Too great a burden
FE and skills can only effect deep social change as part of a collective effort to create a fairer, more equal society, argues Wanda Wyporska
I’ve always been a huge fan of the further education and skills sector. I’ve seen colleges turn people’s lives around, give confidence to young people who found school was not for them and provide business, leisure and employment skills to individuals with a range of backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and abilities. I was proud to work on the unionlearn project, which saw trade unions and employers come together to change lives through learning, in bakeries, bus garages and hospitals.
One of the greatest responsibilities placed upon our education system is that of effecting deep social change. Education is seen as a panacea for improving society, as the ‘engine of social mobility’, to quote the recent FETL/Social Market Foundation report, Rising to the challenge, with the corollary that education professionals are tasked with the huge role of changing outcomes for society, individual by individual, in the face of huge structural issues. This individualistic approach, exemplified by the arguments made in favour of grammar schools, for example, is typical of an unequal society, where there is less trust, less social mobility and social bonds are more fragile.
It might surprise you to learn that the UK is the seventh most unequal society in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Countries with unequal societies also suffer from higher mental and physical ill-health, and, unsurprisingly, lower educational attainment. So, surely the answer is greater social mobility? After all, the Social Mobility Commission, found a £6,800 ‘class pay gap’ between professionals from working-class backgrounds compared to colleagues from more affluent backgrounds. This indicates that improving education is not the whole answer and cohort studies point to the great majority of students leaving education with the same socio-economic status as they entered. For most, social mobility simply means improving the life chances of some poor, but gifted children, without any threat to the social standing of children from richer backgrounds. But for some gifted but poor people to move up the ladder, some rich people will need to fall back. However, this rarely happens. Children of highly paid people are more likely to be highly paid, and children of low-paid people are more likely to be low earners. If inequality based on recycled privilege and dynastic advantage doesn’t concern you, then consider the strength of evidence provided by the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD on the pernicious social and economic effects of extreme inequality.
To see the solution in FE and skills providers becoming ‘local social mobility champions’ is to place that societal burden on the shoulders of the arguably least well-resourced sector of the education system. Instead, if we became a more equal society, educational outcomes would improve and the FE sector could be transformed. If governments prioritised inequality reduction as an explicit policy, then the education system would and could be revolutionised. We all too often think about how we can tinker around the edges, but what would the effect on education and the FE sector be, if far fewer young people grew up in poverty? If fewer or no young people grew up in housing that was inadequate, crowded and often hazardous to their health? If young people were not subjected to the structural discrimination of racism, sexism, disablism, homo-, bi- and transphobia and if they didn’t bear the economic burdens of low income families?
It’s comforting to think that people can succeed whatever the odds, if we just work hard. This basic belief in the value of social mobility is shared across the political spectrum. But in most cases this simply isn’t happening anymore. It’s not impossible to move up, but it is extremely unlikely. This is why the answer does not lie in the burden placed on each individual to raise themselves up by the bootstraps, but in a collective effort to create a fairer and more equal society.
Dr Wanda Wyporska is Executive Director of the Equality Trust, a national charity that campaigns to tackle social and economic inequality. She is writing in a personal capacity and her views do not necessarily reflect those of FETL or its leadership.