Sunday, 24 July 2011

A tale of two countries with one big problem; lifting people out of poverty

A survey carried out for the universities and College Union (UCN) and reported by the BBC this week has highlighted huge local variations in educational achievement across the UK, making Britain, in educational and economic terms, two different countries.

In Glasgow East 35% of adults have no qualifications compared to just 1.9% in the north London constituency of Brent. There are more adults without qualifications in a single Birmingham constituency (Hodge Hill) than in Cambridge, Winchester, Wimbledon, Buckingham, Romsey, Leeds North West and four other constituencies put together.

The message is stark, in the north too many people are held back from finding paid work, let alone reaching their full potential by a lack of qualifications than in the south east with a certainty that the vicious circle of low achievement and low incomes will be handed on to their children. As Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the UCU told the BBC on Friday: ‘There is a real danger that children growing up in places where it is not unheard of to have no qualifications will have their ambition blunted and never realise their full potential.’

Although the survey finds that the areas with the best qualified workforce are generally in the south even here there are pockets of low achievement and correspondingly high levels of disadvantage. London is described as a ‘city of contrasts’ with many high achievers in wealthy areas, but significant pockets of low attainment in parts of the old east end such as Romford, Hornchurch and West Ham.

The deep regional divide in educational achievement, say the UCU, underlines the importance of improving access to education and foolishness of allowing universities to raise their tuition fees made by the coalition. In a reply reported by the BBC the Department of Education said it was using its reforms to target support towards the most disadvantaged children and was working to make qualifications more rigorous and compatible with the needs of employers.

The UCU are right to criticise the failure of a largely privately educated government to improve access to higher education for those people who don’t have the odd £9000 a year lying around to spend on putting their offspring through university. To this might be added the cruel and thoughtless decision to scrap the Educational Maintenance Allowance late last year.

It would also be fair to castigate the political establishment as a whole for its attitude to supporting the areas of the country that were his hardest when the old heavy industries collapsed in the seventies. For eighteen years the Tories largely ignored everywhere north of Watford gap because hardly anyone in the north votes Conservative; then under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown the same areas were ignored again because that people there vote Labour could largely be taken for granted. Talk about a double whammy.

The blame for this sorry situation though shouldn’t just be laid at the door of the politicians; the educational establishment must take its share too. For years the focus has been on getting ever more people into university with the equally important task of providing decent vocational training has been largely ignored.

While we’re at it a large brickbat should be thrown at the nation’s employers who sing a gloomy chorus about the poor skills demonstrated by school leavers whilst being as quiet as church mice with laryngitis about their own failure to provide decent apprenticeships.

If we’re going to apportion blame though then a large slice has to land on the plate of the great British public too. We have all, to some extent, colluded in the culture of stupidity that seems to have the strongest grip on those areas of the country that most need to value education. Dim footballers are held up as role models for boys who think that reading a book makes you a geek and therefore beneath contempt; reality television force feeds girls the dangerous delusion that what they look like on the outside matters more than what is inside their heads.

In parts of the country that have been battered by the changes undergone by the economy over the past thirty years parents have to realise that education matters, however hard it may be to do so they have to drum into their children’s that being illiterate when you’re forty is way less cool than being thought a geek for trying hard at school.

Despite the best efforts of New Labour and now the coalition to persuade people otherwise education is best organised and delivered by the state because this is the only way of ensuring fairness; but the willingness to learn has to come from the participants and if it is missing the system fails. In the sort of working class communities that have been hit hardest by economic change in recent years there used to be a proud tradition of valuing education both as a way out of poverty and of broadening horizons the owners of capital would like to keep a narrow as possible, it is a tradition they must rediscover if they are to prosper again.

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