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Disadvantage, inequality and social mobility: It’s not just about schools

‘Our society is stuck in a rut on social mobility,’ writes Institute of Education Director Becky Francis in a blog post published this week. Despite the efforts of successive governments, she writes, ‘the gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers … in education, income, housing, health … continues to yawn’.

Professor Francis cites a wealth of recent evidence to prove her point, including a report from the Education Policy Institute which shows that the most disadvantaged pupils in England are on average more than two full years of learning behind their better-off counterparts by the time they leave secondary school; and statistics from the Department for Education which indicate no improvement in the gap in university entry between those who received free school meals and those who did not in the seven years between 2008-09 and 2014-15. An estimated 24 per cent of pupils who were in receipt of free school meals at 15 had entered higher education by age 19 by 2015-15, compared to 41 per cent of the rest.

This makes for depressing reading, but it is not particularly surprising. While social mobility has been near the top of the political agenda in the UK for some time, efforts to tackle it have been half-hearted, at best, often loading pressure on the education system to turn around problems which are much wider and much more fundamental. This isn’t to say that the problems are insoluble or difficult to comprehend – just that solving them will take a much bigger effort and a much profounder change to the organization of our society than politicians like to pretend. In many cases, I am sorry to say, politicians have offered ‘solutions’, talked about ‘magic bullets’, in the full knowledge that they are nothing the sort. In fact, as they probably well know, the assumptions they accept about the limits of what it is possible to do make meaningful change to social mobility at best highly unlikely, at worst quite impossible. Despite years of overheated rhetoric, rather than narrowing, disparities in income, education and health look set to rise as we enter a further period of needless and self-inflicted austerity.

Professor Francis makes an eloquent case that, from a schools perspective, the key policy change should be ‘to find ways to support and incentivise the quality of teaching in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods’. This is important. I have direct experience of the difference a really talented, committed teacher can make to students’ lives and aspirations, albeit in a further education context, and I have seen the difference poor teachers can make, from school to higher education. It is clear that successfully incentivizing the best teachers to work in the most deprived schools, by whatever means, will make an important difference to outcomes. And it is evident, as Professor Francis also argues, that early-years interventions are often the most effective and best sustained.

But it is clear too that these, as isolated interventions, will have limited impact. Making a deep and lasting impact requires that we turn around the social and political trends that arrest and make more difficult social progress of this sort. The most obvious of these is the entrenched inequality that has come to characterise our society in past decades. There is a clear correlation between inequality and social mobility: the more unequal a society is the less socially mobile it is. And the UK is among the most unequal societies in the industrialised world. Part of the problem is that the rungs of the ladder have become too distant from one another and the cost of failing and falling down a rung becomes greater and greater. This partly explains why education has become such a high-pressure, high-stakes game, one which middle-class families have become adept at playing, further squeezing the life chances of the children of the less well off. It also helps explain why working-class students are happy to take on heavy debts to access higher education: in the high-stakes, anxiety-ridden education system we have created, the enormous costs of failing make the payment of exorbitant fees – the highest anywhere in the world – appear reasonable. The combination of such profound inequality with a gameable system and the pervasive myth of meritocracy – cultivated by politicians including Prime Minister Theresa May – is incredibly toxic.

Its impact can be readily recognised in the failure of elite universities to widen access to their institutions. A report from the Reform think tank, published this week, showed that England’s leading universities had made ‘incredibly slow’ progress in widening access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds on interventions which, I suspect, have ,in some cases, had more to do with satisfying the Office for Fair Access than making a genuine difference to their student profile. While, overall, English universities have increased access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the progress, predictably enough, has been skewed towards ‘lower- and middle-tier universities’, while the elite institutions live down to their reputation (hugely alienating from the perspective of prospective working-class students) as finishing schools for the already-privileged. The most dramatic gap obtains between private school students and those from state schools. In 2014-15, 65 per cent of independent school students entered a highly selective HEI by age 19, compared to 23 per cent of state school students, a gap of 42 percentage points (the gap was 39 percentage points in 2008-09). The tremendous loss of talent this represents is evidently thought a price worth paying for preserving the privileges of the fortunate few.

The fees regime, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, frequently vaunted as being an agent of fairer access (a myth that can only be maintained by ignoring huge swathes of evidence in favour of the bits you like), has, in fact, been a pretty much unmitigated and indefensible disaster in terms of widening access, not only creating what is effectively a two-tier university system but resulting in a 56 per cent collapse in part-time (mostly mature) student numbers and obliging the Open University, once a genuine agent of progressive social change, to massively inflate its fees, shutting yet further doors in the faces of working-class students. Its overall impact has been to make higher education more expensive for poorer students than for their richer counterparts while making the prospects of an ‘elite’ higher education seem yet more remote for working-class students who, despite the resistance of these institutions to admitting them, generally outperform more privileged counterparts with comparable grades.

It isn’t just mature and part-time higher study that has fallen into steep decline since 2010. Successive governments have made swingeing cuts to further education, and to adult skills, in particular, leading some experts to predict the imminent death of publicly funding adult FE. Only the activism of unions and representative groups, alongside the belated recognition that maybe training our homegrown talent wouldn’t be a bad idea in a post-Brexit, post-free movement Britain, have prevented adult education in FE from disappearing altogether. At the same time, as John Holford noted in a recent article, the narrowing of further education’s mission to a Gradgrind-like economic utilitarianism has made it increasingly difficult for colleges to fulfil their wider remit in their communities. The message to working-class students and prospective students from working-class backgrounds, wherever they study, could not be clearer: stick to what you know and keep your aspirations low. Aspire to a job and leave the joys of a broader, liberal education to those who can afford it. Hardly the stuff of an aspirational, learning society.

This constriction in opportunities for young people and adults has a major impact on the aspirations and achievements of children. As I have argued before, the role of the family is absolutely critical in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Family learning has a frequently neglected but hugely important role to play in motivating children and adults to learn, creating learning environments within the home and setting an example that can prove infectious. The restoration of funding for adult education should be part of a wider national effort to promote social mobility and combat inequality. This should also include a general increase in levels of investment in education, including in early years and high-level vocational and technical education (which has never been accorded due respect by UK policy-makers), bringing the UK to the level of comparable nations such as France and Germany, and the scrapping of the costly and dysfunctional fees system in higher education. Crucially, theses interventions should be part of a wider national conversation about how we reduce inequality, improve productivity and boost wages while redistributing wealth more fairly. We also need honest politicians who tell us the truth about the challenges we face and don’t spin us yarns about meritocracy and how education alone can overturn entrenched inequality. I don’t think any of this is rocket science. It just suits some of those who like things the way they are to pretend that it is.

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Education in an age of anxiety

We live in worrying times, don’t we? We test our children remorselessly and from an inappropriately early age because we are worried their performance is falling behind international standards. We send them to school earlier and press them harder than do most comparable countries; we also invest significantly less than most of them, citing our worries about money and the escalating debt. We continually reform our national skills strategy because we worry our skills system is less than ‘world class’ and our economy is becoming uncompetitive, putting huge pressure on further education to adapt and deliver on reduced budgets and under constant threat of a clobbering from our oppressive accountability system. And young people accept the reality of huge post-graduation debts because they fear the even greater costs of failing and slipping down the ladder. Wealthy parents spend a fortune gaming the system because they too are beset by the fear of downward social mobility – a grave risk indeed in our appallingly unequal society.

For very many of us, anxiety is the governing principle of our lives. Young people are wracked with anxiety about how they will ever be in a position to buy a house while those who do own their own homes are often weighed down by huge debts, unable to save or to think about retirement and forced, in many cases, to take on multiple jobs just to stay afloat. In some ways, I think Theresa May, in the brief honeymoon period of her dismal premiership, was right to highlight the plight of those ‘just struggling’ to get by. There are very many people out there who are stretching themselves to breaking point to do no more than simply exist. Where Mrs May was wrong, of course, was in thinking that she and her party were the solution to the problem rather than one of its foremost drivers.

It was, after all, her predecessor in power (another child of privilege so unacquainted with failure he couldn’t imagine it happening to him) who so successfully closed down debate about how much we should spend on public services by promoting the idea that overspending on things like health and education caused the financial crisis (and that another was looming – you know, like Greece – should we even think about spending as much on our children’s education as the Germans or the French spend on theirs). And it is her party that has ratcheted up the testing regime in schools, introduced more selection into schools (bad news and another cause of anxiety unless you can afford to rig the system and of course it is a system designed to be rigged), and made education dizzyingly expensive in a way that we are encouraged to think is financially necessary but which, in fact, is out of kilter with the cost of education in all comparable countries.

And somehow, in the midst all of this, we have voted repeatedly to be governed by those with least comprehension of the day-to-day toll of our anxiety-laden lives; a party of privilege and inherited wealth many senior members of which actively despise those at the bottom of the pile and have never experienced the worry of not knowing where the next meal is coming from or how they will afford a new pair of shoes or school uniform for their kids. Theirs is a different world of trust funds, debt-free liberal education, expensive internships, closed networks, risk-free investment and endless opportunities.

Doubtless they believe these opportunities should be available for them and their children – who wouldn’t – but it is equally clear that they do not want them to be available to us or our children. This is clearer nowhere else than in education. Building on the work of the last Labour government, which introduced and increased tuition fees, narrowed the further education curriculum and limited funding for part-time higher education, the governments of Cameron and May have overseen an enhanced vocationalism in FE and skills, cultivated a greater focus on selection (‘choice’) while reducing the overall budget for state-maintained schools, and created a hugely expensive two-tier system of higher education with elite universities, which offer a traditional liberal arts curriculum, dominated by young people who attended expensive private schools, while the rest, driven in part by anxiety about the career risks of non-vocational study, largely go to less prestigious institutions which offer more practical courses related to a job or vocation.

At the same time as countries such as China and Singapore began investing heavily in lifelong learning, recognizing the critical importance of skills renewal among the adult population and the need for education to prepare people not just for a job but for a life, the UK government, set on reducing the size of the state by any means and at any cost, took a wrecking ball to its own once enviably advanced lifelong learning system. The number of part-time students in higher education has fallen for seven consecutive years; last year alone by eight per cent – an overall decline of 61 per cent since 2010, when the coalition government introduced its funding reforms. The vast majority of part-time students, of course, are mature, adults who are already in the workforce who are combining higher study with a job, a family and other financial commitments.

Unsurprisingly, in this era of escalating anxiety, it is those with the most commitments, financial and otherwise, who have found themselves most excluded by the fees hike and the introduction of loans (this seems to have come as a surprise to the architects of the scheme though it was highlighted as a likely consequence, by NIACE and others, as early as 2010). As most part-time mature students tend also to come from less well-off, non-traditional backgrounds, this decline has also had a – largely unreported – impact on the social mix of our universities and on efforts to widen participation. As Claire Callender writes, the fall ‘has been greatest among older students, those wanting to do “bite size” courses, and those with low-level entry qualifications – all typically “widening participation” candidates.’

This shocking decline has caused barely a wrinkle in the brows of successive universities ministers. The present one, Jo Johnson (another politician who has had to claw his way to the top) has done little to suggest he considers the collapse of part-time higher education to be anything more than a minor inconvenience; regrettable, for sure, but a price worth paying to maintain the integrity of our costly and evidently failing higher education funding system. The line seems to be to stress the system’s relative success in increasing the numbers of young people from less-advantaged backgrounds (though the ‘top’ universities remain stubbornly resistant to change, continuing to act as finishing schools for the children of the very wealthy). Of course, this would look like less like success if part-time students were included in the same calculation – and it starts to look like serious failure if we also consider the institutions to which ‘widening participation’ candidates tend to gravitate.

The picture is no rosier in further education, where the government has savagely reduced the adult education budget to the point where usually conservative commentators were warning of its complete disappearance by 2020. Since then the government has attempted to restore some stability to the budget, but the cuts have been eye-watering, limiting the breadth and quantity of opportunity for older learners. In 2016-16 alone 24 per cent of the budget was cut, on top of year-on-year cuts amounting to 35 per cent of the total adult skills budget between 2009 and 2015. The range of provision on offer has narrowed too, reflecting largely discredited government choices about the skills that are economically useful, but also, I suspect, the tendency of people, driven by anxiety, to opt for courses they think will have a direct economic pay-off. Of course, this approach neglected – and continues to neglect – the importance of a range of other crucial skills, which are important in the workplace and in life more generally, such as resilience, creativity, problem-solving and, perhaps most importantly of all, a love of learning. As this year’s OECD Skills Outlook report suggested, the neglect of such skills makes little economic sense and is almost certainly harmful to productivity, where the UK traditionally performs extremely poorly.

Of course, the anxiety which drives people away from education and into compromised choices which do little justice to their real talents and aspirations, is part of a wider anxiety, fed by cuts to public services, rising household debt, growing inequality, pay restraint, insecure work and rising costs of living. For too long, the question of how much we should spend and on what has been off the agenda, as though we were too impoverished a nation to make serious choices about the kind of society we want to belong to. This year’s general election appears to have opened debate a little wider, though it takes place in the face of bitter resistance from the mainstream media and those who control it (who, by and large, whatever their populist pretentions, are rather happy with a status quo that privileges them and stifles the vast majority). My hope is that we can have a serious national conversation about tax and public spending in spite of this.

An Oxfam inequality index ranked the UK 109th in the world for the proportion of its budget it spends on education – behind the likes of Kazakhstan and Cambodia (no disrespect intended to those nations but the UK is evidently a significantly wealthier country with very well-established education institutions and a well-documented need to increase both its productivity and the basic skills of its population). Oxfam’s report also noted that tuition fees in the UK are the highest in the industrialised world, with the burden of student debt disproportionally borne by poorer students. It noted too that UK corporation tax has been cut further and faster than in most other rich countries, ranking the UK’s tax system 96th in terms of commitment to reduce inequality.

The government has approached Brexit without a plan – even for the Brexit negotiations themselves. Sabre-rattling and political posturing are, it turns out, no preparation for lengthy, complex and highly detailed negotiations across a huge array of topics. Little wonder EU counterparts are privately talking with thinly veiled contempt about David Davis and his team. But the government has let us down in a more profound way. It has purposefully stifled debate about the sort of society we can be, while effecting to have no choice about deliberate and ideologically driven decisions about funding which have had a calamitous impact on people’s lives. In doing so, it has denied hope of change or a better life to many thousands of people.

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A plan for Britain after Brexit: In search of a better politics

A general election which has been in some respects something of a foregone conclusion has, nevertheless, produced a campaign which has been both dynamic and interesting but also, from the perspective of genuinely progressive politics, profoundly depressing. It has shown just how very bitter the political divisions in UK society have become and highlighted how puerile, ill-informed and wholly unedifying our political culture now is.

Genuine open and informed, cross-party discussion about the real challenges the country faces and the real options available to us in terms of policy interventions now seems pretty much beyond us. Frankness is in vanishingly short supply and there is a lack of credibility at the core of both main parties’ policy platforms, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out. The Labour Party, while offering a costed and pretty well thought-out manifesto, has, nevertheless, been over-optimistic about the revenue its reforms will bring in and has done too little to bring the whole country with it. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been arrogant enough to leave costings out of the equation altogether, campaigning on an extraordinarily thin base which has nevertheless wobbled and shifted throughout a thoroughly awful and ineptly run campaign. Nor have they been frank about the impact of the continuation of the politics of austerity which has already seen public investment fall below levels necessary to maintain decent education and health services and will see these services cut more and more over the course of the next parliament. Not only are such cuts unnecessary, they run directly counter to international trends.

The most likely outcome now seems to be an increased Tory majority but a significantly smaller one than expected when May opportunistically called the election, citing national interest but thinking only of party. Labour may do better than expected but have not, I suspect, made serious inroads into the core vote of other parties nor have they established the sort of progressive alliance that could do serious damage to the prospects of a Conservative majority. Corbyn has impressed many people during the campaign, struck by his sincerity and commitment, but for many others, the traditional Tory and some UKIP voters, he remains seriously toxic, and, ill-founded and irrelevant as they may be, the ‘press the red button/terrorist sympathizer/magic money tree’ guff hits home with a lot of people.

May, on the other hand, has seen her star plummet, deservedly so, with her failure to rebuke Trump over his moronic rubbishing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan the latest example of her weak leadership and lack of moral substance. Her campaign has offered little in the way of constructive policy thinking (her own flagship policy of increasing the number of grammar schools is a socially regressive measure her own minsters find difficult to defend) and has seen a party with no plan for Brexit (beyond being prepared to entertain an option worse that a bad deal) present itself as the party with a plan for Brexit, while a PM whose leadership has been characterised by lack of backbone and a willingness to bend to the will of power has staked most of her hopes on being recognised as a strong and stable leader.

Labour, nevertheless, have run a decent campaign which has tapped into grassroots support, mostly in places where Labour is already strong, though I suspect it has made little impression in strongly Conservative seats where the weak messaging on tactical voting makes it unlikely we will see much change. Jeremy Corbyn is likely to hold onto most existing Labour seats which may be perceived as a success in some quarters but will disappoint many caught up in the apparent groundswell in support for the Labour leader. If, as is highly likely, Labour lose the election, they will need a leader capable of unifying the party and reaching out to all parts of the country if they are to contest the next election with a hope of winning. However, it seems likely Corbyn will limp on, for the time being at least.

Despite the likely failure of his campaign to land many blows on a governing party which, at the end of the day, is offering little more than the managed decline of Britain’s place and reputation in the world, Corbyn may, nevertheless, come to be seen as having created a worthwhile legacy, leaving something that a new leader can build on. For one thing, he has put the chronic underfunding of UK public services under the spotlight. And while his proposals for increases in top-end tax have prompted the worst sort of dog-whistle reactions in the increasingly rabid and right-wing British press, they have also allowed commentators and institutions such as the IFS to highlight how modest these proposals actually are by international standards. Corbyn’s plans, if implemented, would still place the UK some way behind the likes of Germany and France in the tax-and-spend league tables, as the IFS acknowledges. They certainly would not require the services of a ‘magic money tree’; nor, fairly obviously, would they ‘bankrupt the country’ (it is an indictment of our media that the previous Labour government is still widely – and wrongly – regarded as having wrecked the country’s economy through excessive borrowing). Whether they would lead a few corporations to consider leaving the UK is another question. I suspect, by and large, not, given the absence of substantially better terms in comparable countries.

Corbyn has also, quite properly, resisted attempts to put Brexit at centre stage of the election debate. He is surely right to put wider social and economic issues first. Our ‘plan for Brexit’ should be shaped by the vision we have for the sort of country we want to belong to; not the other way around. He has also adopted a measured thoughtful approach to discussion, which other leaders can learn from. I hope it can provide a basis for a more intelligent, all-embracing national debate about the kind of country we want to be. We are in severe danger of giving a huge mandate to a leader who is about to enter Brexit negotiations without having set forth a clear vision of the kind of Britain she wants to emerge post-Brexit. And, make no mistake, the kind of Britain we become will be strongly influenced by the outcome of these negotiations.

There is an opportunity here to launch a different kind of politics, with progressive parties taking a genuine lead in shaping genuinely national debate. With casual and unforgiveable recklessness, the Conservative party has taken the country to a place no serious commentator thought was in its interests. It now approaches crucial negotiations apparently misty-eyed at some vague right-wing fantasy of what we could become if only we turned our back on our most important trading partners and threw ourselves largely at the mercy of an infantile US president who is likely to name the NHS as the price for any prospective trade deal. It’s down to parties on the left of politics to ensure there is meaningful inclusive debate about where we want to go and who we want to be. We need, above all, to have a sensible debate about what public services we want and how we pay for them and we need that debate to be informed by an understanding of what things costs and what other, comparable nations are prepared to pay and to tax. This will be difficult. The level of debate is low and the noise from those who would rather this discussion did not take place will be huge. But it has to happen. Just as Labour forged its ‘Plan for Britain’ amid the rubble of World War II, we need a new ‘Plan for Brexit’ which is just as far-reaching, just as ambitious and expansive, just as full of hope and purpose. Like its predecessor it should tackle crucial issues to do with infrastructure, education, productivity, fairness, equality, health and social security, and it should aim to be inclusive. It has to carry people with it.

For my part, I have already voted (by post) for Labour and Mr Corbyn. My vote will hopefully contribute to re-electing a Labour MP in a constituency which has changed hands between Tory and Labour over the years (though it has been in Labour’s hands since 1997). I hope that, around the country, other people who favour a politics that is progressive rather than reactionary will also vote for the party with the best chance of unseating a Conservative candidate. I do believe that another, better politics is possible and I think a Labour government, or a progressive coalition of some sort, offers by far the best chance. Without it, I fear the government will continue to destroy yet more of the UK’s hard-won social infrastructure, systematically ruining the life chances of most of our children (those whose parents can’t afford to send them to private school or to have them coached through the 11-plus) and further cutting funding to the already cash-starved NHS, as a prelude to its eventual privatization. I fear the outcome of Brexit will be an isolated, impoverished, less environmentally secure UK, a friend to crooks, tax cheats and tyrants, eaten up by self-loathing and tantalized by the fantasy, backwards-looking politics of the right: the country that took back control but didn’t have a clue what to do with it. And I fear that the dwindling supply of foreign skills and expertise will not be met by a thoughtful and well-funded reinvigoration of our own education and skills system. The UK is now very much an outlier in its commitment to austerity.

Nevertheless, for all of this, I will turn my television on at 10pm on Thursday night hopeful of a result no serious commentator is predicting. In all likelihood, I will be disappointed, as will millions of others. It is going to hurt. But it is important people remain hopeful, even if they have to work hard to find a reason to. That is the challenge now, to nurture those increasingly elusive ‘resources of hope’, as Raymond Williams termed them; to use them to build something better. We must not allow the meagre politics of division and desperation, or the clamour of those who want us to talk and think about anything other than the things that really matter, to win out.

 

 

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Breaking the cycle: The case for investing in family learning

The draft Labour party manifesto, leaked last week, included some good ideas on education, such as the setting up of a national education service, which may turn out to be the one really big idea of Labour’s campaign. The draft manifesto also indicated that, if elected, Labour would do more than previous governments to reduce poverty and promote social mobility, introducing measures to redistribute wealth and using taxation to improve education and health services. Nobody would argue that these improvements depend on money alone – it has to be spent intelligently and in a well-evidenced, joined-up way – but equally there is no denying that by international standards we have invested too little and reformed too much in these areas.

There is welcome attention for lifelong learning and the role of continuous training in improving productivity in the leaked document, reflecting not only a growing recognition among policymakers that this has been neglected, but also the hard work of the likes of Gordon Marsden and David Lammy in forcing the issue up the agenda, nationally and within their own party. What I would have liked to have seen – and hope still to see – is some appreciation of the critical role of the family in bridging the gap between education and poverty reduction and, in particular, a commitment to supporting family learning as part of a coherent set of measures to ensure the effectiveness of educational interventions in addressing social issues such as poverty.

Family learning has been long neglected and, unlike lifelong learning, it is still to emerge from the shadowy margins of education policy thinking. But it feels to me, in many ways, an idea whose time has come. It has been shown to have a significant impact on the attainment of the children who take part in it, and an equally significant impact on their parents – whose desire to better support their children at school can be the hook that gets them back into education. A few years ago, I met a group of mums from Ely, one of the poorest districts in Wales, who got involved in family learning at their children’s school and went on to set up their own community projects, including a neighbourhood newspaper. Whereas at the start of their engagement, some had been afraid even to speak to their children’s teachers in the playground, they had become formidable advocates for their kids and for the community in which they lived. This is a very significant achievement but it is far from unusual. There are projects like this around the country, run by passionate educators, which demonstrate the huge difference family learning can make to the confidence, aspiration and achievement of the hardest-to-reach adults and children.

Just as importantly, family learning strengthens the bonds between the generations, encourages mutual respect and creates a more supportive, cooperative home environment. It allows adults to support their children and set them a positive, inspiring example. It shows children that their parents care about learning and about their learning, and it puts education at the heart of family life. It fosters the habit of learning, and a range of associated skills such as persistence, attentiveness and communication, and it bridges the gap between the classroom and the home, ensuring education does not end at the school gate. Research shows that children stand a better chance in life in their parents participate in learning. And, often, family learning is the key motivator for those the greatest distance from educational engagement. As educational interventions go, it is also inexpensive. And certainly it is much less expensive than dealing with the fall-out of blighted lives and frustrated opportunities in communities in which disadvantage is passed on from generation to generation and hope is in vanishingly short supply.

Family learning should be part of a coherent national approach to work, education and disadvantage that includes better support for further education and lifelong learning and steps to improve access to higher education for people from poorer backgrounds, including adults. Labour’s draft manifesto includes some laudable commitments on this score which should be part of a wider national conversation about how we pay for public services, including education, and whether we should look to increase our spending on areas such as education and health where we lag behind comparable countries. One thing that struck me about Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in France was the new French President’s willingness to put such questions in a sensible and straightforward way and his appreciation of the importance of establishing broad appeal. Yes, of course, you can have more of x, but more of x will be costly and will mean more taxation for some in the population – and that is a decision for us all to take together. If only we would capture some of that tone in UK debate about public services. The UK’s strongly pro-austerity, pro-government media acts like an attack dog at the merest suggestion of an increase in spending, slavering dementedly about ‘fantasy economics’ and ‘magic money trees’. Though it masquerades as serious journalism, this is a major impediment to the kind of debate we desperately need to have.

We need a serious national conversation about whether education, wealth and power should be more evenly distributed in our society. We need to ask whether we want the circumstances of a child’s birth to be the primary determinant of their life chances. To ask such questions isn’t Marxism – it is what politics should be about: priorities and how to pay for them. There has been a concerted effort, over many years, to prevent such a conversation taking place. Perhaps now, with an undeniably real (though for many not especially palatable) choice placed before the UK electorate, we can begin to have one. My fear though is that the divisive, tribal nature of British politics (and the entrenched and very powerful interests that like it that way) will prevent it. Long-term, successful change is impossible without a high degree of consensus, and consensus can only be built through open, inclusive democratic dialogue.

Today is the UN’s Day of Families, a day focused, this year, on the role of families and family-related policies in promoting the education and overall wellbeing of their members. We must ask whether we want to be the sort of society that neglects those families who can’t afford to stump up large sums of money for their children’s education – or the sort of society that values all its people and helps them learn to value themselves. Education must be at the heart of such an enterprise, with the role of family learning in bringing generations together and supporting the growth of more resilient and prosperous communities finally, and fully, recognized. The kind of society I dream of belonging to puts people first, no matter what their background, and invests to help them realize their full potential. That means putting families and how they learn and grow at the heart of our thinking. We should see the wellbeing of families and the opportunities they have to learn as inextricably linked.

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It’s the people, stupid

The OECD’s 2017 Skills Outlook report was published this week. It argued that the world has entered a new stage of globalisation in which countries’ capacity to compete in global markets depends on the willingness of governments to invest in the skills and education of their young people and adults and on the quality and level of the education and training provided. It should be read with concern by policymakers and practitioners from all parts of the education sector – everyone, in short, in a position to influence educational outcomes and strategy. For the UK, the message is clear: only by reversing the recent direction of thinking about policy and investing both in the skills of adults and in the provision of a wider, less rigid curriculum can we hope to remain internationally competitive in this brave, and potentially quite ruthless, new world of ‘global value chains’ and increased labour market volatility.

The report uses the language of economic growth, productivity and skills for employment so familiar from the grinding utilitarianism of recent UK education policy. But it arrives at a very different place: one where people matter more than qualifications and competitiveness emerges not from a narrow focus on employability but from the implementation of a wider curriculum which values so-called soft skills such as communication, self-organisation and, critically, a readiness to continue learning throughout life, alongside strong cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, problem-solving) and more job-specific, routine skills. I hope education policy-makers in the UK will be open to the possibility that, for quite some time now, they have been headed in the wrong direction.

The position of the UK, as described in the report, is mixed. The UK was ranked ninth out of 28 countries for the proportion of 25- to 64-year-olds in education and training – ahead of the likes of Germany and France but behind Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. However, the report also notes that the ‘skills characteristics’ of skilled worked ‘struggle to meet the requirements of the technologically advanced sectors’. These skills characteristics, the report says, needed to ‘better align’ with ‘industries’ skills requirements to maintain or deepen specialisation in these industries’. This kind of specialisation is key to participation in what the OECD terms ‘global value chains’ – in which workers from different countries ‘contribute to the design, production, marketing and sales of the same product’. The report suggests a link between increased participation in global value chains and increases in productivity. To spread such productivity gains across the economy, the report says, all firms, including small firms, need workers with a mix of skills, including cognitive and soft skills.

Productivity has, of course, been a major issue for the UK economy for years. It seems a lifetime ago that then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne dubbed the UK’s low productivity the main economic challenge of this parliament. Two years on, Osborne has stood down as a Member of Parliament and is editing the Evening Standard, the UK is heading out of the European Union and a new Prime Minister has called another General Election, urging voters to strengthen her hand in a negotiation which looks increasingly likely to lead to a hard Brexit. In this incredibly febrile and fast-changing environment, one thing has not changed, however: productivity remains a key challenge for the United Kingdom, perhaps the key challenge when it comes to achieving a prosperous future for the UK. It is well-known that the UK has a long-standing and growing productivity gap with other western economies. The UK’s Office for National Statistics’ most recent estimate (2014) found the UK’s productivity (output per hour) to be 36 percentage points behind that of Germany.

Intelligent investment in education and skills is key both to improving productivity and ensuring global competitiveness and to the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals and communities (there is an argument from social justice every bit as compelling as the economic argument). But in far too many cases, and for far too long, ministers have failed to deliver anything like the step change required. For much of the education sector, and for further education, in particular, a culture of profound policy instability has been established by successive governments. Meanwhile, ministers have invested heavily in poorly judged policy interventions, implemented with scant regard to evidence or research, while reducing expenditure where it has been most needed, particularly on adult skills and education. Despite two decades of relentless policy focus on FE and skills, the UK continues to perform poorly in terms of literacy and numeracy skills, while, as the report shows, failing to supply the skills demanded in technologically advanced sectors. The UK has for some time been dependent on the supply of skilled individuals, most from Europe, to plug some of the gaps in the skills of its population. With Brexit looming, the UK is going to have to rely much more heavily on homegrown talent and this should prompt a major rethink of priorities in education.

Adult participation in education, which the government should be prioritising in an ageing society in which 90 per cent of the 2025 workforce is already employed, has been in steep decline. The adult skills budget has borne the brunt of cuts to further education, falling by 40 per cent since 2010, while part-time student numbers have collapsed by 56 per cent in just five years – an unsurprising outcome of huge fee increases and the offer of loans to groups known to be debt averse. At the same time, the adult curriculum has narrowed, focusing ever more rigidly on a very limited understanding of the skills required for employment. The government has been incredibly slow in recognising the growing importance of lifelong learning and the skills and talent of its own people. It remains to be seen whether the resurgence of interest in lifelong learning amounts to anything more than a few lonely straws in the wind.

This is a terribly depressing picture but an unsurprising one. For some time now, our political class has seemed perversely indifferent to the political and economic reality in which it finds itself. UK politics has been conducted in a bubble in which concocted fears prompt fake outrage and dominate policy discourse, while real specters loom unnoticed on every side. The government’s decision to reject the Lords HE Bill amendment to remove students from the net migration target is one of many recent policy interventions which reflect this. Likewise, the appalling and unwarranted decision to prioritise the creation of a new generation of grammar schools, which will further reduce opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged and ensure that more of our best talents go unfulfilled, reinstating a system that saw many thousands of children branded as failures at age 11. A recent study in Kent showed that grammars ‘understate the true academic abilities’ of poorer children. This, again, is not a surprising finding given that selection is not intended to promote social mobility – it is about ensuring that privilege is passed on and the poor know their place and stay in it.

All of this is evidence of a government not only impervious to evidence, but indifferent to the real needs of people struggling to keep their lives and families together – people who want not more selection and competition but the guarantee of a good education for their children no matter where they live or how much they earn. This is not a fantasy – it is a reality for many advanced countries around the world (the report gives some examples). Yet the UK government, which could attempt to legislate for the good of all, prefers to see most state schools, including very many excellent ones, struggle for survival, while throwing money at pet projects which benefit only a minority. We are further than ever from the sort of fairly funded, genuinely coherent national education system we need.

It is evident that a change of direction is needed but there is little prospect of one, at least in the short- or medium-term. Even if a future government came to power with a different approach to the current (and, in all likelihood, next) one and a genuine commitment to fair access, equality of opportunity and lifelong learning for all, it would find it challenging to replace the infrastructure of adult education and civic society which this government and its predecessor have done so recklessly dismantled. The waste of human potential, now accepted by most mainstream politicians as inevitable, is appalling and wrong. It is wrong because it does not have to be this way. We could do things differently, we could be the sort of society which values everyone equally and which offers the chance of a decent education to everyone, irrespective of background. The fact that we don’t and have no intention of doing so is not only an indictment of our political class and culture, it is also evidence that we are failing to nourish, care for or fully value what the OECD rightly identifies as our most important asset: our people.

Investment in people’s education is where this starts. We need more of it and we need to do it more intelligently, taking seriously the evidence of what works and what doesn’t. As the OECD’s report makes clear, investing in people and their skills has a direct pay-off in terms of economic and social outcomes, and is the key factor in supporting countries’ success in global markets. It is also indicative of a decent and civilized society. Low wages and long working hours are no recipe for economic or civic renewal, certainly not if we want a fair, flourishing and vibrant democracy in which a person’s future is not determined by the circumstances of their birth. My worry is that we are no longer prepared to aim that high.

 

 

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We are on the brink of a new era, if only…

So, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap general election. The result of the election, as things stand, is likely to be a substantially increased majority for the Conservative Party, a significantly strengthened hand for the PM, a greater likelihood of ‘hard’ Brexit from the EU and the single market, and the further erosion of popular support for the Labour Party, the future of which now looks bleak indeed.

It saddens me enormously to have to acknowledge this, as a lifelong Labour supporter and sometime member; but we need to be realistic about the challenges we face if we are to begin to address them. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn when he first stood for leadership of the Labour Party. I knew little about him at the time but he easily outshone the other candidates at hustings and promised a change of tone and direction that I welcomed. I hoped for a unified party and a leader capable of creating a shadow cabinet with a place for everyone, and I took Corbyn’s promise to deliver this seriously (in fact, it was this that finally led me to prefer Corbyn to Yvette Cooper, the candidate I favoured initially but whose campaign was poor). Unhappily, for all his apparent decency and concern for issues I too believe in, he has not been able or willing to deliver this.

By appointing John McDonnell as his shadow chancellor, Corbyn gave an immediate indication that a genuinely unified party was not a part of his agenda at all. He must have been aware that this is precisely how this appointment would be read by other MPs. In making it, he in one stroke undid the good work he had done in promising an open, all-embracing style of party leadership. So much for straight-talking politics. I accept that Corbyn and the party have not been helped by the antics of some rebel Labour MPs, but Corbyn too has done little to build bridges between wings of the party, while many of his supporters seem bent on splitting it, ousting many excellent and hard-working MPs in the process. Perhaps Corbyn too is more concerned with changing the Labour Party than with changing the way the country is run. He now faces a general election at the head of a bitterly divided party, with an exceedingly thin-looking shadow cabinet and what is effectively a shadow cabinet in waiting sat behind him on the back benches.

Even accepting that Corbyn’s heart is in the right place and that he has some decent policy ideas capable of winning popular support, it has become patently clear that he lacks not only the requisite management and leadership skills to run and carry with him a major political party but also the high-level intellectual skills to challenge government policy, as demonstrated by his faltering and often embarrassing performances at PMQs. Many of the attacks on Corbyn have been unfair and are plainly politically motivated but I think his supporters are deluding themselves if they believe his woes are entirely of the media’s making. There is now a firmly entrenched public perception that Corbyn is unelectable. This impression, one that is, frankly, unlikely to be turned around in the space of a few weeks, is down partly to media bias but also, and undeniably, to his own words, actions and performance. It is, I regret to say, likely to prove fatal, unless Corbyn can demonstrate that he is capable of fronting a wider coalition of views and expertise. Frustrated at Corbyn’s inability to organize a creditable opposition to what, in my view, is the most deceiving, cynical, reckless and bitterly divided government in living memory, I allowed my membership of the party to lapse last year. It gives me no pleasure at all to say this, knowing how deeply divisive this issue is among Labour members, including some of my closest friends and family. Even now, there is a part of me that is desperate to be convinced by Jeremy Corbyn and his team.

If things look bleak for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, they look bleaker still for the country. Like most followers of progressive causes, I am used to disappointment, but the double blow of the 2015 Conservative general election outcome and the Brexit vote has been pretty hard to take. The pain is particularly acute since the government, and the coalition before it, have pursued – and continue to pursue – policies which will make the majority of people poorer, increase inequality, diminish opportunity and undermine democracy. The current Prime Minister, like her predecessor, happily puts party political considerations above the stability and security of the country. She is a shallow, unsympathetic and deliberately divisive leader whose flagship policy – the resurgence of grammar schools – is evidentially groundless and morally indefensible. She is taking us backwards to a society in which the circumstances of a child’s birth determine their life outcomes and employers are free to exploit the unlucky second tier of our education system, untroubled by the hard-won workplace legislation May and her ilk dismiss as ‘red tape’. Far from sharing Theresa May’s sense of a country ‘coming together’, I see one bitterly divided by covert class war, I see people passionate for change but unable to channel their passion and I see people desperately throwing blame where it does not belong.

At home, in the UK, many believe they have made a bold and brave choice, taking back control – and, in their view, sovereignty – from invisible bureaucrats, freeing up Great Britain to become truly great again. They see those who disagree with them as a threat to the democratic mandate they believe they have won, as ‘saboteurs’ who should be ‘crushed’, perhaps, to use the Daily Mail’s words. Viewed from Europe, where I am part of an international workforce drawn from some 28 countries around the world, the perception is rather different. For the most part, the people I meet like and respect the British; they are smart enough to know that we are more than a few moronic football supporters chanting Sun headlines in a Madrid bar. They are not angry or upset about Brexit, and they don’t want to punish us for it; though they are aware of the spread of vacuous nationalistic jingoism and irresponsible anti-immigration rhetoric that helped produce it (in many cases, of course, they are familiar with this from their own countries). I would say that, by and large, the most common response is perplexity about a decision which will see the UK lose much and gain little. There is a general perception that we have voted to leave with little understanding either of what we are leaving or of where we are going. And, for the most part, people feel pretty sad about it.

So, where do we go from here? The past few months have, for me, been the most depressing and least hopeful in my own political lifetime, but change is always possible, and, as ever, the options are wider than people are encouraged to believe. It is not too late for Corbyn to reach out to the wider party, which he must do be effective as a leader. He needs to be the kind of leader who is not afraid to trust the expertise of others in his party, to disperse power and responsibility and be genuinely prepared to open up key positions to people with whom he disagrees. In terms of policy, Labour should try to put clear water between it and the Tories on Brexit. It should make clear it is the party of soft Brexit, actively engaging with European partners as part of a single market and highlighting the very significant benefits of free movement. It’s agenda here should be clear, offering a genuine alternative to all those who feel alienated by the hardening of government rhetoric – but it must also try to widen the debate. The Government and the media are keen to make the general election a re-run of the EU referendum. Labour needs to show that there are bigger issues at stake and that this is a vote on the kind of Britain we want to see: closed, narrow-minded and belligerent, a low-wage haven for unscrupulous employers and tax evaders or open, caring, cooperative, democratic, careful about the friends we keep and keen to be an active partner and good, progressive example in Europe, even if we no longer have a seat at the EU table.

Progressive voters will need to think tactically and progressive parties, Labour included, will need to work together if change is to be more than a possibility. They need a common plan. The one contingency the Conservative Party probably won’t have planned for is a genuinely coordinated, well-planned coalition of progressives, with Labour at its heart, reaching out as well as in, engaging across the party and beyond it, and demonstrating genuine unity of purpose in creating a Britain that is worth living in, whether it is part of the EU or not. If this doesn’t happen, I fear bleak and difficult times lie ahead.

 

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Learning, thinking and resistance

Describing news that you don’t like as ‘fake’, as UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd did at the weekend in an attempt to avoid answering a question, is a dangerous step for a politician to take. For one thing, it shows a reckless attitude to the truth; for another, a preference for closing down unwelcome or difficult debate rather than engaging with it. It also undermines people’s faith in probably the main and most reliable source of information about their world for entirely frivolous reasons. Clearly, there is a lot of ‘news’ out there that doesn’t deserve the name, much of it emanating from Rupert Murdoch’s tawdry empire (ironically, now courted by the opponents of ‘fake news’ on both sides of the Atlantic). But there are also many sources of news which consciously attempt to be fair, balanced and accurate. The news Rudd was troubled by – a report that the government would take only 350 unaccompanied child refugees from Syria under the so-called Dubs scheme – was not only from a reputable source; it was also accurate.

Of course, the UK government is very familiar with fake news and is an unapologetic source of it. Since 2010 it has very cleverly and effectively established a kind of alternative political reality in which it governs: an exaggerated and distorted narrative of political and economic events devised to justify or obscure extreme political decisions, including savage cuts to public services, the devastation of major cultural institutions such as the public library service and the deliberate abandonment of parts of the education system, which the public might otherwise find unpalatable. The problem with governing through this sort of systematic distortion of the truth is, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in an interview in the New York Review of Books, that ‘lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history … you get not only one lie [but] a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows’. A people ‘that can no longer believe anything’, Arendt continues, ‘cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and judge. And with such a people you can then do as you please.’ If the media has failed its public, it has been not in making up the news – though undoubtedly it has sometimes done that – but in failing to offer more than mere balance between opposing views. In a world of competing versions of the truth, where views are privileged over facts and the media offers no compass with which to navigate these confusing waters, it is little wonder people prefer, increasingly, to invest in narratives that are emotionally rather than intellectually persuasive.

I was thinking about Hannah Arendt having re-read Jon Nixon’s 2015 Times Higher piece on Arendt on the train this morning. It’s a really interesting short essay which seems to me now, as it did when I first read it, hugely relevant to those who see the traditions of adult education and continuing education as worth reviving. Arendt’s work, Nixon writes ‘is a reminder of the urgent need for us to learn to think together’; something without which ‘there can be no informed judgement, no moral agency and no possibility of collective action – no “care of the world”.’ Education, in Arendt’s words, is the point at which ‘we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it’. It offers us, Nixon says, ‘a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion: a space to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to “assume responsibility”’. Arendt’s work, he concludes, reminds us ‘that education is a public good: that the more we participate in it, the greater its potential contribution to the wellbeing of society as a whole and the vibrancy of the body politic’.

Nixon’s argument is addressed to universities, which, he contends, have a responsibility to create spaces in which members of the academic community can ‘question and challenge’, without predetermined outcomes or artificial barriers to thought. I couldn’t agree more with this. But I think a university’s responsibility is wider. It is not only students and academics who have a need to think critically but the wider community too and that, to my mind, is a crucial part of the mission of higher education, one that has been neglected to the point that many institutions have forgotten that it exists or, indeed, that, in many cases, it is part of their founding missions. The past few decades have seen a collapse in university lifelong learning, with many universities closing their departments (most recently, the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, which was closed by the University of Leicester in a manner that did the university little credit). But it is these departments which have, for much of the twentieth century and some of the present one, offered people precisely the kinds of spaces Arendt was talking about – safe places where people could question and critique, challenge and be challenged; sites which, in the first decades of the last century, acted almost as a training ground for early generations of socialist MPs. They broke down boundaries, between institutions and their communities, lecturers and students, while stimulating local and national democratic life. Often these departments were also drivers of wider innovations within higher education, prompting both new curriculum developments and new thinking about how learning could be delivered. They built intellectual and cultural capital within working communities while also fostering empathy and civic concern.

Universities have an obligation to mean something in the lives of the communities in which they operate – and that has to be more than as a source of employment. They should not simply be finishing schools for the children of the wealthy, populated by academics whose lives and interests rarely intersect with those of their near neighbours. They should be actively reaching out to the communities that have disappeared from our political and cultural life, except, largely, as objects of ridicule. They should be in permanent listening mode, listening hardest to those who have the least voice. They should be challenging political narratives that exclude their concerns, or which blow up certain concerns (immigration, for example) at the expense of others which have far greater impact on their lives (supply of affordable housing or cuts to funding for health care). And, of course, they do all of these things, to an extent. Too often, though, it is down to the initiative of individual academics, often those willing to put in a shift at the margins of their work to make universities’ historic ‘third mission’ meaningful. The institutions themselves could, in many cases, do much, much more to challenge and be different, to create spaces here people can learn and think together, where the ideas of academics can be deepened with the experience of their community neighbours, and where people can have serious, unconstrained discussions about how best to live. As Arendt suggests, one of the casualties of a dishonest politics is a sense of hope. Not knowing what to believe saps agency, disempowers those at the bottom of the pile and, worst of all, removes hope. We are a society badly in need of a lot more hope.

Arendt believed that the ability to think, question and be reflective must be an essential component of any meaningful democratic change. If we, as a society, are serious about the democratic project, we need to create more spaces in which this is possible, starting small and local, where most meaningful social change begins. Key to facilitating such spaces, Arendt felt, was to ensure dialogue was genuinely open and not at all constrained. That means trusting people and being prepared to put up with answers you disagree with. The point is, once you open up a conversation, you don’t know where it will lead. If we want to involve people in politics, we have to give people the space in which to do politics, and that means giving them the opportunity to think substantive thoughts about substantive questions, including those considered off the mainstream agenda. People are more wary of experts than they are weary of them. They want to be able to engage and challenge them, not feel bullied by them. People want reasons to hope, a way out of the trap they find themselves in. Thinking and learning are inescapable parts of this and universities have a big role to play, as part of a wider, more democratic and cohesive tertiary sector. It’s time they revived their civic mission. I hope this role is not neglected as new thinking begins to reshape the lifelong learning landscape. If we are not ambitious about our futures now, I do genuinely fear for the kinds of futures we might have.

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Language, education and a sustainable future

For native English speakers like me, used to encountering their own language in education, at work and in the media, whether at home or abroad, it is sobering to reflect that some 40 per cent of the global population do not have access to education in a language they can speak or understand. Many millions of children are taught in a language they do not speak at home, while, for equally huge numbers of adults, the unavailability of learning programmes in their mother tongue remains an insurmountable barrier to furthering their education. As a Global Education Monitoring Report paper published to coincide with International Mother Language Day 2016 noted, these challenges are most acute in global regions where linguistic diversity is greatest, such as sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific, and where poverty and gender inequality tend to magnify disadvantages to do with ethnicity and language. Being taught in a language that is not one’s own can have a huge negative impact on a learner’s confidence, creativity and ability to achieve. That is a huge proportion of the global population whose educational circumstances are preventing them from achieving all they might.

This is why International Mother Language Day, while perhaps not the best known of the United Nations’ international days, is, nevertheless, among the most important. Its value is reflected in the Education 2030 Framework for Action, which notes the importance of context-related bilingual and intercultural programmes of education in ensuring that ‘all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy’ (SDG Target 4.6). It is important that this is highlighted and understood. Respecting people’s cultural and linguistic rights, and paying attention to the role played by a learner’s first language as a medium of instruction and in becoming literate, is essential if countries are to meet the SDG literacy target.

Mother language and multilingual education has a wider significance, too, however, as the use of a learner’s mother language has been found to have a positive impact on learning across the board, supporting better dialogue between teacher and student, boosting participation in society and opening up access to new knowledge and understanding. It can be key in boosting a learner’s confidence and self-esteem, affirming their sense of self-identity, which, in turn, can lead to further learning and development, for the individual and for their community. In short, to foster sustainable development across the board, which is to say, across the breadth of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue, as well as in other languages.

It is worth reflecting briefly on why International Mother Language Day is celebrated each year on 21 February. As with other UN international days the date was chosen to mark an anniversary, in this case of the deaths of four students, in 1952, killed for campaigning to use their own mother language, Bengali, in what was then East Bengal (and is now Bangladesh). The incident demonstrates both the highly political nature of the issue and how it can lead to conflict when not dealt with in a just and respectful way.

When India was partitioned in 1947, the western part of Bengal became part of India and the eastern part a province of Pakistan known as East Bengal (later, East Pakistan). However, there were economic, cultural and language tensions between East and West Pakistan, brought to a head in 1948 when Pakistan’s government declared Urdu the sole national language. This sparked protest among the Bengali-speaking majority in East Pakistan. The government outlawed the protests but on February 21, 1952, students from the University of Dhaka and other activists organized a demonstration. Police opened fire and killed four of the students. It wasn’t until 1956 that Bengali became an official language of Pakistan. In 1971, following the Bangladesh Liberation War, Bangladesh became an independent country with Bengali its official language. International Mother Language Day is a public holiday in Bangladesh, where it is also known as Shohid Dibôsh, or Shaheed Day.

International Mother Language Day gives us an opportunity to acknowledge those who have fought for the recognition of their mother language, as well as to reflect more generally on the importance of respecting and celebrating linguistic diversity. It aims to encourage people to maintain their knowledge of their mother language in learning, while urging governments and other authorities to respect and promote cultural and linguistic diversity. This is hugely important. As Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, has observed, ‘There can be no authentic dialogue or effective international cooperation without respect for linguistic diversity, which opens up true understanding of every culture’. That is why multilingual education, the theme of IMLD 2017, is so important. The better we understand and value different languages, the better our chances of building a world that is creative, inclusive and peaceful.

Diversity, whether linguistic or ethnic, should never be a cause for exclusion. This is particularly important today when, in many parts of the world, diversity is increasingly perceived as a threat rather than an opportunity and difference is feared rather than embraced or engaged with. When governments in multilingual societies fail to acknowledge the need of groups of adults and children to be taught in their own local language (as well as others), it creates more tension, more grievance, more intolerance. Promoting mother language based bilingual/multilingual education is a way of breaking this pernicious cycle. States must recognise the importance of mother language and multilingual education in developing effective approaches to adult learning and education, cultivate approaches and resources that reinforce the diversity of their peoples, and, thus, promote more inclusive societies. If the SDG target on literacy is to become a reality and sustainable development more generally is to be encouraged and fostered, it is essential that they do.

 

 

 

 

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Lifelong learning – an idea whose time has finally come?

Political interest in adult education is experiencing one of its periodic spikes. Time will tell whether the interest is sustained or whether, as has so often been the case, it amounts to little more than a rhetorical flourish, a knowing half-nod to the changing zeitgeist rather than an attempt to capture it. Brexit, of course, is the unknown quantity with the potential to change the game and make lifelong learning a genuinely pivotal component of mainstream political thinking in the UK. A dawning (and, frankly, rather belated) appreciation of its far-reaching implications is the likely driver of this latest shift in perception.

The government’s green paper on the development of a new industrial strategy makes much of the role of adult skills in post-Brexit economic renewal and demonstrates a rare awareness of the need to ensure better articulation between the demand for skills and their supply. This has been a niggling issue with UK skills policy for decades, with successive skills strategies seemingly concocted in a sealed civil service laboratory, some distance from the stubborn and not always particularly agreeable realities of British economic life. The result, too often, was training for training’s sake and a pretty shoddy return on public investment. Fortunately for the dozens of journeyman politicians who have passed through this territory, tolerance of failure in this neglected area of policy has tended to be high. Only a handful – John Hayes and Vince Cable notable among them – have offered any vision or sense of a wider role for FE and skills, and that in spite of a largely uncomprehending civil service (one short-sighted civil servant famously suggested to Cable that all public funding for FE be withdrawn to meet the department’s budget reduction target).

The new industrial strategy is an opportunity to change all this. It includes skills as one of 10 ‘pillars’ which will drive growth and raise productivity. The green paper highlights a number of ‘key issues’ concerning skills which, it says, we need, as a country, to address. These are: poor levels of basic skills, particularly among younger adults; a shortage of high-skilled technicians below graduate level; skills shortages in sectors that depend on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM); skills shortages specific to certain sectors, which force some employers to look overseas to fill certain vacancies; the poor quality of careers advice; and ‘the accelerating pace of technological change’ which ‘means there is a growing challenge with lifelong learning: supporting people to up-skill and re-skill across their working lives’. People, the green paper continues, are ‘living and working longer’ at the same time as ‘training across working life is going down’, particularly among older workers and low to medium-skilled groups (those, it notes, whose jobs are most likely to be replaced by technology in the next two decades).

To meet these challenges, the green paper proposes a number of actions to improve basic skills (including by reviewing current policy and supporting further education colleges in becoming ‘centres of excellence’ in maths and English), build a new system of technical education (with clearer routes, better teaching and institutes of technology in every region), boost STEM skills, and raise skills levels in other poor-performing areas. It also undertakes to publish a ‘comprehensive careers strategy’ and to ‘explore ambitious new approaches to encouraging lifelong learning, which could include assessing changes to the costs people face to make them less daunting; improving outreach to people where industries are changing; and providing better information’.

There are some good ideas here, as well as some welcome notes of realism. The government’s willingness to review the effectiveness of current policy on lifelong learning and skills is encouraging and should act as a prompt to membership and advocacy groups to make their strongest case. However, we should not allow ministers to play down the scale of the task or to obscure the role played by government policy in creating the problems the green paper describes. Putting skills at the heart of the UK’s industrial strategy will require more than a review of policy effectiveness and a willingness to embrace new approaches. It will mean the effective reversal of decades of political neglect and under-funding of adult education, with substantial investment to restore the huge gaps in our lifelong learning infrastructure that have emerged as a result of austerity politics (a catastrophic and costly failure which is being quietly swept under the carpet – not unlike the equally calamitous political career of its chief architect, David Cameron). The latest figures in both further education and higher education confirm the damage done.

In further education, there is some good news for the government, in that it is on target to meet its target of three million new apprenticeship starts by the end of this parliament (with almost 900,000 new apprenticeships in 2015-16). However, the latest data also show that participation in learning other than apprenticeships in England is in sharp decline. There are 800,000 fewer adults in FE (excluding apprenticeships) than there were in 2011-12, with some 300,000 fewer adults on English or maths courses. The proportion of unemployed adults taking part in learning had also fallen sharply. This trend in participation is the direct result of cuts to funding for adult skills, with the government, in 2015 alone, cutting as much as 24 per cent from the adult further education budget. At the same time, funding for ESOL provision has been savagely cut – by 60 per cent since 2009 – again, denying opportunities to learn to adults who are desperate to do so. As if this were not bad enough, the sector has been given little chance to adapt to straitened circumstances, with funding cuts accompanied by near constant reform, experimentation and ministerial churn. There is limited policy memory in further education and little scope for leaders, struggling to adapt to curriculum and funding changes while meeting the requirements of an overbearing accountability system, to think about how to respond creatively to the challenges they face.

In higher education in England, the numbers are just as dramatic, and the challenge equally stark. The latest figures confirm the ongoing decline in part-time higher education. According to a House of Commons Library Briefing, total part-time entrants to HE have fallen by 45 per cent since 2009-10, with mature learners combining study with work forming the vast majority. This is the result, principally, of the introduction of loans and the rise in tuition fees. New data on student nursing enrolments confirm the lack of enthusiasm for loans (or debt) among older learners, with applications falling by 23 per cent (29 per cent for those aged over 21) since grants were converted into loans to support the provision of more places. Moreover, applications to full-time undergraduate courses by over-25s fell by 18 per cent in the last year, confirming a general trend of dwindling participation in HE among adults. Overall, the higher education system is becoming less diverse, less accessible to older adults and less relevant to the challenges of modern society. All of this, it should be added, has been an entirely predictable result of the policies adopted by the government.

These are all trends which must be not only halted but thrown decisively into reverse if the government is to achieve its ambitions and lifelong learning is really to help deliver the step change in growth and productivity the green paper sets out as its objective. A cohesive industrial strategy, with an ‘ambitious new approach to encouraging lifelong learning’ at its heart, is a big step in the right direction. But it will require a major shift in culture to deliver it, with ministers and civil servants looking beyond schools and elite universities, recognising that education is for adults too, and making a long-term commitment to supporting it. As Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive of the Workers’ Educational Association, has argued this week, a national strategy for lifelong learning would not be a bad place to start.

 

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‘The truth’, alternative facts and remembrance

I recently finished Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, one of a few books I’ve read that I would say deserve to be termed ‘essential’ – certainly none I’ve read deserves the title more. It collects a large number of remarkably powerful testimonies from people witness to the appalling tragedy of Chernobyl and its dreadful and ongoing aftermath. It is a harrowing read – some passages almost unbearably so – but it is also compelling. The witnesses are, by turns, moving, sentimental, desperate, appalled, angry, philosophical and funny. But what stands out, above all, is the utter determination of Chernobyl’s damaged and grieving survivors to tell their story, in the face of lies, distortion and indifference. It is an important read for any politician who believes the facts do not matter or that they have a right to ‘control’ the reality in which their citizens live.

I was reminded as I read of a passage in one of Primo Levi’s books where he describes how camp guards at Auschwitz would taunt prisoners by telling them that even if they survived to tell their stories no-one would ever believe them (I can’t, I’m afraid, recall which book). A recurring nightmare of many who did survive the Holocaust was of relating what had happened and not being believed. Their suffering was appalling, but it was made immeasurably worse by the prospect of the reality of their suffering being denied or excised from history. That is why the annual UN International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, marked today (on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz), is so important. It is an affirmation of a commitment both to remembering one of history’s most dreadful crimes and to the value of education in overcoming divisions, combating racism and defending the truth against those who choose to distort it. In the era of post-truth politics, ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and fake politicians, this commitment has never been more important.

When Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper published its now notorious frontpage headlined ‘The truth’ in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster it, the impact on survivors and the families of the victims was enormous. I refuse to believe that the decision of the newspaper’s odious editor was anything other than a calculated act of distortion. The headline must have had, for him, a delicious irony, as he personally insisted on presenting a litany of inhuman crimes, alleged to have been committed by the victims, without a shred of evidence, in contradiction of almost all eye-witness testimony. This man’s actions added significantly to the burden of guilt carried by survivors for more than a quarter of a century, while the families of the victims, locked in a seemingly endless fight for justice, were driven by the fear that their truth, the real story of what happened to their loved ones that day, would be erased from history. When justice campaigner and mother of one of the victims Margaret Aspinall stood on the steps of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall shortly after the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was published, she told the survivors, finally, to ‘forgive yourselves’. People in the crowd wept.

One of the witnesses in Svetlana Alexievich’s book wonders ‘whether it’s better to remember or forget’. The struggle to tell the truth can be exhausting and demoralising when you feel yourselves to be so small, and the forces of distortion are so very great and all-pervasive. And there are other personal costs too, not least the uncomprehending contempt of those who saw the victims as scroungers in search of ‘Chernobyl benefits’. I think we owe the author a huge debt of gratitude for collecting these untold stories and for ensuring that these forgotten people have a voice. Her book should be on every politician’s reading list. It is important that they understand the consequences of what Orwell termed ‘reality control’. When politicians offer their citizens an ‘alternative’ truth, the ‘truth’ they want them to invest in for own reasons (and there can be no good reasons here), it is a first step on a very dark road, along which people are dehumanised, victims blamed, rights overlooked and dignity overridden. History shows us where this road leads. This is why it is so important that we continue to remember, to recognise that telling the truth can be a powerfully defiant and profoundly political act. It is also a reminder, as one Holocaust survivor said this week, that civilization is ‘veneer-thin’. It needs constant care and reinvestment. By committing to truth, justice and remembrance we not only assert the value of human dignity and civilisation, we make a statement of confidence in people and the future as well.

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