2019 – and with schools and health protected that will mean much bigger cuts in other areas. As the Office for Budget Responsibility noted, public spending as a percentage of GDP will fall to 35.2 per cent by 2019–20, its lowest level since the 1930s, with a further one million public sector jobs set to go as a result. Those who remain in public sector employment will face continuing pay restraint at least until Treasury books are balanced.

Difficult choices are inevitable, particularly for colleges which will have to make yet more stark choices as to which areas of provision they retain and which they let go (with obvious implications for their own sense of mission which seems likely to further narrow). BIS will have to cut funding steams it has previously fought to protect (the modest but important community learning budget so far protected in cash terms will come under even greater pressure). But there will also be increased pressure on schools to achieve more with less (political expectations rarely diminish in line with resources), while pay restraint and the pressures of accountability (reflected in teacher responses to the DfE’s workload challenge) will continue to press heavily on teacher morale. There is, however, something to welcome in the recognition that falling levels of investment in education won’t deliver economic success, and in some of the more specific commitments made by the main parties, particularly, for me, Ed Miliband’s espousal of a broad and balanced curriculum offering creativity and an equal focus on academic and vocational skills (though the challenges here are enormous – and the opposition to meaningful reform likely to be intense, as Mike Tomlinson discovered when he recommended replacing A-levels with an overarching diploma for both academic and vocational subjects). However, as Nick Clegg will no doubt confirm, manifesto pledges are not written in stone – however hard we promise to fight for them – and delivery will depend, in part, on whether the election delivers a majority, a coalition or a minority government. The unpredictability of contemporary politics makes it less likely than ever that you will get what you vote for. And the seeming inevitability of further deep and damaging cuts means it is also less likely than ever that you will really know what you are voting for. As long as the narrative of austerity – that reducing the deficit must be our number one priority (rather than a means to a more ideological goal) – prevails, we can expect more of the same, and worse, with a continuing reduction in state-funded adult learning. In an important sense, the big decisions are already made. We just await the detail. The march of austerity continues to strip our public discourse of its important civic and moral dimensions, narrowing not only the options for public policy but the space in which alternative ideas can be debated and developed. What remains is not pretty.

Who will stand up for adult education?

The Skills Funding Agency announced this week that public funding is to be withdrawn from a further 1,600 adult qualifications for which, they say, there is little or no demand. Two thirds of publicly funded qualifications (6,900 in total) have been removed from government funding since 2013. Skills minister Nick Boles welcomed the move, saying the qualifications were ‘cluttering up the system’.

On the face of it, this looks like a smart move. Employers want a qualifications system that is streamlined and easy to comprehend. And students want to know that the qualifications they are seeking are worthwhile and, if the purpose of study is vocational (and the expectation is that it will be), valued by employers. But even if we accept that qualifications that support progression to and in employment are what we should be focusing on, it’s not clear that student take-up is, in itself, a reliable indicator of what is valuable or worth funding – or, indeed, of what local businesses need if they are to prosper.

In fact, the qualifications from which funding is to be withdrawn include a larger number in sectors important to the economy, such as engineering, manufacturing, ICT, and building and construction, and where there are growing skills shortages, particularly in higher-level technical jobs. Nor is it particularly useful to directly equate student take-up with student demand or interest. Prohibitive fees and an unwillingness to take on large amounts of debt are other factors which should be part of a much more nuanced, intelligently thought-out approach to streamlining qualifications.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the ongoing cull of qualifications is indicative of a really remarkable narrowing of the educational offer to adults – one which began in earnest under the previous government as it became increasingly fixated on a funding model based on boosting employability and vocational skills. It’s not that employment and vocational training aren’t important – obviously they are – it’s just that they aren’t everything. Among the qualifications considered of no or low value will be many that adults have found hugely valuable, in giving them a foothold in learning again, building their confidence, broadening their horizons or simply offering them a second chance. Education isn’t only about getting people into work or on at work. It’s also about confidence and aspiration, family and community, citizenship and social cohesion. It makes people better citizens, better parents. It can make them more flexible, more resilient, more rounded and civilised, helping them become better people as well as better employees. The wider public value of adult education is far too infrequently asserted.

As Helena Kennedy wrote in her 1997 policy paper Learning Works, while ‘prosperity depends upon there being a vibrant economy … an economy which regards its own success as the highest good is a dangerous one’. There are other claims upon public support for education, Kennedy went on, namely justice and equity. Ignoring those claims is likely to be disastrous for us as a society, as a democracy and, ultimately, as an economy. This seems to me common sense. Yet parts of Kennedy’s paper – those in which she asserts the wider value of adult and further education – now read like something from another era. Part of the problem with adopting the circumscribed language and outlook of funders and policy makers is that it becomes more and more difficult to assert the value of those things that lie outside it. The less we talk about them the less relevant they seem until those things become almost unsayable (at least without inviting ridicule or marginalizing oneself – either as too wishy-washy or too radical). You either talk within the circumscribed limits or you talk to yourself. And the harder it becomes to talk about what we value, the harder it is to defend it against cuts. Increasingly, I find myself asking, who will stand up for adult education?

Under the coalition, we have seen the realm of publicly funded adult education continue to shrink. Indeed, the pace has quickened under the all-consuming (and all-justifying) blanket of austerity politics. UCAS’s latest figures on full-time applications to higher education show that while applications from younger students continue to hold up, applications from those over the age of 25 continues to decline – this on top of an 18 per cent decline between 2010 and 2013. And while applications from young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are up, people from advantaged backgrounds are still more than twice as likely to apply to university as their less-advantaged counterparts – even more so in the case of the most selective universities.

The numbers are even worse for part-time students, the vast majority of whom are older students (with a large proportion from disadvantaged backgrounds). Over the past four years, part-time student numbers in the UK have fallen by more than a third – with the figure even higher for part-time students aged above 25. In England, according to HEFCE, part-time undergraduate student numbers fell by 46 per cent between 2010–11 and 2013–14. The reasons for the decline are complex, but include Labour’s introduction of the ELQ rule – which denied funding to students studying at a level lower or equivalent to a level at which they were already qualified – the increase in part-time fees and the introduction of loans for part-timers (unsurprisingly adults with a range of other financial commitments have not been keen to take them up and incur more debt in their 30s, 40s or 50s), and a growing reluctance among employers to support employees to study part-time alongside their work. Despite protestations to the contrary, it is increasingly obvious that the government considers the damage caused to part-time HE a price worth paying (as long as applications from younger students holds up).

Adult education in FE is also under huge pressure. The government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16, meaning an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 million in 2010–2011 to £2 billion in 2015–16. Unsurprisingly, the cuts have resulted in an 11 per cent overall drop in adult participation in state funded learning between 2012–13 and 2013–14, with the numbers even worse for older adults –27 per cent fewer adults aged 25 and over in Level 3 provision and 34.2 per cent fewer in Level 4. At the same time, the Department for Education has reduced spending on 16 to 18 year olds from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a swingeing 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 years olds from last September, placing still more pressure on college principals. And while funding for 16–18 year olds is expected to be stable in 2015, further substantial cuts are expected in adult skills.

All of this has coincided with a substantial reduction in the public library service, making it even more difficult for adults to learn in their own time, on their own terms. Some 324 libraries have closed, with many more under threat, as a result of a 40 per cent cut in local government funding since 2010.

Even on the government’s own narrow terms this is self-defeating. In an ageing society in which social mobility has stalled – seemingly irreversibly – and compulsory education is so unhelpful to so many (the educational achievement gap between rich and poor at GCSE is widening), we simply cannot afford to put adults off returning to education. We cannot afford to be a society in which second chances are out of reach to so many people. It’s bad enough that our education system seems designed to write people off at as early a stage as possible, and to qualify the success of almost all but a small, mostly already privileged, minority. But to close down so much opportunity later in life makes no sense, not if we are serious about moving towards becoming a high-skill, high-productivity economy. If the system we have cannot offer good, affordable and varied opportunities for people to learn as adults, wherever they live and whatever their social background, then the system simply isn’t working.

Helena Kennedy wrote that education ‘has always been a source of social vitality and the more people we can include in the community of learning, the greater the benefits to us all’. It ‘strengthens the ties which bind people, takes the fear out of difference and encourages tolerance. It helps people to see what makes the world tick and the ways in which they, individually and together, can make a difference. It is the likeliest means of creating a modern, well-skilled workforce, reducing levels of crime, and creating participating citizens’. Wonderful words – as true now as they were in 1997. We haven’t changed and the social and economic needs Kennedy talks about are, if anything, more acute. Education has to offer more than a rounded liberal education for the few and patchy vocational training for the rest – or at least those that can afford it. As Kennedy argued, we can no longer afford to weight education spending on the already privileged in the expectation that this will produce ‘an excellence which permeates the system’. The trickle-down theory of economics doesn’t work – nor does the trickle-down theory of education. Apart from anything else, it is incredibly damaging to social cohesion or any sense that we are ‘in this together’. I’m sure nobody working at the Treasury would think mere training good enough for their children. Well, it isn’t good enough for other people’s children either.