Acting up

9212246622_2fa8076423A Government advisor on the Commission for Social Mobility and Child Poverty has said that working class children should learn how to act as if they are more privileged than they are so that they can ‘get on in life’. Members of his Government say that they represent ‘people who want to get on’, suggesting that there are hordes of reprobates who don’t want to, and are thereby causing great harm.

What do they mean by ‘getting on’? Let’s hope they don’t mean the kind of people who run companies that take on outsourced contracts and pay themselves more than an equivalent public sector post. Or those people who don’t eat the 68% of bagged salads that are thrown away. Or those people who can buy luxury flats in new regeneration developments where social housing used to be. No, let’s assume they envisage children maturing into a good and modest living, acting generously and staying within their financial and environmental means.

We hear so often from Government that they are serious and passionate about every child having good life chances, being able to ‘get ahead’, go to university and succeed in work. They accuse their opponents of not caring about children. They may believe they are genuine but I’d argue their thinking is based on myths and their suggested strategy is based on fakery. The myths relate to both how they interpret the cause of the underlying problems, and what they think are effective solutions.

The problems of youth unemployment, underemployment and poverty are interpreted in these mythical ways:

1) Economic crisis: Blamed on the ‘mess we inherited’ from the Labour government, proven to be a false accusation, as well as competition from migrants and free movement of labour in Europe. The more valid causes of economic crisis include the extravagant follies of financiers, the costs of war, and resource insecurity linked to climate change, peak oil, waste and ecocide.

2) Educational crisis: Blamed on the Marxist blob of progressive educators. Actually the educational crisis itself is a myth, perpetuated so that Gove could announce that standards had improved after his reforms had bedded in. We hear laments about UK’s appalling educational standards compared to other countries, but these are based on the PISA rankings which have been exposed as flawed. Besides there are more ways to measure the success of schools than by performance in tests in core subjects. The other sources of evidence about an educational crisis are from employers reporting skills shortages, but one might argue that employers should take responsibility for imparting these skills, given that learning is best done on the job.

3) Cultural crisis: Young people from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds are seen as uncultured, uncouth, unable to fit in with university and professional life. Blamed on…the progressive blob, parents, media and educators who fail to discipline and train their children in correct character and manners. Inspired by Hirsch, Gove’s notion of cultural education is about imparting a core of knowledge – primarily based on Western civilisation – so that all children can catch up with their elite peers with university-educated parents.

The problems for young people are not interpreted in the following ways, but should be:

1) Inequality: Britain’s rich-poor divide has widened since 2007 more than many other countries, and we were already one of the world’s most unequal countries. Overall income inequality is now greater than at any time in the last 30 years.  The top 20% earn six times as much as the bottom 20%. This gap roughly corresponds with the differences in Literacy and Numeracy skills in adults in European countries. Government is arguing that education solves inequality, by enabling more people to climb. But climbing to the point at which education increases income now also burdens you with debt. Equality is enabled by the fairer distribution of resources, not the ability of more and more people to compete for a finite number of better paid opportunities.

2) Narrow forcing of skills: There is a lot of unpredictability about future demands for skills, so it is harder to be certain here. However, it does seem as if Government is forcing an overly narrow set of skills. Our economy is highly dependent on global skills, or rather the cheap provision of skills abroad anyway, so it is disingenuous to beat up UK schools as if they are entirely responsible for economic growth. But looking at the UK, it has one of the highest proportions of unskilled jobs in the developed world, with over 1 in 5 requiring no more than a primary education. Employers report most shortages in plumbing, engineering, manufacturing and health. Also, the Creative Industries are the fastest-growing sector, contributing £71.4 bn a year to the economy. However, the Government does not seem to be responding by supporting this broad range of practical (and intellectual) skills. They are talking a lot about STEM and Computing, but are failing to encourage a broad base of learners with diverse and practical preferences and abilities. The rhetoric that focuses on academic qualifications and HE routes makes vocational education seem invisible. There are pressures on schools and FE colleges to deliver more Maths and Literacy for longer, at the expense of more vocational and creative learning. Meanwhile, educational reforms have set up several disincentives to studying creative and cultural subjects – with the worst impacts on disadvantaged children. What an irony that in reducing Drama in the National Curriculum, children are being asked to ‘act up’ into different roles!

3) A dominance behavioural system: Studies, such as one by Sheri L. Johnson, expose the pyschological damage caused by the dominant culture of pursuing power and wealth, for individual gain. Wilkinson and Pickett have tied these studies into their work on inequality. Inequality and an aggressive greed-culture leads to two main groups of mental problems: the dominant group are manic and narcissistic, the subordinant group suffer status anxiety. Play out these patterns in an increasingly unequal society, while instructing children to play harder and act more dominant, and let’s see how this impacts on young adults.

I’d rather educate young people to uncover the true reasons for the inequality they are suffering, to be critical thinkers, to be flexible to adopt the unknown skills of the future, and above all, to be true to themselves.

*The image is from Kentwell Hall where home educated children and adults volunteer to enact aristocratic life in Tudor times.

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