Education Notes: Hot air, inequality and cutbacks

If I ruled the world

Vladimir Lenin is said to have described the British House of Commons as ‘the biggest gas works in Europe’. If he meant that it is full of hot air and bluster, he was spot on, particularly in the run-up to a General Election. Politicians are spouting platform promises about their vision for the future and how they will improve education – if they get your vote. The Tories want teaching to be a ‘noble profession’, Labour wants ‘world class’ training and skills. Such election pledges are no different to any wish list saying: ‘If I ruled the world, all schools, colleges and universities would be excellent all the time and all teachers and students would be great’. In reality education budgets will be cut or stagnate and the uneven distribution of resources will be reinforced by continued privatisation and privilege.

Who gets the money?

The schools budget alone has risen by 56% in the last decade, reaching £31 billion a year. The Department for Innovations, Universities and Skills today has a budget of £21.5 billion. The approximate increase in public funding for universities between 1997 and 2009 is £4 billion, doubling to £8 billion today. Yet these massive sums are failing to generate what Labour calls ‘class mobility’. Recent research shows that the education system has not reduced inequality between social classes in 12 years of Labour government. Data from the Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and a long-term study, the Millennium Cohort, show that family income still determines future educational achievement and earning power. Despite Labour’s promise to eradicate child poverty by 2020, four million children (roughly 30%) live below the poverty line. Using Free School Meals (FSM) as an indicator of poverty (an inadequate measurement that excludes the majority of the low paid), surveys show that poverty creates an educational divide that emerges early and expands over time. By the age of 11, students receiving FSM are twice as likely to miss basic literacy and numeracy standards. Just over 6% of FSM pupils take A levels, compared to about 40% overall and in 2008 a mere 176 (about 0.5%) of these students received three A grades.

The failure

Why has this massive education budget, which has doubled under Labour, failed to produce a more socially mobile and equitable society? Why will it fail to do so under the Tories who, in pre-election mode, are talking up support for the poor? Because the money is poured into the mouths of multinational corporations whose only interest is profit. The budget is feeding the appetite of an increasingly privatised state education system in which layer upon layer of parasitic education-business organisations make profits out of educational provision.

So, for example, education software, used in 22,000 schools, is a profit-maker for private companies. Two of these, Capita and Broncom, are currently at loggerheads over anti-competitive practices in which, it is claimed, Capita overcharged schools by £75 million for IT over the last ten years. Contracting out school and college supplies is mega business, and takeovers and buy-outs are now as much part of the education scene as playground fights. The 157 Group, representing Britain’s richest further education colleges, is selling on college-branded higher diploma courses to China, shouldering out established awarding bodies like Edexel and City and Guilds.

Import and export

The Higher and Further Education sectors are also being sustained by the student import market, with an estimated 600,000 people coming to Britain each year, worth about £1.5 billion of trade. There is no legal requirement for colleges to be registered or licensed and they can be set up by anybody. As a result hundreds of overseas students have been cheated out of money paid upfront for non-existent courses by phony colleges. Additionally there were recent headline scares about overseas students who are granted visas to study here but, allegedly, intend to overstay. Prime Minister Brown has ordered a review of the student visa process, in particular for those from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This fits neatly into Labour’s agenda on terror threats and immigration controls, but is against the spirit of enterprise ‘connecting the UK to the global education market’ that the government simultaneously encourages.

Nor is it just Bournemouth Business School International and similar colleges that claim they will lose some 80% of business if government proposals go ahead. The overseas students, whether funded by rich parents or home country scholarships, pay three times as much as home students. Private fee-paying residential schools have also been a lucrative business in recent years and fear a clampdown by the Home Office.

No country for young people

At present nearly one million young people aged 16-24 years old in Britain are unemployed. The jobless rate for young white people is 20%, while almost half of young black people are unemployed. The government has decreed that by 2013 teenagers will no longer be allowed to leave school at 16 without continuing in some form of education, training or employment that includes training. This Raising the Participation Age programme was announced by the DCSF as a way to raise the skills level of the workforce to compete internationally. The calculation is that by 2020 there will be three million fewer low-skilled jobs in Britain and that it is a ‘social imperative’ to control the rise in the number of Neets (young people not in employment, education or training). On educational attainment, Britain ranked 17 out of the 21 most advanced nations in 2009.

There is certainly a need to put an end to this damaging unemployment and dumping of young people onto the labour market to be hired or fired. The question is, can a marketised education system solve the problems of youth unemployment, with short-term courses, part-time jobs, testing regimes, vocational work in disappearing trades and all the other second-rate options so far on offer? We think not. Capitalism cannot sustain quality mass education and has no interest in doing so. After all, most of the privatised provision that the state education system has put out to tender is financed, in the end, and much more expensively, by central government. No businesses are going to educate and employ young people without financial reward, and the days of a seeming unending flow of funds from the DCFS to its friends in the education businesses may be coming to an end.

Susan Davidson

FRFI 213 February / March 2010


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