HomeEducational StagesAdult EducationWritten off: Education and the war against the British working class

Written off: Education and the war against the British working class


Britain is at war with itself, and education is the frontline.

Over past decades, the ruling class and the political elite have fought a hugely successful rearguard action to stifle and reverse the advance of the working class and to gain almost complete dominance over politics and all key political institutions, industry, culture and the arts (even those, such as popular music, which working class people have previously dominated). Opportunities have disappeared, routes for working class people to access professions such as journalism and the civil service have been dismantled, funding for the arts has been slashed, and education for all but the most privileged has been repurposed as an extended preparation for work. Working class communities across the country have been in a state of Thatcherite ‘managed decline’ for decades. Left to rot, in other words.

No one, then, should have been a bit surprised by new research from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, reported by Channel 4, which found that little more than 8 per cent of film and TV workers in the UK and just 16 per cent of workers in the music industry identify as being from working class backgrounds. Those who do make it into music or the arts or higher education can expect to face discrimination in the workplace and to be paid less than their wealthier peers. The higher you get the more pronounced it is. All the leading professions in Britain are dominated by people who went to private school. Two-thirds of the current cabinet, for example, went to private school, and more that half of them to one of two elite universities. For reference, less than 7 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom attends private institutions.

Inequalities have been widening in Britain, especially since 2010 when the widespread belief that the global financial crisis had been caused by Labour spending too much on public services helped put the Conservatives into power. This is important to note since the belief that good things are not affordable lies at the heart of Britain’s grinding political stalemate. It’s helped the Tories keep much of the public onside as they hollowed out local democracy and ran public services, now not much more than the money-making plaything of foreign investors, into the ground, all while lining their own pockets and those of their sponsors.

More than 4 million children, nearly a third of all children in the United Kingdom, now live their lives in poverty, with little prospect of a stable or happy adulthood. The prospects for their own kids are likely to be worse still. Homelessness has reached unprecedented levels, the worst by far in the developed world, with 113,000 families, including 146,000 children, stuck in often grim temporary accommodation. Housing of any sort has become unaffordable to hundreds of thousands of people.

At the same time, opportunities for social mobility among the working class have been squeezed. The route by which I gained entry to a career in journalism has disappeared, for example. When I got my first job in newspapers, university-educated reporters were the exception, now they are the rule (though, for the very rich, a call to the editor from an old school chum may suffice). Class differences and privileges have calcified to a degree that would have been unthinkable when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s. We didn’t realise how good we had it then. Britain could have moved in the direction of social democracy. Everyone had access to decent housing. Inequalities were declining, albeit not quickly enough. Working class voices were shaping the culture, or parts of it, in theatre, television and, perhaps especially, popular music, which punk had made truly meaningful and accessible to a new generation of people. Instead, Britain voted in neo-liberalism and handed the keys to the country and its precious public resources to a motley gang of media moguls, oligarchs, financiers, profiteers and politicians on the make.

While Britain remains a great place to live if you are rich, most other people live paycheck to paycheck, loaded with debt and in employment that is, to one degree or another, insecure. While the super-rich watch their fortunes swell, child mortality is spiking in the poorest communities, hospital waiting lists are longer than ever and millions of people struggle with their mental health, a crisis attributed by the Lancet to a lack of compassion in British society. This is the end game of the country’s experiments in Thatcherism. Britain is no longer the envy of the world. I doubt it ever was. It is not a nice or happy place. It is certainly not a kind place. To the rest of the world, and to very many of those who live there, it is a grim, desiccated, deeply unequal and backward-looking little country surrounded by a moat of human excrement. It turns out that the people who think they own the country are really not the best people to run it.

Diane Reay in her brilliant book Miseducation describes two different kinds of working-class social mobility. There is the mobility of those working-class people with a ‘middle class disposition’, the ‘respectable, aspirant working class who limited their family size and saved up to buy their own home’ and whose politics were ‘conservative, with both a small and a large “C”’.  And then there is the mobility of those whose social progress was ‘facilitated and enabled’ by ‘a strong, oppositional, working-class value system and political consciousness’.

The latter is of course by far the most dangerous sort since those who break through may not want to leave their communities in their wake and may even want to take other people with them. The very thing we want to avoid!

I was lucky to grow up in such a household. My family was not deferential or apologetic about who they were. We did not respect authority, at least not as a matter of course. The police and other officials of the state were viewed with suspicion, sometimes contempt. Like many other working-class families that we knew, we did not give a hoot what the royal family was up to. We wouldn’t dream of singing the national anthem or putting out bunting for the Jubilee. We didn’t go to church. We thought of ourselves as socialists and voted Labour. We cared about social justice, fairness, equality (things which, back then, the Labour Party still stood for). All of this, at the time, seemed perfectly normal. I mean, there was nothing unusual or exceptional about it. It seems like a world away now.

My own educational progress was disjointed and difficult but, at the same time, not that unusual for those years. Although I left school at 16 without qualifications and was forced, as per Thatcherite policy, to take work I didn’t like and that was of little value to my employer (though it did give me a useful early experience of sexual harassment in the workplace), I was able to take my GCSEs and A-levels at technical college for nothing and to get onto what was called a ‘pre-entry’ journalism course with a clear track to becoming a senior journalist within a couple of years. When I decided I wanted to take a degree, I applied to my local authority which supported me with a grant. The freedom this gave me is something of which current university students, laden with debt and paying some of the highest tuition fees anywhere in the world, can only dream. Another one of those things Britain simply can’t afford.

Much has changed since then. Arts in the state school sector, so often the catalyst for change in the lives of working-class young people, has been under attack for decades. The state school curriculum has narrowed, with the value of arts and culture in education under almost constant question, usually by those who have had a lifetime’s exposure to it. There are fewer than ever opportunities for working-class kids to try their hand at the creative arts, to learn a language or study history, music or philosophy. This is part of a wider reduction in funding for state education – a drop of 9 per cent per student between 2010 and 2020, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies – which has squeezed out creative subjects and the arts in favour of subjects more closely related to employment and employability.

This change has not been reflected in the private school system, to which the people who make the decisions about the education of state school pupils send their children. The private sector has seen a significant increase, not only in per-pupil spending (three times as much is spent on the education of the average private school pupil than on that of the average state school pupil), but also in investment in the creative arts, in particular. In this world, there is no question of the value of the arts and cultural education. If anything, the value ascribed to it has been growing. Recognition that all the talents and abilities of these pupils should be carefully fostered is reflected in a broadening curriculum. The 20 private schools examined in a study by Heidi Ashton and David Ashton boasted a total of 33 theatres, while ten had dedicated dance studios and 18 dedicated rehearsal spaces. All had fine art studios, all had provision for concerts and 19 had specialist facilities for specific arts forms such as photography, ceramics, textiles, sculpture and film, often supported by industry professionals.

Private education is the root of inequality in Britain. Around a third of places at the two most prestigious English universities, Cambridge and Oxford, are given to the privately educated, compared to between 10 and 15 per cent from the most socially disadvantaged groups. The proportion is not much higher in other Russell Group universities. Working-class people are often reluctant to apply to such institutions, even when they have the grades, viewing them, quite understandably, as not for them (though when they do attend, they tend to out-perform their better-off peers). They are also more likely to drop out, often struggling to combine the high demands of their course with the need to work, sometimes driven out by the snobbery and discrimination they face. On the whole, they are more likely to apply to higher education institutions with a more vocational profile, where preparation for a career is prioritised above the kind of rounded liberal education typically valued by the elite universities. In these institutions, the arts and humanities are under significant pressure, with universities closing successful and important courses in fields such as philosophy, history and languages. The latest round of cuts, reported in the Guardian this month, include anthropology at Kent University, music at Oxford Brookes, the history of Africa and the African diaspora at Chichester and Black British literature at Goldsmith’s. Subjects essential to our understanding of ourselves and our history are being cut with little or any thought to what is being lost, usually for wholly spurious, often disingenuous reasons, as if the value of a course could be measured by the projected salaries of its students.

The struggles of higher education institutions have been trivial compared to those of further education, a sector providing, in the main, vocational and technical education, as well as some academic courses, mostly to young people aged 16 to 18. FE colleges serve a wide range of students but cater disproportionately for those from less-advantaged backgrounds, including many who have struggled with school. It is the least visible sector of the education system in the UK, perhaps unsurprisingly since few ministers or civil servants have had any experience of it, and, despite educating hundreds of thousands of students each year, it is largely ignored by journalists, including by many specialising in education, who increasingly come from the same privileged backgrounds as the politicians. When it comes to cuts it is traditionally considered low-hanging fruit: a civil servant famously, in 2010, proposed to Education Secretary Vince Cable the withdrawal of all funding for the sector in England and Wales, telling Cable that ‘nobody will really notice’. Thankfully, Cable, a bulwark against some of the Tories worst excesses in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that ushered in the new era of austerity, resisted the advice. The subsequent cuts have been brutal, nonetheless. Between 2010–11 and 2019–20, spending per student for colleges in England and Wales fell by 14 per cent.

What of second chances? What about those kids for whom the exams came to soon or who had the desire to learn kicked out of them at school? What about those who were simply failed by an education system that rewards privilege rather than talent and routinely writes off most of the students who pass through it? Successive governments have dismantled an extensive and well-developed infrastructure of adult education that was the envy of many other countries, notwithstanding a long and turbulent history of political disagreement as to its value. Further education has been subject to two decades of cuts, obliging colleges to focus on courses with an explicit link to employment and to cut those to do with community engagement and personal development, what we used to call ‘other FE’, which provided an important means through which adults could re-enter or continue their post-school education. While, in England, 5.5 million adults were enrolled in government-funded FE qualifications in 2004-05, the number had dropped to 1.5 million by 2020–21.

New Labour promised the renewal of adult education but, in the end, took the decisions that enabled the Conservatives to effectively destroy adult education for purposes other than basic skills or employability. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, spending on adult education has fallen by 25 per cent since 2010, while the Learning and Work Institute estimates a loss of 3.8 million adult learners over the same period. Adults in lower socio–economic groups are half as likely to take part in learning than those in higher socio–economic groups. Adults who left school at 16 or younger are half as likely to take part in learning as those who stayed on in full time education until at least 21. Community learning providers, offering courses on themes such as personal and social development, social and political education, active citizenship and the arts, alongside their core provision in employability and adult skills, have been forced to introduce fees for formerly free courses, thus further squeezing out the poorest and most vulnerable learners, including those for whom community learning is an indispensable first step in re-engaging with education.

The government doesn’t care about second chances. Few ministers have had any need of them. While privileged kids get chance after chance to try, fail and try again, until, finally, they find something they are good at, working-class kids are expected to make the best of an environment in which every slip could be fatal, in which every moment of your life must be dedicated to building the delicate scaffolding of success, knowing that at any moment a gust of wind could bring it all crashing down. It starts with the culture of continuous high-stakes testing in schools, from primary on, and is perpetuated throughout and beyond education by high fees and the repayment of loans, to which, soon, other debts will be added. At the same time the social safety net has been painstakingly picked apart. We are forced to live out lives on a precipice, paying more for essential services while being paid less than our counterparts in Europe. According to the Resolution Foundation, middle-income households earn on average 20 per cent less than those in Germany, while the poorest households are nearly 30 per cent (around £4,300 on average) poorer. Our rich are among the richest in the developed world, our poor are among the poorest.

While paying lip service to the social mobility of those prepared to knuckle down, straighten their tie and sing the national anthem – the home-owning aspirant working class that reads the Daily Mail  and puts out the bunting when required – the Conservative Party has been on a decades-long war footing against the sort of mobility that arises from political consciousness and civic activism, the sort of thing that adult education, as conceived by the founders of the movement, traditionally fostered. While the Tories are comfortable with a few people here and there climbing the social ladder, they want them to pull it up after them. They don’t want people taking radical ideas back into their communities and trying to change anything. There has been a concerted effort, going back decades, to dismantle this tradition, to make education at every level a private transaction aimed at producing either productive economic units or alienated, disengaged non-participants convinced they are stupid or feckless, and resigned to the hopelessness of their lives.

As the 1919 report, published more than a century ago in the aftermath of World War I, recognised, this sort of education, aimed not at making people employable but at making them fulfilled and active citizens, is the cornerstone of a stable, well-functioning and self-renewing democracy. It should run through every form of provision, and at every stage, and continue throughout life. These are the skills people need to make sense of change and to shape it. Yet, in Britain’s two-tier education system, these things are available only to the privileged, while the rest of us must make do with a lifetime of training and retraining to keep our crappy low-paid jobs and pay off our debts, a confluence of circumstances that keep our noses pressed to the grindstones and bailiffs in work.

So little value is attached to the lives of ordinary people that the state school system has become a playground for tinkering politicians who appear to think nothing of the stress and disruption they cause, or of the mental wellbeing of the students and parents who have to navigate this unstable, high-stakes, high-stress environment. Experiments with free schools and academies, in which schools cherry-pick the best/wealthiest students and exclude the least advantaged in order to game outcomes, have further excluded marginalised working-class kids. Efforts to introduce markets and competition to education have favoured kids from stable, well-to-do households and left the kids with most ground to cover – the brilliant, difficult, chaotic ones who, very often, have the most to give, but also need the most support – with nowhere to go and no-one to turn to. At the same time, schools are encouraged to focus more on discipline and control, a sure way to root out young people who see the world in different ways. Uniform policy is ruthlessly enforced, even down to the colour of a child’s socks or the make of their shoes. The message is very clear: straighten your tie, knuckle down and don’t rock the boat. If you think differently, or have ideas about how to do things differently, you’d better keep them to yourself. School isn’t the place for questioning or critical thinking.

I often say that the chief educational output of Britain’s school system is failure. But it is not as simple as that. Not everyone fails. There is a choice. For those who toe the line and leap through the hoops of academic and work life with a winning smile on their face, a bright career may await. For those who don’t, the critical thinkers, the backrow fidgeters and awkward customers, the folk who can’t see a future for themselves sat in an office, delivering the post or stacking shelves in Tesco, there is nothing at all. You might make something of yourself through your own hard work and dedication, but don’t expect anyone to help you, still less to pay you to do it. And if you fall through the cracks, expect to stay there.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.
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