Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Joanna Williams on Raising Expectations

“If you don’t want to be here, there’s the door,” has been a much used phrase of mine when teaching unruly sixth-formers. In twelve years I’ve only ever had one person actually leave but the reminder of the voluntaristic nature of their presence settles even the most rowdy miscreants. However, new proposals outlined in the government’s Green Paper, Raising Expectations: staying in education and training post-16, look set to change all of this. No longer will youngsters be free to decide at sixteen whether to remain in education or training or to take their chances in the labour market. Raising Expectations sets out plans for “compulsory participation” (p.5) in a bid to ensure that even the 10% of seventeen year-olds not enticed by bribes of Educational Maintenance Allowance payments are forced to remain in education or training.

The main argument to emerge from Raising Expectations is that the economy of the future no longer needs such a large supply of unskilled labour as it has done in the past and so to ensure the employability of the nation’s youth, they must all gain qualifications. Indeed, the gaining of accredited qualifications is actually considered more important than any actual skills youngsters may gain: “in order to count as participating, young people would be required to work towards accredited qualifications,” (p. 6). Assuming the DfES is correct and the economy is changing, there are good arguments to suggest that compelling seventeen and eighteen year-olds to remain in the classroom will not make them remotely more employable.

Most importantly, this legislation will serve to infantilise older teenagers by denying them an initiation into the adult world and prolonging their childhood for an extra two years. At present, even youngsters staying on at school have somehow made a decision about the future direction of their lives. Those gaining even low level employment are forced to grow up and take on board more adult responsibilities. Flipping burgers requires you turn up on time, wear the correct uniform and follow health and safety procedures or you are out of a job and without a wage: a consequence far more real than any idle threats a teacher may come up with. Although clichés, there is undoubted truth in sayings such as ‘the best way to get a job is to have a job’ and that when it comes to gaining employment, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’. Being cut off from entering the labour market prevents youngsters gaining experience or meeting the adults who may eventually help them find work.

In the classroom, youngsters already turned off by school, perhaps placed on Increased Flexibility Programmes or drilled by former-squaddies in basic skills since the age of fourteen, are not likely to greet a further two years with renewed enthusiasm. Young people are not daft: they will be fully aware that in the future, with everyone working towards gaining accredited qualifications until they are eighteen, those of them with low-level paper credentials will merely be seeking the same employment (and at the same wage) as previously sought by unqualified sixteen-year olds.

This infantilisation has damaging and dangerous consequences, not just for a young person’s employment prospects, not just for teachers forced to think of ever more ridiculous ways to entertain disillusioned youngsters but for education and for the whole of society. Education of older teenagers depends upon voluntarism, teachers assume youngsters are interested in what they have chosen to study. Remove the presumption of free will and what we are left with are dumbed-down containment programmes that certify participation. As a nation we are left with a youngsters prevented from reaching maturity, although physically adult and able to marry and have children, eighteen year olds will still be financially dependent and in a state of prolonged intellectual and emotional adolescence.

The green paper was published on 22 March 2007 and can be found at: http://www.dfes.gov.uk/publications/raisingexpectations/