Tag Archives: inequality

The ‘left behind’ need hope not hollow words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Social mobility: A puzzle the government has no desire to solve

For those who believe the UK government cares about addressing inequality or promoting social mobility these must have been a disappointing past few days.

Justine Greening resigned as education secretary in the midst of a botched cabinet reshuffle, only a few weeks after launching a ‘plan for improving social mobility through education’. Explaining her decision to turn down a lesser role and leave the government, she tweeted, ‘Social mobility matters to me and our country more than my ministerial career. I’ll continue to do everything I can to create a country that has equality of opportunity for young people’. It is a depressing footnote to the story of the Conservatives’ dreadful and ongoing mismanagement of the education sector that Ms Greening felt this was something she was better placed to do outside government.

A new education secretary, Damian Hinds, was appointed, a politician whose chairmanship of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility appears to have done little to blunt his enthusiasm for selective schools. Mr Hinds’ appointment is widely seen as an attempt to get the Prime Minister’s plans for the education sector – derailed by her colossal misjudgment in calling a snap election – back on track. Notably, Mr Hinds shares Mrs May’s enthusiasm for grammar schools, frequently styled by Mrs May as an engine of social mobility when, of course, they are nothing of the sort.

One of Ms Greening’s most endearing qualities as education secretary was her lack of enthusiasm for this strand of Tory thinking. She has also resisted the dismal spread of free and faith schools. Her scepticism is well founded. A 2016 report on grammar schools and social mobility by the Education Policy Institute found that the gap between children on free school meals attaining five A*–C GCSEs, including English and Math) and all other children is wider in selective areas than in non-selective areas – at around 34.1 per cent compared with 27.8 per cent. The report also found that high-attaining pupils perform just as well in high-quality non-selective schools as in selective schools. And while faith schools can boast greater exam success, this is largely down to social selection.

But, of course, the Prime Minister knows all of this, as I am sure does Mr Hinds, who has called for an ‘elite’ grammar school in every major conurbation and has advocated the expansion of faith schools. Despite this, they seem set to continue defending ideologically driven interventions, which do nothing for the life chances of the poorest children and help ensure privilege is passed on from generation to generation, as levers to address the very social problems they help cause. Evidently, this is not what Ms Greening had in mind when she wrote of ‘putting social mobility at the heart of education policy’. And that helps explain why Ms Greening had to go. Her genuine commitment to social mobility posed a threat to Mrs May’s own regressive, dangerous and evidence-free plans for education.

The challenge of social mobility, of course, is huge, as Ms Greening admits in the foreword to her plan. The Social Mobility Commission’s last state-of-the-nation report noted ‘a stark social mobility lottery in Britain today’, arguing that the country seemed ‘to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division’. A week later, of course, the Commission resigned en masse over the Prime Minister’s failure to make progress towards a ‘fairer Britain’. This should have been a very public disaster for the government, particularly as it has repeatedly pledged to make Britain fairer and ensure no-one is ‘left behind’. But, in the context of a still supportive, Brexit-hungry media and in the absence of well-organised, effective opposition, the government has continued to function in an almost frictionless way, despite lurching from crisis to crisis, propelled by its own internal dysfunction.

Against this backdrop, Ms Greening’s plan was an opportunity for the government to seize the social mobility agenda and demonstrate its commitment to it. And while the plan does not live up to its promise to provide ‘a framework for action that can empower everyone – whether educators, government, business or civil society – to help transform equality of opportunity in this country’, it nevertheless offers welcome recognition of the need for a radical shift and for greater policy coherence in our approach, and of the ‘vital role’ of education in delivering meaningful change. But instead of backing the plan, and placing social mobility at the heart of education policy, there is every indication that the government will return to the ancien régime of free and faith schools and selection, which benefit the already advantaged at the expense of the rest, while pursuing its ongoing programme of cuts to state-maintained schools and FE colleges, which have resulted in plummeting learner numbers and a crisis in teacher recruitment.

While the ambitions of the plan are radical – there really is no ambition in politics greater, or more important, than to ensure that where a person starts in life does not determine where they end up – the recommendations are not. There are some good ideas and welcome recognition of the potential contribution of technical and further education to improving social mobility (though it neglects adult education), but the scope of the plan is too narrow and, of course, there is no new money to deliver on its ambitions to ‘reverse these negative spirals and generate a virtuous cycle to unlock talent and fulfil potential’.

One point on which Mr Hinds and Ms Greening agree is that social mobility interventions should focus on early years. This is essential, of course, but it cannot be the whole story. We need a much more joined-up and comprehensive plan to begin to address these issues, and we need to realise that education can only do so much and that widening inequality makes social mobility much more difficult to achieve. The gap between the rungs on the ladder make failure to difficult to countenance and gaming of the system far too tempting.

That said, while education cannot address all of these entrenched issues, it still has a big role to play but we need to be much bolder in thinking across the education system. We need to boost early-years provision, but we also need to ensure parents have the skills and capacities to support their children’s development, and that means investing in adult education and the millions of adults who left school without decent basic skills. We need strong, diverse higher education sector, with fair access, diverse providers and flourishing part-time provision, but we also need to reshape the system so that the range of routes to a good career and decent life are as diverse as people’s aspirations, and that means improving technical and vocational routes and taking some of our eggs out of the academic basket. It also means focusing not just on the talented few but on how to create a system that offers opportunity for all, a system that is properly fair and comprehensive.

To do that, we need to think about the education system in the round and not in silos and ensure that opportunity is evenly spread and is open to all, ensuring place and community are at the heart of the education agenda. No community should be considered ‘left behind’ when it comes to education. As Ms Greening’s plan urges, effort and resource should be directed ‘towards the places and people where it is most needed to unlock talent and fulfil potential’. And we need to recognise that a culture of constant reform, cost-cutting, poor pay and escalating workload, as we have seen for many years now in the further education sector, is not conducive to improving educational performance. None of this is possible without a flourishing, well-funded further education sector. Nor will it be possible while educators are underpaid, overworked and overburdened with the demands of accountability.

What, perhaps, we need most of all is to talk, really talk. Never has British politics been more in need of dialogue. Labour has some good ideas on education but it needs to convince voters and that means talking to people who do not agree with them. Stable government is only possible through the effort to find common ground with our opponents. It is also through dialogue that we can begin to change mind-sets, overcome echo-chamber politics and dispel some of the myths of the instinctive, kneejerk populism of the right. A big problem, from national to neighbourhood level, is the loss of public spaces where we can meet and reduce the gap between us. Flinging brickbats from behind the barricades just widens that gap. Until we begin to close it, find our common ground and develop inclusive, evidence-based policies that command wide support, we will a struggle to find stable solutions to the problems that haunt us.

 

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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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A view from Calton Hill

Heraclitus, the notoriously enigmatic pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that existing objects could be characterised by pairs of contrary properties, and that these properties, by virtue of the tension between them, were essential to the continued flourishing of the whole. He termed this phenomenon the ‘unity of opposites’. Somehow, he thought, the ongoing conflict between opposite properties enabled a single, unified object to persist.

Although it is unlikely that Heraclitus – who is said to have preferred aristocratic models of government – would have intended it, his odd theory seems highly applicable in the field of politics (that is, as Heraclitus would probably have understood the term, ‘of, for or relating to citizens’). There is, I think, something to the idea that those societies that flourish and endure are, very often, characterised by just this sort of dynamic tension, between different classes or income groups – and that where the gap between those groups or classes becomes too great that cohesion is threatened.

I was thinking about this on Sunday as I walked up Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, with its curious collection of classical monuments (Dickens described it as ‘a rubbish heap of imaginative architecture’) and its tremendous views across the city and out to the Firth of Forth. This must be among the best places in Edinburgh to begin learning about the city and how it developed, from the smoke-blackened, boozy disorder of the Old Town and its narrow medieval streets, to the precise geometrical elegance of the New Town’s squares and circuses.

The development of the New Town in the late eighteenth century saw the wealthier citizens of Edinburgh move out of the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the Old Town to more genteel, spacious homes set on wide roads, with large, green civic spaces. The poor remained in the relative – and fast deepening – squalor of the Old Town. Overcrowding, poverty and inadequate sanitation led to epidemics of cholera and other diseases in the first half of the next century.

The Old Town of the eighteenth century was cramped and it was dirty. But it was also vibrant, brilliant and exciting, a melting pot of new thinking and ideas, in which the poorest citizens rubbed shoulders daily with the wealthiest and most educated, and where the old order was taken apart and new principles put in its place. The Scots, David Hume wrote, were now ‘the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe’, and that at a time when ‘we have lost our Princes, Our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the presence of our chief Nobility’. This loss did not create a vacuum but rather a space for debate, fierce, convivial and fearless, much of it centred on the Old Town’s numerous taverns, of which Hume, among others, was a notable and enthusiastic frequenter.

A number of factors made the Scottish Enlightenment possible, among them the quality of Scottish education and its openness to ideas from the continent. The growth in the educated population of Scotland meant this renaissance in thought was not confined to a small number of literati, or to the ranks of the aristocracy, as it was in France, but was, as the historian Tom Devine notes, ‘widely diffused throughout the ranks of the educated classes’. The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were not only aired and debated in the pubs of Edinburgh’s New Town, but were also ‘described, analysed, questioned and refuted in pamphlets and journals such as the Scots Magazine, in the contemporary press, in sermons and surveys like John Sinclair’s massive Statistical Account of Scotland, published in the 1790s, which provided an examination of the way of life of over 900 parishes compiled by the local ministers.’

It was this broad dissemination, Devine argues, that ‘ensured the social acceptance of basic ideas that might otherwise have remained arcane, remote and abstract’ and which helped ground them in observation and the practicalities of life in eighteenth-century Scotland. They saw human experience as the touchstone of true understanding. The Edinburgh literati may have been, to varying degrees, born to privilege but their lives were not so remote from those of other classes that they could be indifferent to them, while the spread of school education in Scotland during the second half of the seventeenth century and the rapidly expanding middle class meant there was a large and engaged audience interested in their ideas.

Undoubtedly, too, those ideas and the rejection of hitherto unquestioned – and unquestionable (Scotland’s last execution for heresy took place as recently as 1696) – authority seeped into the consciousness of the poorer classes of society. The wealthiest had close, face-to-face relationships with the poorest, often sharing the same buildings (the rich on the upper floors, the poor on the lower ones) and they frequented the same churches, brothels and alehouses. Skilled artisans helped swell the membership of the city’s numerous learned clubs and societies, and university access widened to include the children of merchants and tradesmen.

The nineteenth century saw Edinburgh’s New Town flourish, while the Old Town plunged deeper into squalor and increasingly wretched poverty. The rich and the poor began to lead separate lives. By 1880, when the educationalist, environmentalist and town planner Patrick Geddes moved there, the Old Town was notorious for its appalling housing and poor living conditions. Geddes moved into James Court, where David Hume had once lived but which was now little more than a slum. Geddes believed that social change needed to come from the bottom up, rather than be imposed from above (however well-meaningly). He improved his own building and encouraged his neighbours to work together in improving theirs as well as their wider community. Geddes also believed that a vibrant community required a mixture of people from different backgrounds living side by side and enjoying the kind of face-to-face relationships they had in mid-eighteenth century Edinburgh. He founded a hall of residence in renovated properties around Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, including one in Riddle’s Court, another former Hume residence, which now houses, among other things, the Edinburgh offices of the Workers’ Educational Association (appropriately, Geddes’s Latin inscription above the archway to Riddle’s Court reads Vivendo Disciumus – ‘By Living We Learn’)

Geddes didn’t believe in getting rid of tradition. His idea was to build around it, improving what was good and valuable, building better housing where necessary, and making use of derelict spaces, often through the creation of gardens and other green spaces, which he thought essential to the flourishing of community. He saw the city as a microcosm of society, as a kind of blueprint for wider social organisation. A flourishing community, he thought, meant people of different classes living common lives. This created the best conditions for making successful societies. Likewise, in his academic life (Geddes purchased the Outlook Tower on Castle Hill – now known as the Camera Obscura – to be a sort of sociological laboratory), he believed in bringing disciplines together, in thinking and learning holistically – that our view is better when we see the connections, the ways in which things are held together, as well as the things themselves. Places of learning, like people, need spaces in common.

I’ve written before about Machiavelli’s Discourses and his view of social conflict as useful, even necessary, to the success of a state. He is perhaps as unlikely a bedfellow of Geddes as you could wish to find, but they do have one thing in common. Machiavelli, like Geddes, saw that a stable, successful society required a degree of commonality between classes, a sense that all classes are living comparable lives, a part of the same society. The rich, Machiavelli argued, should not become so rich that they become arrogant and indifferent to the needs and demands of other groups, and the poor perceive them as remote and out of touch. And the poor should not be so poor that they live without hope or the prospect of a better life. These ‘opposites’, to borrow again the language of Heraclitus, need to be in close enough proximity to make possible the sort of dynamic tension that is necessary for the survival and flourishing of a society. As Geddes also saw, vibrant communities are untidy communities, mixed, diverse and dynamic, with a rough equality between classes – enough at least for people to see that they are living their lives in common.

This is a hard lesson for us today. In recent decades we have seen, on a larger scale, a process not dissimilar to that which split Edinburgh in two in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. The rich have become richer, their lives ever more remote, their wealth unimaginable to the vast majority of ordinary people and their grip on politics, the professions, the arts and the higher reaches of the education system increasingly firm. At the same time, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned this week, insecure, low-paid work is putting record numbers of working families in poverty. Two-thirds of the people who have found work in the past year are employed in jobs paying less than the living wage (with many on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of minimum hours). Between 2008 and 2013 average pay for the lowest paid fell by 70p per hour for men and 40p per hour for women, while the richest 1,000 Britons increased their wealth by more than £155 billion. Growing inequality unsurprisingly correlates with declining upward mobility. Life chances are increasingly dependent on who your parents are.

The education system, one of the key means by which we might reduce poverty and narrow the income gap, is, at the same time, becoming more and more polarised, with a broad liberal education – another fairly basic requirement of human flourishing – increasingly the preserve of the children of the rich, while the less advantaged make do with training which may give them skills but falls some way short of providing them with an education. As Michael Young foresaw in his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, an education system which confers approval on a small minority of its population (and qualifies the success of everyone else) effectively hands that minority control of the means to reproduce itself. To see the consequences of this you might compare, as Young later did, the social origins of members of Atlee’s post-war cabinet with those of Tony Blair’s – or with those of Ed MIliband’s shadow cabinet.

Little wonder then that the political class has become less plural and politics a much narrower business in which most fundamental questions – including those about the conditions in which people can best flourish – are off limits. Austerity politics has become a most effective cloak under which to pursue often fairly radical ideological goals to which human ends are secondary – all largely unchallenged by a compliant media with an equally strong and undisclosed ideological commitment. It is depressing indeed, but perhaps unsurprising, that in times such as these a party of closed-mined xenophobes – a coalition of the rich, the ignorant and the desperate – should be considered a compelling, even progressive, alternative.

Patrick Geddes recognised that people, like any life form (Geddes was also a botanist), thrive in the right conditions. Politics should be about identifying and helping improve these conditions for everyone. As those great theorists of adult education John Dewey and R.H. Tawney also saw, at the heart of this must be the idea of a common life – a life which embraces all in a community, treats every member as free and equal, and attaches equal value to the needs and aspirations of all. Sadly, we are fast becoming not one but two countries – divided by wealth, opportunity and prospects for advancement. Working-class people are not only unrepresented (fulfilling Michael Young’s prediction of the consequences of educational selection) but, by and large, unheard, except in contexts which demean or diminish them. As Geddes realised, only by being immersed in the lives people lead can you begin to understand them. The government’s boasts about the resilience of the economy mean little when the lives of so many are getting worse, with little out there to give them hope of something better in the future. I doubt many members of the current political class have much understanding of how utterly demoralising and damaging it is to be branded a failure by the education system and then denied the means of turning things around and making your life better. It seems that everywhere you look second chances are either disappearing or becoming unaffordable to most. Geddes showed that people can build communities which are rich, vibrant and fulfilling, but we must first create conditions which, in the enduringly brilliant words of Raymond Williams, ‘make hope practical rather than despair convincing’.

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GCSEs, class and inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading Machiavelli: Why conflict can be good and inequality is bad for everyone

Thanks to the notoriety of his most famous work, The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with the ruthless and cynical exercise of power. Bertrand Russell described the work as little more than ‘a handbook for gangsters’ (it was even name-checked in The Sopranos – though Tony Soprano claimed he prefered Sun Tzu’s Art of War) and there is no doubt that Machiavelli gives an unflinching account of what an autocratic leader must be prepared to do in order to win and retain power.

Yet, as the Bolshevik and Soviet politician Lev Kamenev argued in a late essay (Stalin had him executed shortly after publication), Machiavelli’s reputation owes less to his actual political outlook than it does to the ugly realities of political life which he was attempting to describe and demystify, on the basis of his own first-hand observations of the use of power in sixteenth-century Florence. As Kamenev hints, the ‘true countenance’ of Florentine political life was not so different to that of the Soviet Union under Stalin: ‘an oppressive class of masters struggling amongst themselves for power over the laboring masses’.

It is this ‘naked truthfulness’ that sets Machiavelli apart from most other political theorists and explains the still extraordinary urgency and relevance of his writing. His works continue to resonate because the reality he describes is a reality which, in some fundamental ways, we continue to recognise. Of course, Machiavelli did not anticipate the detail of political life in modern liberal democracies and had a limited view of what democracy could consist in; but he gives a hugely persuasive, and wholly unflattering, account of the real face of power and its tendency to corrupt both those who exercise it and those who are subject to it. Equally, the political philosophy behind The Prince, best expressed in his other major work, The Discourses, has a great deal that is useful and constructive to say about contemporary political concerns such as class, conflict and inequality. It is this, I think, that makes Machiavelli particularly worth reading today.

In The Prince, Machiavelli informs his readers that he is to deal exclusively with principalities, having dealt extensively with republics in another work, meaning The Discourses. It is here that Machiavelli expresses his own political philosophy and asserts the superiority of republics over principalities. He is no advocate of autocratic rule, though he accepts that in certain circumstances it is necessary, for example, to save a failing state or to found a new one. In normal circumstances, however, a republic is to be preferred. Government ‘by the populace’ is better than government by princes, he says, since ‘if account be taken of all the disorders due to populaces and of all those due to princes, and of all the glories won by populaces and all those won by princes, it will be found that alike in goodness and in glory the populace is far superior’.

For Machiavelli, a republic is a ‘government of the people’ in the sense that its citizens play a significant part in grounding and stabilising a form of political and civic life which is typified by consent and spirited participation rather than by force. He paints a picture of the best-managed republics as mixed governments involving a healthy and malleable combination of ‘regal power’, middle-class influence and popular government. The strength of each element can vary according to circumstance, but Machiavelli believed the best states to be those that mobilise the people rather than rely on their passivity or indifference. By involving all three elements, in whatever degree, ‘a republic has a fuller life and enjoys good fortune for a longer time than a principality, since it is better able to adapt itself to diverse circumstances owing to the diversity found among its citizens than a prince can do.’

In short, Machiavelli considers republics preferable to principalities because they are stronger, more stable and more adaptable. Stability is a critical consideration in Machiavelli’s thought. A well-managed republic is characterised by a free, open political culture in which both nobility and the people are engaged, and dissent and conflict are not discouraged but seen as essential elements of a flourishing society. What is interesting about Machiavelli’s discussion here is that he has a very clear view of conflict as contributing to the stability of society. This, I think, is quite different to the prevailing view of today’s political class. Conflict of any sort is actively discouraged, as threatening either the stability or security of our social or political life. Union action is condemned as a matter of course, while political demonstrations, even when peaceful, are routinely met with the disapproval of every mainstream party. Machiavelli, on the other hand, recognised that ‘in every republic there are two different dispositions, that of the populace and that of the upper class and that all legislation favourable to liberty is brought about by the clash between them’. It was conflict of this sort that enlarged the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of a republic – he did not subscribe to the view, still entertained by some politicians, that rights and freedoms were benevolently conferred by those at the top upon those below them.

It is better for the life and freedom of the state that all sections of the populace are engaged politically. For Machiavelli, active citizenship is an essential part of any flourishing republic – it cannot thrive without it. Securing it, however, is dependent on a number of factors, including the presence of a large and engaged middle class and the absence of extremes of inequality. The later point is particularly interesting. Machiavelli does not call for equality for all, though he does argue for a rough equality between citizens (meaning those who pay tax or own property). More intriguingly, he argues that inequality between the classes should be limited and not allowed to reach extreme proportions. The rich must not become so rich and powerful that they can afford to ignore the will of the people, and the poor must not become so poor and wretched that they have no hope of either improving their lot or influencing their environment for the better. Where such inequalities do exist, the rich become corrupt and the poor desperate, thus threatening the health and stability of the state.

I suspect Machiavelli would have deplored the levels of inequality we now tolerate in our own society, as he would the gradual shrinking of the middle-class, the culture of deference and quietism that characterises our political life and the parlous state of public debate in our society. More importantly, though, so should we. As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have eloquently demonstrated, inequality is not only bad for the poor; it is bad for all of us. It pollutes every aspect of national life. It makes us less happy, less healthy and less honest. It means the economy misses out on the skills and excellence of large numbers of its young people. It is responsible for the complacency with which we are governed and the desperation of many of those so governed. It affects the way we think of ourselves, our mental wellbeing and our sense of what we are capable of achieving. As Danny Dorling argued recently, it also makes us believe stupid things, among them that some people are superior to others:

We work best, behave best, play best and think best when we are not laboring under the assumption that some of us are better, more deserving or so much more able than others. We perform the worst, are most atrocious in our conduct, are least relaxed and most unimaginative in outlook, when we live under the weight of great inequalities – and especially when we live with the illusion that these are somehow warranted.

What is most depressing about the current state of public debate about these issues is the idea that gross inequalities are somehow inevitable or natural, that there is no point in challenging them or making any concerted, meaningful effort to change things. This is reinforced by an education system which, in the main, appears to be designed to reproduce privilege, reserving elite education for people who can afford to attend elite schools, very often the same elite schools their parents attended. Although more of Britain’s poorest young people are going to university, just one in five young people from comprehensive schools and further education colleges got into the top third most selective universities this year, compared with 86 per cent of privately educated young people. For far, far too many of our children, life chances seem to depend almost entirely on the circumstances of their birth. And second chances are harder to come by. Meanwhile, we embrace a programme of austerity measures, justified by political sleight of hand, which see the poorest and most vulnerable bearing the greatest burden of fiscal belt-tightening while those responsible for the financial crisis get away, in the main, scot free – effectively underwriting the greed and recklessness of global investors with public money. It is no wonder that a third of young people who leave school with poor grades fear they will face a ‘life without hope’.

I mentioned The Sopranos at the start of the article. One of the show’s themes – perhaps its main theme – was that a man cannot wholly shed his humanity, however hard he might push it from him, however deep he might bury it; that even the most corrupt and brutalised among us remain capable of considering the greater good and even (on occasion) acting on it. Machiavelli too allows himself a heavily qualified optimism about human nature. A prince must learn not to be virtuous, he says. He is not born to it. It is in us all – perhaps even in our natures – to play an active and equal role in the political life of our society. The cynicism and indifference produced by extremes of inequality may do harm to hopes for a genuinely progressive politics, frequently thwarting our best thoughts and aspirations, but they aren’t inevitable, and they needn’t be permanent.

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