Education – Hope or Despair?

It would be my contention that most people in Scotland are proud of and generally content with our system of comprehensive education. That is not to say that we all think it couldn’t be better but rather it is policy issues around cuts, class sizes, school aims and so on that most are concerned with. Thus there are many issues relating to education that need to be examined in policy terms. This initial article concentrates on three interrelated ones – education for citizenship in a changing world, the impact of inequalities on education and the idea of the ‘dented shield’ as a way of managing cuts.

There is a terrible irony – trying to develop education for citizenship in a context of increasing cynicism about all of the institutions of state and, in many parts of England at least, the issue of rioting and mob activity. I wrote some years ago that education for citizenship could not compensate for governments which led down the aspirations of young people, against the hopes of some that education for citizenship would also act as lessons against terrorism. And, many, if not most, of the young rioters in England in August will have been through an education system which, for the last 10 years, has had education for citizenship as a key formal priority. It has been the contention of those of us who are supportive of education for citizenship programmes to have been critical of the way in which it has been developed in many schools – issues relating to formal voice but no agency; ideas developed around responsibilities without rights (never mind that politicians, the media and many teachers think exactly the opposite); decreasing rights and responsibilities as students move from primary to secondary – exactly the opposite of what is needed as they develop adolescence; headteachers stressing paternalism, rather than rights.

A main driver behind the introduction of education for citizenship was the perceived lack of interest and involvement of young people in public and political life and low election turnout figures for 18- to 24-year-olds. Added to this was the fear for the state of democracy and the decline in trust of politicians and institution of government. However, rising engagement with single-issue politics such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, world poverty, environmental and animal welfare issues, would appear to suggest that young people in western democracies although alienated from formal politics and voting are active and interested in single-issue campaigning politics where they can see results from their actions. Research found that individualistic participation is common, challenging assertions that people are politically apathetic. Many schools have responded to this through the establishment of eco-schools committees, fair trade groups and a focus on development education programmes. However, media images in a global age also allow children to become exposed to many more controversial social, political and humanitarian issues than ever before, and evidence has illustrated that pupils are keen to discuss such issues and that a programme on citizenship education needs to respond to this.

Indeed, although a positive driver towards education for citizenship stems from attempts to promote democratic citizenship, human and participation rights at local, national and global level — rights which are enshrined in international convention such as the United Nations Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Act, we must be aware that many schools see charity activities per se as a way of developing global citizenship. And even within this, there can be a lack of any understanding as to how the money is used and rarely any discussion around the causes of poverty. Research suggests that for many, the key element that the school encouraged in terms of citizenship was on personal choice (fair trade, no littering) rather than any real discussion on poverty or wider ecological issues.

It is indeed a natural reaction, not just by young people but by most of us who have deserted membership of the established political parties in droves

However much there are mixed motives behind education for citizenship, most teachers got involved in it to try to make things better. The problem is that the situation in the real world has got worse. How would any young person react to the scandals (or ‘firestorm’, to use David Cameron’s word) engulfing British society? Over the period of the introduction of education for citizenship we have seen massive distrust develop in major institutions – the police (series of wrongful imprisonments and in 2011 evidence that they would give information to journalists for cash); MPs expenses of 2010, exposing corruption and shady immoral dealings; the financial sector playing casino capitalism with our lives; and now, the exposure of criminal journalism and revelations that our top political leaders were in thrall to a media mogul involved in corrupt and illegal dealings – either directly or with a nod and a wink.

Research into pupil attitudes suggests that there is widespread cynicism. Work in the area in Scotland with some 800 social studies pupils in S4 suggests that almost 65 per cent agreed with the statement ‘European politicians promise things just to get your vote’; only 50 per cent felt that ‘The way people in Europe vote is important in deciding how things are run in Europe’; and 31 per cent agreed that ‘Scottish MEPs are out to line their own pockets’ – and this all before the scandal of Westminster expenses. This has important lessons for us in terms of education for citizenship; many of the pupils who were cynical and apathetic towards voting, MSPs and parliament, were the most active in terms of single issue pressure groups and campaigns for achievable, immediate things such as ‘Fair Trade’. Research in England into1,160 school students’ attitudes towards formal politics and single issue involvement, found that young people are involved in local issues and campaigning, are keen to use new technology (particularly the internet to become more informed and involved – and of course, as issues around bullying and the organisation of ‘riot’ activities has shown, this can be seen as a double-edged sword), are not alienated from caring about political issues per se but (in line with other research) are not very interested in traditional party politics. It was also found that generally disinterested and cynical school students knew how to organise a single issue pressure group campaign and responded to the call for action with much more enthusiasm than they had previously shown; they had confidence in their ability to achieve their aim.

So, is this worrying? I don’t think necessarily so. It is indeed a natural reaction, not just by young people but by most of us who have deserted membership of the established political parties in droves. The reason primarily for the appeal of single issue campaigns seems to be that there is a clear connection between the energies put in and the result; direct action fits many young people’s aspirations and lifestyles far better than putting a cross on a ballot paper in a dusty town hall. Young people are attracted to these issues precisely because they can see a direct result of their actions, as opposed to activity in political parties. Although issues such as animal rights, the environment, third world poverty, homelessness and pollution move young people, they are turned off by ‘spin’ politics or committees of the Scottish Parliament or the election of the speaker of the House of Commons or membership of the Scottish Executive. Yet even very young children can tell you about Greenpeace or the Big Issue or global warming and indeed can explain what these types of organisation are about. Our politicians clearly find this problematic but they are at least in part the architect of the supposed problem. If our representatives are cynical towards the job and some of them see it as a gravy train, they should not be surprised when the criticism of young people is turned on them.

And yet, we must not become starry-eyed about the impact that education for citizenship (or indeed any education initiative) can have. The glaring inequalities in education, linked to inequalities in society, have a detrimental effect on the education chances of young people. There is a direct correlation between poverty and achievement in its narrow and broad senses, particularly starkly clear in the link between free school meal entitlement and school exam results. As far back as 1997, the Treasury (under the leadership of Gordon Brown as Chancellor) maintained that the strongest correlation on school exam results was the median income of the parents.

(Almost) everybody agrees that educational disadvantage is intrinsically linked to socio-economic disadvantage and educational reform should be viewed in terms of impact on this. Now this must not become an excuse for doing nothing; the kinds of things that schools try to do to help social inclusion, such as homework clubs, breakfast sessions, positive attendance rewards and more nutritious school meals are useful and beneficial but cannot fundamentally alter the imbalance caused by social deprivation. Thatcher from 1979-1997, New Labour from 1997-2010 and the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government from 2010 have been so wedded to a neoliberal agenda that, as in health policy, no matter what it does in education terms it does not challenge the underlying poverty that is the cause of most of the problem. Effectively, despite numbers of educational initiatives, the education gap grows as the wealth gap grows.

Finally, there is the issue of ‘cuts’. Whatever the policies of the new Government in Holyrood will be, the coalition in Westminster has told us that the cuts will be continuing with gusto. It is interesting how these ideas have now become mainstream. That ‘there is no alternative’ or ‘the only show in town’ has become a mantra for all the political parties and indeed for most of the general public, with us arguing amongst ourselves which areas should be protected and all sectors pleading a ‘special case’. Do we want to continue with this, meaning less of that? – more teachers or no university fees?; compulsory redundancies or cuts in supply staff? It was encapsulated in the EIS ballot earlier this year – no compulsory redundancies but a wage freeze and other conditions, often affecting the most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves.

However, the election of a majority SNP government in May of this year puts those of us who think that there should be a more proactive campaign against the cuts in a new – potentially stronger – position. Primarily because it is possible to argue that the vote in part was a protest against the cuts (and indeed most commentators outside the mainstream defeated parties do so) – that is why, at least partly, all the main parties in Scotland were eclipsed by the SNP. What this can means is that there is a case that there is no meaningful mandate in Scotland for the Westminster coalition austerity package, in a similar position to the Poll Tax of 20 years ago.

The local authorities and the Scottish Parliament could argue that as the cuts have no mandate here, there will be a series of no cuts budget deficits announced – effectively the local authorities and the Scottish Government would go into a deficit, to be dealt with at a later date as the economy grows in the future. There is no doubt that this would be a challenging decision for any local authority and the Scottish Government to take, particularly as they are wedded to a managerialist approach to the cuts – that we need to implement them the best way that it can be done, protecting where we can. But it may be that this approach – known traditionally and particularly in labour and trade union circles as the ‘dented shield’ — is not the best way to handle these cuts. For two reasons: firstly, the scale of the cuts means that the dismantling of aspects of a cherished service, such as education or health, might not easily be put back, even in the ‘good times’ in the future, assuming there are some; secondly, these cuts are not just pragmatic but are, I would argue, in a main part ideological. The Conservatives in particular are implementing a particular world view of the relationship between state and society and this might need a more political opposition than just complaining about individual cuts. For example, there seems to be little shortage of money for key privatised policies or education pet projects such as Free Schools. Indeed, proposals to alter taxation policy means that leaving money to charity is now going to be tax-deductable; so the rich will be able to leave money to, for example, their local private school – further widening the funding gap and thus inequalities and reducing income to the Treasury. It is a move from welfare to philanthropy.

In conclusion, we need to see school education as a whole – citizenship programmes which stress civic (as opposed to rights-based) responsiblities in the schools, education inequalities and cuts are linked in a downward spiral. There is a need for research in each of these areas – what is the relationship between rights and responsibilities in schools and wider?; how do we challenge and tackle issues around poverty and inequalities in education, where teachers and schools and individual students are seen as the problem?; and, how do we shape a strategy for challenging the cuts without us each arguing a special case? These are not easy issues but have to be tackled.