By Jo Burgess, Postgraduate Researchers, Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC), Work and Employment Relations, Management
Who said life was fair? No-one.
Although politicians are keen in their efforts to acknowledge inequality, the problem is owned by society and society is a slippery and vague concept. As a society we should strive for equality: me, you and everyone we know, but we are largely onlookers to the reproduction of social advantage and disadvantage before us. In our society advantages and disadvantages are maintained by a variety of means: economic, cultural and social which ensures that social mobility is among the lowest in the developed world. The focal point of both the cause and solution to inequality is education. This has not gone unnoticed by politicians, it puts me in mind of one who thought education so good he called its name three times. Not much has changed, however, and we find ourselves in our technologically enabled, emotionally literate, post-this and that age, as twenty-first century people with an education system defined by its ability to perpetuate the limitations and freedoms of social class. In other words, those spoken by Justine Greening, ‘The reality is that in modern Britain where you start still too often decides where you finish’ (DfE: 2017). The view of education as an engine for social mobility has dominated discussion since the post-war period but has failed to result in meaningful reform, this is particularly evident in vocational education and training where the status quo is maintained in terms of gender and social class.
Our attitudes and values regarding education need a radical rethink. A starting point would be to examine the dominance of middle-class values which shape curriculum, assessment and teaching; perpetuating social advantage in ways that are both visible and obscure. As a result of continued focus on academic qualifications entry to University has grown and created new problems that of the over-qualified and under-utilised increasingly occupying jobs previously held by those less academically qualified. In a labour market with little or no increased capacity for higher level employment the redistribution of low skilled work to swathes of graduates will result in a reinforcement of social inequality, and a generation of debt burdened graduates in unsatisfying work. The higher education premium has become more stratified giving advantage to Russell Group graduates, and the intended meritocracy and ‘knowledge economy’ are as socially divisive and class conscious. If we are to achieve greater levels of social mobility and equality, we must start viewing academic and vocational learning as having equal value.
The Further Education sector in the UK occupies an unusual place in the education system, simultaneously peripheral and vital. Skills education policy over several decades can be characterised by the cycle of continual change, resultant instability and loss of identity and purpose. The ghettoisation of academic and vocational learning facilitates disadvantage by reinforcing class boundaries. Everyone thinks vocational education is a good idea, but as Alison Wolf (2002) observed ‘for other people’s children.’ Vocational education needs financial investment, of course, but also time, effort and intellectual investment. Learning skill and competency in the 21st Century should not be the same as the 1960s, we have different labour market requirements. Young people, and importantly their parents, need to consider not just their career but the indications of future employment.
Reform in education is long overdue, the government’s T-level qualifications due to be phased in from 2020 is less reform than recycling and presents significant challenges for the FE sector which has been hit hard by austerity. A radical change to our education system would involve long term strategies (much more than the cycle of one parliament) which address perception and value in a direct and pragmatic way. Less follow your dreams and more ‘where’s the job?’ in our career planning. Critically, barriers need to be removed so that social class does not define educational routes and I am thinking as much of the middle-class aversion to vocational education as the challenges presented to working class university entrants. Despite the consistent improvement of educational attainment for young women over decades, within vocational education and training gender stereotypes dominate occupational choice which has impact on future earnings, career trajectory and life chances but also maintains sectoral inequalities. Policy is unimaginative and maintains status quo.
My research explores the reasons for persistently high levels of gender segregation in vocational education and how the intersection of social class and gender impact upon the careers of young women. The purpose of this is to define barriers to change and consider improvements. In aiming to influence policies and practices which could contribute to gender balance in vocational education this may have incremental effects on the future gender make-up of the labour market. Young people deserve to have opportunities which enable security and purpose. Life isn’t fair, but education should be.
Wolf, A. (2002) Does Education Matter? London: Penguin