Phil Miles – All must have value: how Labour can revitalise and reform educational status and equality of worth

In the past the sociological canon was awash with quality studies based on how young people move from school to work, with many focusing on inherent social class structures, economy and power and so on. They looked at girls’ and boys’ pathways to work, evaluating gender and work typologies and the barriers and blockages that invariably led to a reinforcement of gender roles and values in the wider economy. In addition, such studies were embroiled in evaluating the division in school-to-work routes for young people; evaluating government schemes such as the YTS (and the roles played in such schemes and gendered placements); the pathways of pupils from their subterranean streams of school into the overt streams of work based on their backgrounds, their intergenerational, aggregated attitudinal contextualisation of education and the world of work; and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunities to access educational pathways that could deliver them from traditional school to work transitions.

A few years ago, during the Blair government’s drive for a wider, mass utilisation of higher education in the UK, I was looking into how this ‘working class kids get working class jobs’ theorisation might have shifted with the opening up of what we may call ‘educational ambitions’ under New Labour. I was pleasantly surprised, centring my research ‘field’ in the abandoned coal fields of south east Wales. Working class students (if we can call them ‘working class’ in the ambivalent post-Fordist economy and the post-traditional communities of the deindustrialised south Welsh valleys) were prepared to have a go at reaching for higher education where their forebears might have hesitated. However, the main conclusions to my research were that, despite the promise of educational access being realised, the delivery into middle class career was harder to attain. The working class kid still saw the middle class job as something middle class kids got by right.

In a modern era, this sort of thinking (and outcome) is very worrying, driven by an entrenched belief that social and economic status is still all-pervasive and held in higher regard than other forms of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed ‘human capital’. Educational opportunity is supposedly based on the principles of equality (in the state sector at least) and the seminal notion of meritocracy, but it seems that the influence of both structural tradition (or a form of what is known as ‘aggregation’ – a generation to generation transmission of values, mores and, often, ideological standpoint) and economic necessity are still barriers to real advances in educational attainment and consequent access to HE. In other words, education is still arguably a lever than can be operated best by those who have the muscle that is perhaps provided by the accident and influence of geography, family, finance and aggregated convention. Such social and cultural reproduction may be broadly in-line with the sociological thesis of Bowles and Gintis (education prepares the capitalist worker for the routines of systematic work behaviours), but it is also an alarming topic of debate in times where such ideological discourse is largely peripheral rather than, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, de rigueur by default of the times. Educational attainment is also arguably affected by whether an individual needs to go to work or not. This latter dynamic may, of course, have a greater impact on those further down the socio-economic scale in times of greater financial restraint.

It follows that, in an age where we have become over concerned with the mechanisms of delivery of education – focusing on league tables and Ofsted ratings and the impending debates on value for money for the higher education ‘consumer’ – we have, perhaps, lost sight of the dynamics of education as a socially liberating force for change and betterment of society. As each policy debate comes and goes, we are prone to starting our deliberations on reform with a discussion that centres on an immediate configuration of causes. Such immediacy results in us essentially drawing solutions to such problems from diverse (though not disassociated) ‘pots’ – for example, allowing the labeling of ‘feral youth’ and seeking answers via a law and order discourse rather than in an educational one – and, as a result, lose track of how, as Tony Giddens might say, agency can change structure rather than allowing structure to continue shaping us out of kilter with the pressing needs of a reflexive globalised economy in less than good shape. Labour has an opportunity to stand back from the immediate necessities of government and discuss the essence of what a liberal education need now be. In other words, we can shelve policy (for the time being only, of course) and talk about philosophy. Education can be a focus for great social change as well as wider social understanding that leads to harmony. New policy can organically develop in tune with a fresh view of reflexive economy and the educational paradigms and systems needed to meet the economic demands of the future.

So, how do we retain competitiveness in educational structures while, at the same time, seek to re-establish fairness of access?  We need, certainly, to begin with a basic premise that education is (of course) a basic right of each citizen and that educational trajectories should not be arrested are assisted by the forces of deprivation or privilege. The drivers of educational change in the UK are to be found at the centre of the social policy discourse, inter-related with virtually all other policy debates. For example, recent work that I have managed, undertaken by Professor Leon Feinstein and colleagues at the LSE, has connected issues such as housing tenure into the wider network of social policy, attaching the various dynamics of health, education, employment, housing tenure and so on to an idea of the development, management and truncation of life chances. Where housing plays its part in how people manage self-efficacy across many dimensions of their lives, education also has a role in determining how your general health develops, what sort of house you live in, how much you earn and so on. This is not surprising or, indeed, a fresh perspective. However, it perhaps illustrates a challenge for policy makers to recognise that elementary social justice can be achieved by equality of educational access based on closer examination of bespoke educational pathways developed at critical, post-14 junctures that involve student and advisor and also, critically, a shift in the development of one-dimensional impressions transmitted within popular culture and the more determined media that university is the only passport to educational and economic success. Revisiting my own project – mentioned earlier – I have found, ten year on from the first meetings with the sample of young people who took part in 2001, that the risk of what another classical sociologist, Emile Durkheim, called ‘anomie’ has turned into realisation of anomie in many cases. In other words, the ‘promise’ of higher educational ‘riches’ have been replaced by confusion, disappointment, disaffection and regret. The debt accrued via HE seems to equate to a contemporary monetary burden and appears to have little or no connectivity to being perceived as a necessary fee to embark on a journey of social mobility. Anomie – or the feeling of disconnection, normlessness, angst – is seemingly keenly felt amongst those who were ‘sold’ academic-HE as an opportunity to join in an individualistic and professional revolution of thinking and practice only to find that the same cultural, social and economic barriers beyond their immediate control were still prevailing in holding them back.

To solve the continued tension between open access for all and a more structured approach to educational pathways there needs to be a continued and concerted drive towards shaking up the developed status quo on educational ‘value’. There needs to be an end to the impression that university is the only way to ‘finish’ an educational pathway or, if university is the setting for a more practical approach to the realisation of potential, then we must seek to shift the emphasis from the ‘academic’ to a broader sense of educational value delivered at HE level. I dare to use the ‘V’ word – vocationalism – so long as we do not regress to YTS-style compartmentalisation of young people as a solution to, for example, NEETs. We do not have to regress to a functionalist division of grammars and secondary moderns or, indeed, debar students from access to the very best of Higher Education based on ability to pay. What we really need is a clarity on utility – what education is for, how it is valued by individual and society/economy and, finally, how it is ‘sold’ to the emerging generations.

However, this still does not counter the inherent inequalities of the system that mirrors the often transparent structural partitions in society at large. I need not, as part of this dialogue, rake up debates on (among others) nursery education, SAT testing and league tables or, indeed, the curious ‘deregulation’ of secondary school catchments, applications for places and choice. These policies – for good or bad, depending on where you stand – are effectively resolute in existence and only play a minor role in the widening belief that the education system is becoming somehow over-complicated. Having the (parental) power to seek to avoid schools that have ‘lesser’ reputations in favour of established ‘good’ schools just drives further wedges into the social divisions caused by such policies. In the past, class differences were best extolled and illustrated by the power to move to (and reside in) catchments that served the exclusivity of any given community with an exclusive school. Property prices are still very much driven (along with other absurd factors) by local schools, thus reinforcing a demographic that lets some in, but keeps most out. This might be an over-simplification of an observed reality, but it is reality nevertheless.

The optimism of my earlier argument starts to further unravel when one deliberates on what sociologists have called ‘subterranean values’ – the attendance at school by some pupils satisfies the surface belief that education is being embraced while, all along, the pupils know that the odds are stacked against them. The result, of course, is the continued ghettoisation of the state education structure and the potential aggregation of entrenched attitudes towards the value of education and the relationship with labour. If going to school appears to have no tangible reward, then going to school (or, at least, paying attention to content at school) is not worth it. The meritocratic principle falls at the first hurdle. If going to school leads to hitting an imposed ceiling (thank heavens the CSE/GCE distinction was abolished) then young people are likely to seek release from full-time studies at sixteen – leading to problems of desolate youth employment markets, the withering on the vine of Modern Apprenticeships and the eventual abolition of the EMA.

It is starting to look like one solution is in the offing – and the system is biased towards those who are able to take it. Socio-economic, socio-geographic and socio-cultural barriers to the realisation of A-Level standard educational attainment – and beyond – starts to bring us back (again) to the discourse on access and power and, undoubtedly, the intrinsic damage that a lack of better education for all can cause to the fabric of society. The young people who provided the dialogue for the researchers of the late 80s and early 90s are perhaps coming back into the line of sight. However, this time they are not even getting a YTS to lean on for direction and a modicum of useful skills training. There needs to be, in short, a radical rethink of the definition of educational success, coupled with constructive educational delivery and content that shall give each citizen engaged a sense of absolute worth and achievement. It does not necessarily have to be through the entrenched paradigm of traditional university passage. This way we shall sense equality without having to necessarily ensconce it in one method or another. We shall sense it and believe it.

Therefore, Labour needs to engage with policy debate and development that should be all about enabling choice, rather than imposing structures on young people. This way, students can make a reasoned choice about what they want to be and the state can furnish their route towards such realisation. The thinking needs to be about raising standards in secondary education across the board – but also in providing meritocratic distinction from within, namely in the diversification of educational routes mentioned above, championing vocationalism once again and changing the perception of some routes in education by linking ‘trade’ and ‘skill’ to excellence and success.

Progress needs to be about revisiting education as a cohesive force for society, driving a sense of togetherness and demolishing quasi-functionalist compartmentalisation of professional roles in the generation of economic outputs. We have heard so much over the years about how tripartite secondary education was bad for social mobility (as well as unfair); how comprehensivisation first offered equality of opportunity and then, belatedly, held back the brightest in an age where ‘all must have prizes’ and where meritocratic principles were buried in discourse on different variations of ‘equality’ as well as the omnipresent debates on ‘access’ and the inherent boundaries and roadblocks of ingrained social class status.

During and after New Labour’s period of power there was arguably a tangible sense of meritocratic emancipation ‘breaking out’ across the education system (despite the residual resistance to, among other things, continued testing, league tables and the pervasive power of Ofsted). This can be simplified by pointing to the rise in standards in examination performance at GCSE and GCE A Level, increased HE access (in spite of top-up/tuition fees) and the burgeoning graduate jobs market over that time. However, the debate is arguably moving from policy-driven innovation and back towards a re-evaluation of principle. We need, in short, to ask ourselves whether education is ‘classless’ and ‘open’ or is in need of a positive ideological intervention. This is best achieved by evaluating the chances for all in a time of great shortage (both monetary and in terms of employment prospects) as well as revising the ideology of success that permeates our society. To transform the mores and values of the young from the desire of fame and fortune and towards the joy of emancipation through knowledge, work, community involvement and self-efficacy is surely a method of releasing people from the shackles of ‘one-route’ perceptions of educational success.

We have to be extremely careful not to fall into a trap of effectively supporting an attack on the grounded principles of liberal education and, as a result, playing into the hands of Bowles and Gintis by providing training and education for jobs that merely reinforces the class structures associated with employment and employment opportunity. Education can liberate, but it can also imprison, redeveloping the social class structures of old based on employment type that some thinkers sought to theorise and challenge as the sixties turned into the seventies and the structure of the economy underwent big change. However, we must also realise that education for all is not a uniform approach; it needs to be as bespoke as possible, liberating dreams and ambitions but also channelling them into realities where young people can approach work with confidence, realism and satisfaction, sensing that they are free to continue their learning, but achieving their ambitions at the same time. If we carry on the way we are going, we are facing a multiple generational ‘anomie’ that could result in disaffection with education being transmitted to future generations and leading, ultimately, to a polarisation of educational opportunity once more. It is the challenge to modern Labour to meet the challenge posed by such threats by countering the quasi-privatisation of state education proposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat sympathisers and return an idea of education to the citizen.

In the coming months and, perhaps, years, Labour must turn its attention to addressing some of the themes discussed above via policy development. The Party must consider tackling the drift that has arguably occurred towards educational credentialism that is fired by the all-encompassing division opened up between the ‘have- and have-not’ dichotomy of higher education and the continuing complexities of state secondary education access and consequent pupil performance. The perennial ‘problem’ that faces those of us on the centre-left is how to reconcile enhanced educational opportunity with a commitment to equality of access. How do we empower our citizens in claiming their right to learning, ambition and social mobility while retaining the ideology of fairness to all?

The answer must come with brave, affirmative steps towards recognising meritocratic ‘difference’ while continuing to invest in educational delivery and facilities from the bottom up. This means continuing to invest in improvements to state education (resources, buildings and so on) but also in opening up the public discourse on relative ‘value’ of education as discussed above. Labour must move towards revitalising a standpoint that argues for education as a personal emancipator whatever an individual’s background, driven further by policy that reflects meritocratic values inside curricula and more vigorously illustrated by examples of ‘success’ and, more importantly, satisfaction in public life of the individual. This, despite its challenge, would serve society well in both pragmatic and benevolent outcomes over time – people have value, parity, dynamics. We can go beyond the values and vanguard of ‘citizenship education’, turning more towards an encouragement of a binary value of personal success and social cache driven by learning – affirmative outcomes that are palpably achievable by all who choose to engage.

At the ‘top end’ of secondary educational delivery, perhaps a direction is required that could bring private educational ‘practice’ into the state sector in the form of specialist coaching and smaller tuition groups. This will serve to create enhanced opportunities for bright young people from all backgrounds, encouraging commitment and promising real long-term prizes understandable to the young people and their parents – not quite what Crosland had in mind, but perhaps one way to destroy the self-aggrandising exclusivity of private education!  Aspirations can rise and greater equality in educational access may be achieved via such a method. Universities will be ‘naturally’ populated by a social mixture achieved without quotas but still sadly dependent on financial considerations unless revision can be achieved to such legislation in future.

However, as intimated, this sort of approach does not solve the inherent problem of cultural aggregation and the discrepancies of relative poverty. As I have argued, ending cultural division and attitudes to educational value from the ground up is the only solution to the potentially widening gap. Young people, from whatever social ‘class’ they are born into, need to feel that their education can provide dividends in real life and the real world. School has to be seen to be ‘worth it’, both to the pupil and to the parents. Policy should seek to end exclusivity on state school catchments (it might do the local housing market a favour as well as creating more evenly mixed communities!), creating instead a more open application system for all schools that may well re-establish something of a ‘comprehensive’ vision. As universities battle a PR-disaster, otherwise known as the Tory/Lib-Dem collusion on fees, time will only tell if affirmative thinking on educational access and philosophy that has been argued above can make a difference. It is Labour’s challenge to make people believe that learning is equal and that it can lead to good things as well as being open to access at all times. Without a party arguing for fairness, futures, mobility and the harnessing of affirmative self-efficacy we face challenging, divided, disgruntled and economically flat times ahead.

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Article image by Dave Herholz

Phil Miles

About Phil Miles

Dr Phil Miles is a sociologist based at the University of Cambridge. His speciality is the connectivity between education, social mobility and discourse on social class structures in modern Britain. With a research history dedicated to understanding young people and pathways into higher education and work, Phil retains significant interest in the study of individualisation, educational credentialism and social democratic thinking in relation to contemporary economy and society.