Investing in Education and the Levelling Up Agenda

Early years provision has suffered during austerity, and is continuing to see cutbacks, as Polly Toynbee pointed out last week. Yet children who fall behind at the outset of their education will find it very difficult to catch up later. If letters and reading are a mystery at 5 or 6, let alone at 7, how hard it will be to get decent grades at GCSE without a huge amount of support and 1:1 teaching which, sadly, few state schools are able to provide. To imply that early years’ investment in education is less important than at university, as David Willetts did in his book A University Education, strikes me as naïve. The child who struggles with studying because of their difficulties with reading, will simply not be able to get to (or aspire to) university.

I always feel worried with the messaging that, if a university such as my own would just get its act together about widening participation, then social mobility would flourish. It is too easy for politicians to put the blame on universities, over which they can – currently – exert less direct control than on schools. It ignores the fact that students need to be able to thrive at university and we cannot remedy those problems caused from systemic disadvantages right from birth. It also ignores the fact that collectively my own university, for instance, already works hard to ensure it admits people from as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible. Indeed, I suspect, when the statistics are finally fully available, it will become apparent that, one side-effect of using the CAGs (Centre Assessed Grades) rather than OFQAL’s allegedly ‘mutant’ algorithm for A levels has, at Cambridge, actually worsened the various widening participation statistics I mentioned previously.

This would be consistent with the findings of a recent UCL study which showed

“Among high achievers, where under-prediction is most common, the team found 23% of comprehensive school pupils were underpredicted by two or more grades compared to just 11% of grammar and private school pupils.”

Thus, for Cambridge entrants who will belong to this high-achieving cohort, using predicted grades is likely to be more advantageous to the kid from Harrow or Winchester than the one from a random comprehensive. This runs perhaps counterintuitively to the public outcry about results, but mine is not the only college where the finding seems to hold true that the widening participation statistics were (just a little) less impressive after the government’s U-turn on A level results.  (Note, the UCL study notes other outcomes for different ability cohorts.)  This is not to say that bias against the state school child has not been a significant problem with Cambridge admissions over the years. However, at least in the majority of colleges, I believe those days are past.

The mantle for social mobility has been placed on the shoulders of universities by the government, with the Office for Students demanding ever more stringent measures of widening participation. But there is a limit to what universities can do, when so much of the damage to a child’s education lies far earlier in the system. As Stefan Collini has recently argued in an illuminating article, that

“One of the most obvious [contradictions] is between our de facto endorsement of a bitterly class-divided society and our fantasy that universities can not only escape the consequences of this but can positively correct it.”

The idea that, simply by admitting more students to universities, the ills of austerity and more – the ‘more’ now including of course the effects of the pandemic in reinforcing gaps in educational provision and hence attainment – can be obviated is, like Willetts’ position on early years’ education, naïve.

It is not reasonable to think that universities are the catch-all solution to social mobility. We should be thinking much harder about what our educational landscape looks like at every stage and in every format. Collini, in the same article I cite above, argued that

“One reason why further education is the Cinderella sector is that the parents of those who tend to go into further education are nowhere near so powerful and noisy a voice as the parents of those who tend to go to universities.”

I think that understates the problems regarding the further education system. It isn’t just that the parents aren’t vocal, it is that the politicians themselves do not recognize how that self-same ‘bitterly class-divided society’ impacts directly on this long-neglected ‘Cinderella’.

University – historically – was the preserve of the middle class (and indeed the aristocracy) while those lower down the pecking order had to be content with apprenticeships and vocational training, at best. Whereas universities have (socially) opened up, the attitude towards further education has remained mired in an unhealthy neglect of the vocational route due, at least in part I believe, to our historic class divisions and societal attitudes towards what would have been seen as manual labour. Artisanal may have become a positive attribute for gin-making or pottery, but still being an artisan may be taken as a negative descriptor by some.

This problem was even more explicit in the days of my childhood; indeed it still is in a few English locations. Then the division into those who might ‘make it’ and those who definitely wouldn’t, was highly visible through the 11+ exam. The fortunate few who passed were creamed off to grammar schools; the rest bundled off to an ill-resourced secondary modern. However, hidden though this tension may have become by the widespread if not universal comprehensive school system, it seems as if much of the content of that legacy remains, just for a slightly older age group.

Philip Augar explicitly identified this problematic legacy in his Review of post-18 Education, stating

“Further education is the poor relation to higher education and its position has been weakened and undermined by reductions to its budgets and a complex funding architecture.… The system accentuates the perception that routes into higher education that begin in further education are inferior to the A-Level/ undergraduate degree option.”

Just as Polly Toynbee pointed out that cuts in early years’ provision is at odds with the government’s stated ‘levelling up agenda’, so are the weaknesses in the existing FE provision.

One of the phrases I learned when I chaired the Royal Society’s Education Committee was ‘absorptive capacity’: an organisation’s ‘ability to identify, assimilate, transform, and use external knowledge, research and practice’. It requires, not just lots of whizz kids at the top of technical companies making smart acquisitions, but a robustly capable workforce at all levels who can adopt and adapt new working methods as technology develops. In the context of the technical/technician workforce – who, one might think, are likely to be the products of apprenticeships and FE at least as much as the university sector – Paul Lewis, in a report written for the Gatsby Foundation, has spelled out the importance of these technicians for driving innovation via their absorptive capacity.

It is as true in university research as in industry that technicians are crucial to facilitating many strands of ground-breaking research. Perhaps these people are the ones running the equipment on which so many PhD theses rest – an NMR or PCR machine perhaps – or the ones developing small gizmos without which the data cannot be collected. In my own area of research, I well recall how important the workshop technicians were in building sample-holding cells that were capable of delivering the results we wanted. A student could describe what was wanted, without having the faintest idea about which materials would withstand the experimental conditions (such as heat and pressure) let alone carry out the requisite machining in the workshop.

We should be investing in the training of a technically-skilled workforce, even if they can’t differentiate or integrate some horrendous function sufficiently accurately to pass an academic exam, or remember or even care about, the Krebs’ cycle. We should recognize the value these people bring: to themselves, to others and to our economy. With the ESRC’s new Productivity Institute just launched, I look forward to seeing research into how these different training routes contribute to innovation and productivity. Given that universities cannot, whatever this government may think, solve social mobility and its best friend, levelling up, we need to think much more broadly about what can be achieved and delivered in the wider educational sphere and then fund it appropriately.

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