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Real classy

Apparently the forthcoming election is going to be fought on the education battleground. Or at least that's what Labour seems to want. I think they're rather disappointed by the lack of clear focus of the Tory message. The Tory tactic of guerilla sniping at all possible Labour targets seems to have paid off in the early stages of the phoney war but the incredible gaffe over budgets has at last given Labour something to aim at. Whether this can be dragged out for a full four weeks, whether it might expose the traditional divisions in the Tory facade that we know are there remains to be seen.

I think for once that the campaign is quite interesting and although I'm pretty sure that Labour will win, I think that if the Tories can keep the government unsettled they might make significant gains. At the very least they are showing signs of life which is more than we expected of them six months ago. More than enough to stave off any threat from the Lib Dems.

But back to education. There is a simple (minded) plan to have 50% of school-leavers attend university. This is a significant increase and has not been matched by an equal increase in centralised spending. Instead students are expected to fund themselves through loans and pay their fees (although poorer students will have their fees paid).

Obviously the admission requirements have had to fall as the increase in students going to university has happened so quickly that it cannot have possibly been matched by an increase in the standard of secondary education. At the moment, the most popular degree courses are business and media studies, degrees so lacking in real analytical content that many employers see them as a disincentive to hiring someone. As a result there's a real skills gap in industry in what are seen as the harder subjects such as physics, chemistry and biology which is matched by some universities dropping these subjects from their curriculums. They are not only difficult for students but difficult and expensive to teach.

If you look at entry requirements to the Civil Service for Executive Officers, the most junior management grade it says two 'A' levels but in practice you now need a degree. This indicates to me that a strong devaluation in the worth of a degree that takes three years study on top of 'A' levels, and possibly a strong devaluation in what is taught too.

Now what has this got to do with class? Well, if you look at educational attainment in this country, you'll find that working class kids do less well than middle class kids. We can forget about upper class kids, they're such a small proportion of the population. Some of this is down to the difference in schools and the fact that some middle class families can afford private schooling, and private schooling is much better on average than local authority. But much of it is down to the cultural differences.

Many working class families have very low educational aspirations. The purpose of school is to babysit the children so the parents can work, until the children are able to work themselves. Typically in the working class families betterment is seen to come not through education but through the social network. For boys, you start by getting a Saturday job with your uncle, get further jobs through contacts made this way and eventually start out on your own as a tradesmen. For girls, the aspiration for many is still a family (or pop idol), and this too requires little education but a good social network.

The main message of the education system is that betterment comes through education. Education which defers entry into the job market, incurs large debts and separates kids from their social networks. Is it any wonder that for working class children that it's not biting?


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Apr. 12th, 2005 12:04 pm (UTC)
Typically in the working class families betterment is seen to come not through education but through the social network. For boys, you start by getting a Saturday job with your uncle, get further jobs through contacts made this way and eventually start out on your own as a tradesmen.

But does this really happen anymore? I mean, I see that it's the ideal, but is it real?

And if it's not, what happens then?
Apr. 12th, 2005 01:31 pm (UTC)
It's still the model that working class families use. Paula is a career's adviser. At the moment the careers' service focuses on those with low attainment and so she sees much of this.

There are other factors at work too. With the Black working class kids, education is often seen by the parents as a valid escape from poverty but, for boys especially, American Black urban culture has a diluting effect on this.

In practice, after 16, if you don't have a job you have to be on a training program to claim benefits. I'm not entirely au fait with the training funding system but it works something like this. Colleges are funded from central government, either on direct grants or via local authorities. This funding depends to a certain extent on gettting bums on seats and getting good results. As a result there is something of a market at work with colleges trying to offer the most popular courses.

Plumbing is very popular at the moment as it's a lucrative career but it's pretty much saturated. Sound engineering is a popular choice too but there are many more on courses than there are ever likely to be vaccancies. As such the market is looking at what the kids want rather than what the economy needs. Economics would expect these two things to coincide and that they don't does not seem to be addressed.

Paula's just got promoted to a new position where it will be her job to coordinate with local employers to find vaccancies for kids. That this doesn't yet happen really beggars belief!

Obviously the system does not fail entirely. We need some plumbers and some sound engineers and the few who make it in these professions do get on in life, escape the poverty trap and perhaps come to see education as a benefit. However there are plenty who don't make the grade and so have to rely on their support networks.

It is interesting to me that working class families typically have much tighter knit support networks than middle class families. I'm wondering whether this is in part because they need them more.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 12th, 2005 03:20 pm (UTC)
I'm sure it's played up too and I work as a Fraud analyst in the DWP. Benefit fraud is about 3% of spend at the moment which is pretty good going I think and the average duration of a JSA claim is probably under 6 months, not really enough time to be benefit dependent (although some of these will be repeated claims).
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