Joyce McMillan: No job prospects, no incentive

A job market which offers so little means many young people opt out of education all together. Picture: Robert Perry
A job market which offers so little means many young people opt out of education all together. Picture: Robert Perry
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Junk jobs with no prospects are a major factor in the lack of incentive to aspire through the education system, writes Joyce McMillan

It’s a long time ago now; but I can still remember the day when one of my primary school teachers first told my mother that she thought I might be bright enough to go to university. This was at a time, back in the early 1960s, when only 5 per cent of people ever went into higher education, compared with around 50 per cent today. So if you came, as I did, from a family of plumbers and weavers, with the occasional lay minister or non-graduate teacher, to be told that you might join this group was like being given a passport to a better, wealthier and more secure life than anyone in your family had ever known before.

I remember running up to the stair landing of our roomy Parker Morris council house, where there was a window that obligingly steamed up every time my mother started cooking, and writing “Joyce McMillan M.A.” in the vapour; I was about nine or ten years old, and I felt a huge excitement, along with a huge fear of failing to meet these high expectations.

This is not the story of everyone in my generation, of course; many others had their sights set on O Grades and Highers, and a range of skilled jobs in offices and factories. What it does demonstrate, though, is the profound relationship between the education system a society operates, and the wider pattern of opportunities it offers. In 1962, it was clear that if I could make it to degree level, I could have lifelong job security, a comfortable income, fulfilling work, and a guaranteed social position; and I thought about that period of my life again, this week, when I read the news reports of a notably dire performance by 16-24 year-olds in England and Northern Ireland, in the latest international comparison of education attainment across the developed world. Apparently the younger generation in the UK came close to the bottom of the league in both literacy and numeracy; nor is there much reason to believe that the same age-group in Scotland and Wales would have done much better, had their respective governments not opted out of the survey for reasons of cost.

So what’s gone wrong, in a nation whose over-50s are still among the better educated in the world? The coalition government in London, and its ubiquitous Education Minister Michael Gove, are not short of an answer; they think the fault lies with failing post-1960s state schools, full of left-wing teachers who, for ideological reasons, simply fail to teach. And it is true that since I left school, around 1970, there has been a crisis of confidence – long overdue, some might argue – in the old agenda of secondary education, with its obligatory history lessons and reading lists dominated by “dead white males”; a crisis that has sometimes been met with a flight away from rich content, and into an emphasis on skills and methodology that makes education much less interesting to the vast majority of children.

If the poor performance of Britain’s 16-24 year-olds were entirely the fault of a failing education system, though, it would be difficult to account for the tremendous results achieved within that system by children from supportive homes, with high aspirations for themselves. The difficulty rather seems to lie with children from less privileged homes, who lose interest in education early, and apparently lack motivation to improve on or maintain the basic skills they acquired in primary school. And as last week’s survey points out, there is no disentangling these problems from the kind of labour market Britain now operates, with secure high-status jobs increasingly hard to find even for young graduates, and a huge underbelly of ill-paid, insecure junk-jobs which barely provide workers with a living wage for themselves, never mind the means to buy a home, raise a family, or aspire to a better future. A stunning video released recently by shows the huge disparity between the actual wealth distribution in the UK today, and what people believe it should be; in truth, the wealthiest 20 per cent of the British population is now 100 times better off than the poorest 20 per cent, and the top 1 per cent actually have more than all of the bottom 60 per cent put together.

And the truth about a society as ill-divided as this is that within it, the incentives to hard work – at school as elsewhere – simply begin to collapse; the majority of workers remain cash-strapped and ill-respected no matter how hard they labour, and the majority of the rich have clearly attained their wealth through no particular effort of their own. In fact, anyone studying the results of last week’s survey can see what is staring them in the face: that British education achieved its best results, by international standards, in the decades when UK society was becoming visibly more equal and more meritocratic; and began to slide down the rankings as it reverted once again to the kind of unequal wealth distribution and low social mobility that we were supposed to have left behind in the 1930s.

Under these circumstances, in other words, what is surprising is not that many young people opt out of education, but that so many stick with the process nonetheless, working away at their exams even when the job market promises so little. And the idea that schools alone can remedy this crisis is as irresponsible as it is unrealistic. For in the end, social justice, and a reasonable distribution of wealth, are not just more morally attractive than a profoundly unequal society. They are also essential on a practical level, to ensure a consumer economy that works, a people that is broadly content with its lot, and a creative economy that draws on all talents rather than just those of a privileged elite. And they are essential, above all, in raising a younger generation that is inspired to opt in, and make the best of its time at school; rather than one that sprawls at the back of the class, staring sceptically at the education on offer, and asking teachers what exactly is the point – a question to which, in our time, they are increasingly unlikely to receive any very credible answer.