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Class War

Pete Smith sees a new educational apartheid writ large in the latest Green Paper on 14 to 19 provision.

Green Papers (government consultative documents) never really set the world alight because even when they have been supervised or thought through by somebody as intellectually challenged as Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, they are bound to go nowhere. However, the new consultative document on 14-19 education is worrying to say the least. Most teachers and educators might rightly take the view that the permanent revolution which has raged through the education system over the last 20 years or so has done nothing positive in terms of educational outcomes. All that has happened is that teachers have been demoralised and an alphabet soup of qualifications has meant that employers have only the haziest notion of what certificates actually mean.

The running sore in the secondary education system post the 1944 Butler Education Act was selection. Some children were told at 11 years old that the future for them was academic study and perhaps university, but most children were told that their future was one of general education and the world of semi-skilled or unskilled employment. We divided children up into sheep and goats and the goats very largely came from working class and ethnic minority backgrounds. The education system reinforced and underlined the inequalities which already existed in society.

Life chances were essentially about choosing your parents wisely. The movement towards comprehensivisation tried to undermine this. That awful experience of being told at 11 that you had failed, that you were no longer wanted on the bus of academic achievement, that you could not succeed, was going to be a thing of the past. Of course, it never went away. Selection at 11 plus has remained in place in many parts of the UK and it turns out that when the former Education Secretary, David Blunkett, spoke out at the Labour Conference against selection by examination or interview, it was a "joke". Ha ha. Anyone who knows anything about the educational system and the way that the processes work knows that if you tell people at age 11 that they are likely to be successes, the chances are they will be successful, and that if you say to people that they have failed that is another self-fulfilling prophecy.

The new Green Paper on education raises some important issues. Essentially looking at education for the 14-19 age group, 14 is when pupils start their GCSE studies and 19 is when they are likely to have completed their A Level/A2 studies. In 2001, half of all 16 year olds in England and Wales achieved at least 5 GCSEs at grade C or above, which was the government's target. But the other way of reading the figures is to say that half did not and left compulsory education with fewer qualifications or perhaps no qualifications at all. Hence the Green Paper.

What the Green Paper is pointing towards is what we do about the other half and it is an issue which has been a continuing feature of debate about education in Britain for more than a century. How can vocational education be given the same or similar status as academic education, given that it is academic qualifications which provide the route into professional and middle class occupations?

The problem with the Green Paper, badly written as it is, is that it reintroduces the notion of selection, but at 14 plus rather than 11 plus. In effect, children will be told as they enter the GCSE cohort that they will be going in an academic direction or in a vocational direction. Now you can dress this up however you like, but in reality half of all 14 year olds will be told they are not up for it. They are failures in terms of the academic system; A Levels, decent university places are not for them. In other words, there will be a 14 plus which will sort, select and grade and tell young people, as young as 13, that they are not wanted on board. Why is a Labour government moving in this direction? Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education, which is often seen as being right wing, has quite rightly said "14 is much too young to tell children they are not capable of getting mainstream academic qualifications". In reality, vocational qualifications will still be seen as second class, and it is working class children and young people who will be excluded from qualifications which will get them places at top-flight universities.

It is already the case that loans and fees are excluding young people from ordinary backgrounds from seeking places in higher education, and also women, older students and those with family responsibilities. Labour in office has talked much about widening participation and bringing into the education system students from non-traditional backgrounds, but the reality is very different. New Labour has reinforced the inequalities which exist in the education system, not eroded them. The push towards selection, city technology colleges, magnet schools etc, makes things worse for children from working class backgrounds. A level playing field on which children can compete through equality of opportunity is much preferable to the gimmicks and stunts which the Education Department (or whatever it is currently called) seems to think are the way forward.

The education system surely should be one where children and young people from modest backgrounds are able to strive and achieve and raise themselves through the opportunities that they are offered. It will never be an equal system: children from middle class backgrounds who have parents with university degrees or siblings who have been through the system ahead of them, will always be advantaged compared to children from perhaps working class or ethnic minority backgrounds. Life is not fair and nobody ever told us it was going to be, but surely we can have a system which gives young people whose origins do not automatically point in the direction of academic success a chance? Telling 50% of 14 year olds that they are not wanted on the voyage and that they can be written off as aspirants for academic courses does not seem to me to be the route to go down.

If the educational system is to give people chances then it should not shut off options too early. We all know about late developers. I was one myself. Education did not kick in for me until I was 17 or 18. For other people it might be their 20s or 30s. If we are serious as the present government pretends to be about lifelong learning, we need to see it as something that is as real when you are 14 as when you are 30. Do not shut down the options for children and young people. Actually do not shut down the options for anybody.

The Green Paper states boldly "we must also continue to break down the divide between education and training and emphasise that all pathways contribute to employability and responsible citizenship". Would that this were the case. There is actually a philosophical and intellectual distinction between education and training. The way that I was taught it was that you could be trained to be a concentration camp guard but you could not be educated to be one, because if you were educated you would not want to do it. Education is about a leading out. It is about a conclusion that none of us can predict. That is not training.

At one point the Green Paper says 'today young people aged between 14 and 19 may be more independent and autonomous than were their parents and grandparents, they also demand more.' Most people who work with this age group recognise that the whole process of "empowering" students and pupils in that particular age group has actually resulted in infantilising them. They expect more, but are not prepared for taking responsibility for their own learning or even their own lives. The direction of the educational system, and particularly the dreaded concept of relevance, has not helped young people prepare themselves for life after education. A simple point is that many young people cannot write an essay or produce coherent sentences, they cannot spell and they are unable to present a structured argument. They have been disempowered by an education system that refuses to grant them the tools of the trade in terms of being informed, perceptive, fluent and cultured members of the wider community.

At my local university I recently discovered that the best selling book was a work on how to write better essays. In other words, people have got GCSEs, they have even got A Levels and yet they cannot write an effective essay. To put it bluntly, the system has not taught them to think. It seems as though under the present government's proposals 50% of our young people will be condemned at age 14 to be VDU fodder and will not even have the opportunity to aspire to the farrago which currently presents itself as university education.

Essentially the Green Paper is proposing a divisive secondary education system where half of all young people will be branded as incapable of academic study aged 14 and no doubt will mostly be shunted off from the schools they attend to further education colleges, or other further education providers, which will have neither the skills nor the motivation to care, train or educate them adequately. We are set fair for a system of educational apartheid. Already the league table system encourages schools to get rid of those young people who are not likely to prove successful in formal examinations. Increasingly, colleges will be expected to deal with young people whose schools have designated them as going down the vocational route rather than the academic one.


May/June 2002