I had the privilege of attending university as a mature student, prior to that much of my education came via my own huge appetite for books. There was much attention paid by the previous Labour government directed at encouraging more people to attend university – famously the aim was 50% – and to a large extent the party achieved a great deal through that policy. Certainly many more people attended universities from a far wider variety of backgrounds than ever before.
I personally know many graduates whose families are proud of their achievements. Many were the first of their families to have attended a university let alone graduate from one. Such achievements set precedents in a person’s family which lead to ever greater educational achievement. One graduate in a family can encourage others to take the plunge, since it proves that educational attainment is possible despite a sometimes poor experience in education at the beginning of one’s life.
It can sometime hard for people from a more advantaged background to appreciate the importance of this, since educational achievement is often taken for granted. Neither my mother or my father went onto further education, let alone higher education, they simply didn’t have the opportunity. My mother was offered a place at highly esteemed local institution (Mabel Fletcher’s) but was unable to take it, whilst my father, despite being highly intelligent also, failed his eleven-plus, despite being entered for it from the age of eight-years-old. Both were sent out to work by their families as soon as they were old enough – their families simply couldn’t afford delaying it. My father went onto take an apprenticeship in maintenance engineering and became a highly skilled engineer.
In education there has been a lot of debate over the past twenty-years (or more) about the UK skills shortage. The most famous influential report to address this was Leitch’s. In that he identified that the UK has a staggering problem with illiteracy and innumeracy, and stressed that the UK must focus on creating ‘World Class Skills’ in the UK. Leitch emphasised that in order for the UK to be competitive people should be ‘up-skilled’ to attain a target of Level 2 (GCSE) skills. At the time, Leitch’s report was welcomed by the Labour government who then went onto to introduce many (some would say way too many) initiatives to enable this to happen. Peter Mandelson much later headed an initiative to reach on Level 3 targets.
The operative word in all of this was of course was targets. The consequence of an emphasis on targets is that it creates an artificial approach to teaching and learning, since sometimes the very activity of learning is unquantifiable. Educators and students understand this but bureaucrats don’t.
Of course, the new Conservative government, like all Conservative governments before them make a great deal of noise about being very anti-bureaucracy. The problem of course is that they are also very anti-education, at least for ordinary people and marginalised groups. Much as the Labour government was way too over-keen on paper-work, at least there was a well-meaning intent present in their education policy.
My worry regarding education in the near future is the cuts. The Conservatives talk about wanting to make the UK competitive but fail to understand that in order to be competitive the people of the UK need to be skilled. Education begins at school and if investment is taken away from schools this makes the UK less competitive. Governmental removal of financial help from community education (often the first step back into education for out-of-work people) further downgrades the UK skills status. The government cuts to college funding, often a source of vocational training today, are destroying the UK economy. Put up financial barriers between ordinary people and further/higher education and the UK’s economy will inevitably suffer.
The greatest resource of any economy or business is the people in it. This is the first lesson that one learns in economics and this government’s policies spectacularly fail to pay heed to that fact. It utterly baffles me why the government cannot understand the logic of this argument. Perhaps it is owing to the educationally privileged backgrounds of the front-bench, or maybe it is simply that they are intellectually incapable of understanding it. Personally, I believe that they just choose to ignore it. Whatever the case, we are heading into disastrous territory if Government educational policies aren’t reviewed.