Free thinking not allowed

The UK government's White Paper on further education dismisses learning for ‘pleasure and leisure’ as surplus to requirements.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

‘The FE system must be the powerhouse for delivering the skills at all levels that are needed to sustain an advanced, competitive economy and make us a fairer society’, says the opening mission statement in the UK government’s latest education White Paper, Further Education: Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances.

The belief that education can provide a catchall solution to the nation’s ills is a familiar New Labour touchstone. This White Paper aims to clarify Further Education’s ‘defining…central purpose’, which is apparently to provide students with skills and training that employers are looking for. But FE colleges provide extensive vocational courses anyway – do they really need more?

The government’s justification for such a move is that compared with other European countries, such as France and Germany, the ‘proportion of our young people staying on in education and training post-16 is scandalously low: the UK ranks 24th out of 29 developed nations’ (1). The White Paper also predicts skills shortages that will have a detrimental impact on the nation’s economic output. In order to arrest this potential decline, the FE sector should focus on providing the type of skills and training needed to ‘meet the demands of the global economy’ (2).

Is there such a direct correlation between investment in vocational training and overall economic growth? According to Phil Mullan on spiked, the thinking behind this ‘has become an article of faith’ rather than empirical fact. As Mullan points out, countries that have experienced rapid economic growth, such as Hong Kong and the East Asian tigers, were not accompanied by substantial investment in education. Conversely, countries that have prioritised investment in education, such as Egypt, saw their economic output decline (see Education – it’s not for the economy, stupid!).

While Britain does lag behind Germany and France in educational attainment, the UK’s economic output and employment levels are currently higher than both. There is also no hard evidence to suggest that the UK economy will suffer because of a future skills shortage. So New Labour’s ‘economic mission’ in FE colleges won’t have much of an economic impact, but it will eliminate those courses that can’t help students gain ‘sustainable employment’ in the ‘wider community’. The White Paper makes clear that it intends to ‘reward good quality provision’ and then ‘enable the removal of unsatisfactory provision’ (3). In New Labour speak, good courses are those that provide vocational skills and training, bad courses are those that don’t.

The first casualties will be evening classes for adults wanting to learn anything from cookery to critical thinking. As these courses don’t always lead directly to credentials suitable for employment, it’s likely that they will be recast as ‘unsatisfactory’ and thus banished from local colleges. FE colleges are being judged as contributors to the economy, urban regeneration and social inclusion: government ministers believe that ‘night courses should not be the preserve of the middle-classes keen on self-improvement’ (4). As a result, the cost of non-vocational courses that don’t lead to a qualification will be doubled ‘to help fund job training for low-skilled workers’ (5).

There is more going on here than crude bean counting – the UK economy can easily afford to provide evening classes for art and Spanish and beyond. What New Labour seems to find uncomfortable is autonomous individuals learning for learning’s sake, rather than as a means to an end. The notion of autonomous individuals seeking self-improvement doesn’t fit with today’s levelling-down mentality. New Labour might use workerist language to justify its reforms, but historically it was Workers’ Educational Associations and Trades Unions that pioneered adult learning centres. They were designed, not for skills retraining, but to provide an opportunity to learn something away from the narrow confines of work.

This is why educationalists now prefer 19- to 25-year-old learners to study in sixth form A-level classes. At one college I teach at, grown men and women are given the same ‘pastoral care’ as 16- and 17-year-olds. The removal of adult learning classes suggests that you are not considered a mature adult until you have gained at least one Level 3 qualification. On this basis, New Labour assesses individuals, not as free thinking citizens, but according to their portfolio of credentials.

For adult learners who do want to go back and study A-levels, will FE colleges provide such courses? The Raising Skills White Paper assures that the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) wants ‘a strong and growing Sixth Form College sector. We want it to be easier to establish new Sixth Form Colleges’ (6). My experience of working in a Sixth Form College is that colleges are continuously pushed aside by FE management. Sixth Form Colleges specialising in A-levels are dismissed as ‘elitist’ and ‘alienating’ to those who might want to study vocational courses. A colleague of mine at a west London FE college believes his humanities department is under threat because new management believe it ‘doesn’t serve the needs of the wider community’.

Indeed, serving the demands of the wider community and business, rather than expanding good academic education, is the thrust of ‘Raising Skills’. And even when Sixth Form Colleges are mentioned, those that ‘deliver specialised Diplomas’ will receive more funding than those that don’t. Why can’t New Labour imagine the education system playing any other role?

A nation’s education system reflects the prevailing ideas and values of its dominant political class. New Labour’s problem is that it doesn’t have any galvanising ideas and beliefs to pass down. In the 1980s, the New Right might have marketised the education system and laid the basis for creeping vocationalism, but at least it had ideas it believed should be imparted through the education system. As today’s political life is characterised by soulless managerial speak, so is the education system too.

A lack of values means that education can only be assessed technically rather than socially. Every facet of the system, from colleges to courses, teachers to learners, is only acceptable if it is an instrument to achieve specific goals like boosting the economy, improving employment prospects and overcoming social exclusion. This is why as the genuine content of education has diminished, the range of credentials has increased – it’s far easier to quantify the pass rate of a course than it is its content.

Adult learning classes, and with them traditional adult learners, will indeed be ‘a thing of the past’, because they’re not bound by instrumentalist credentials. It is to the detriment of our outcome-obsessed culture that what should be a core feature of any civilised society – education for ‘pleasure and leisure’ – should be dismissed as surplus to requirements. Raising Skills may be addressing further education, but its sights are elsewhere: the ending of ‘learning for learning’s sake’.

Neil Davenport is sociology and politics lecturer and freelance writer.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Further Education: Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances, Department for Education and Skills

(2) Further Education: Raising Skills

(3) Further Education: Raising Skills

(4) The Times (London), 28 March 2006

(5) The Times (London), 28th March 2006

(6) Further Education: Raising Skills

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Topics Politics


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