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Another fine mess by the education authorities

The British government's proposal to fine teenagers who drop out of school further criminalises youth and degrades education.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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At the end of last week, UK education secretary Alan Johnson announced plans to force 16- to 18-year-olds to stay in education or training. Those who ‘drop out’ from college or work after leaving school could face £50 fixed penalty fines or anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs). In the recent past, the government offered money to 16- to 19-year-olds in order to persuade them to attend college. Now it’s threatening to take away money if they don’t accept the mantra that education or training ‘is good for them’. Whether it’s the carrot or an ASBO-styled stick, it’s clear this government can’t socialise the next generation with words or ideas alone.

Steve Sinnott, the National Union of Teachers general secretary, was right when he warned: ‘Criminalising young people is no way to ensure committed involvement. It will only serve to alienate and undermine any desire disaffected young people feel towards continuing their education.’ (1) Perhaps if the government spent more time devising an education system to really inspire young people, their crude authoritarian measures wouldn’t really be necessary. The ‘hardcore’ of refuseniks that Johnson wants to target (one in 10 school leavers, apparently) probably have the right instincts about what’s on offer. After all, the gap between most post-16 college education and training and what the best universities demand has grown rather than shrunk. So much so that social mobility via education is lower than at any time since the 1950s (2).

All this would only be surprising if New Labour’s rhetoric about their ‘education revolution’ was taken at face value. No doubt there has been some wishful thinking in believing that education or training can combat social inequalities. But Johnson’s proposals make clear that the government is less interested in providing a ‘hand up’ for young people than imposing an arm lock with public institutions. And yet the proposals go far beyond ‘disaffected’ teenagers; they signal a further change in the relationship between the individual and society, the citizen and public life.

One consequence of the development of capitalism was that it created atomised individuals for the first time. People were no longer constrained by a highly-regimented social order ascribed by birth. While the disciplines of the market ensured that individuals’ behaviour was contained by the working day, they still retained a degree of autonomy outside the workplace. This is why the ruling elites have long been preoccupied with cohering individuals into their ‘shared’ ideas and beliefs. Establishing a social consensus on what’s considered right and wrong was crucial in containing threatening instabilities as a result of the market.

The British elite’s strengths lay in successfully establishing a consensus that, on the whole, transcended any major divisions in society. Above all, this was achieved through transmitting a clear set of ideas and beliefs about how society should be run. Younger generations were socialised into these beliefs through convincing arguments about their merits – not through fixed penalty fines.

This meant that they were also open to counter-arguments about how society should be organised, which galvanised the British ruling elites to more stridently defend and promote their ideas across society. Nevertheless, how the individual related to society was mediated through the contestation of such competing beliefs and ideas. Indeed, from the postwar period through to the 1980s, young people were motivated to enter into education either to rigorously defend or challenge the dominant beliefs on offer.

Things are very different today. The collapse in intellectual and practical alternatives to the market by the early 1990s in turn disorientated old and new conservatives. After all, what exactly were they now defending and from whom? The implosion of such mediating ideas and beliefs also raised a further question: what exactly will young people be socialised into? It’s this historical problem that New Labour is attempting to grapple with.

Aside from the dogma of ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’, increasingly the government has no ideas or strongly held beliefs, and therefore little capacity to socialise young people into society. As such, the absence of qualitative ideas and beliefs regarding human action has meant that quantitative instrumentalism ends up filling the vacuum.

Even before Johnson’s draconian proposals, this has been the guiding principle in education (and beyond) for many years. For example, evaluations of lecturers’ ‘performance’ are based on dry number-crunching: the percentages of attendance and ‘retention’ of students is valued more highly than ‘non-quantifiable’ classroom content. What’s actually allowed to be taught in colleges is based purely on instrumental calculations (3).

This development, though, raises more serious dangers than simply dull meetings with line-managers. Quantitative instrumentalism inevitably leads to a mechanical ‘aims and outcomes’ relationship between the individual and society. As a guiding framework for governance, it means that imposing tick-box regulations becomes the only way society relates to individuals. So whereas in the past ‘winning hearts and minds’ was the most pressing concern facing political elites, now it’s dealing with the unregulated individual. As a section in society, young people will be more intensely targeted precisely because they’re relatively free from work or raising families. Johnson’s proposal turns that completely upside down: post-16 education is now viewed as the arena to regulate and regiment young people.

What hasn’t changed under New Labour, however, is how education transmits what happens in the classroom to wider society. Parenting classes, retirement programmes for pensioners and intrusive measures in family life have all grown out of practices originally developed within the education system. As I argued recently on spiked, even the drive to push single mothers with children over 12 years off benefits is probably driven more by hostility to unregulated autonomy than free market economics alone (4).

Although such measures can hardly be seen as a set of values or beliefs, they are crucial in popularising a broader culture of unfreedom. Already it’s pervasively influencing how individuals relate to one another. For example, college authorities can be over-anxious by students bunking off the odd lesson – not because they are worried about them missing vital education, but because the student is acting autonomously, and therefore is unregulated. In one college I have taught at, lessons where only two or three students attend (due to field trips elsewhere) are not to be cancelled. The fear of letting 17-year-olds ‘out of sight’ is clearly too much to bear. In some workplaces, such as Microsoft, anyone who doesn’t have regular meetings with ‘mentors’ about their ‘work-life balance’ is seen as ‘not fitting in’ (5). An acquaintance of mine who left music press public relations to work in a library quickly returned to her old job: she was alarmed at the constant ‘suspicion’ surrounding her out-of-work (ie, unregulated) free time by others.

Alan Johnson’s proposal to fine 16- to 18-year-olds who drop out from school reveals how the government won’t let up on criminalising young people. Their presumed guilt, it seems, is that, unlike mature adults, they’re relatively free from regulative binds. In the past, such a space away from the demands of society was seen as important in developing young minds to think critically and independently. Now it is viewed with fear and loathing. Autonomous and unregulated individuals, it seems, are an intolerable relic in a society whose new ‘beliefs’ are those of quantifiable instrumentalism.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

Previously on spiked

It’s not the economy that needs education, argued Phil Mullan – learning should be an end in itself. Perhaps it would be if the politics were kicked out of it too, said Michele Ledda. Kathryn Ecclestone questioned whether lifelong learning was just therapy and Edward Hall exposed the shame of students who refused to support their teachers’ strike. Or read more at: spiked issue Education

(1) Education dropouts at 16 will face sanctions, Guardian, 23 March 2007

(2) See the London School of Economics website

(3) See Free Thinking Not Allowed by Neil Davenport

(4) See Why they won’t leave lone-parents alone by Neil Davenport

(5) Willing Slaves: How the overwork culture is ruling our lives by Madeline Bunting, Harper Collins, 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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