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We're going to need a bigger boat....

Will another poor boy from East Lancashire not make it to dinner on HQS Wellington in four decades time....?

Dr Simon finds a cheerful (for once) Director of the IFS, with challenges but no easy wins at our Education Supper

Once you get used to the gentle roll of the tide, the HQS Wellington is a fine place to eat, drink, be merry and discuss the subtle and not so subtle challenges facing ‘Education’. And after solving those all you need to do is make it back off the boat in one piece…

The 2016 Education Supper welcomed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)www.ifs.org.uk – as principal speaker and in a change to the normal processes, a rapid fire Q&A from members and guests. Our theme was ‘Current Educational Challenges in the UK’.

Over the course of dinner we presented the Satjit Cup to a Sea Cadet Officer from St Helens and the Urwick Prize to Prof Sturdy, Prof Wright and Dr Wylie for their epic work on ‘neo-bureaucracy and the consultant manager’ (which may suggest that management consultants will soon be out of a job as internal consultants take on the role previously offered to consultancy firms and independents). At least we were warned. Alas Prof Wright could not join us as he had not made the journey from Sydney!

 But back to our speaker, introduced by Chair of the Education Committee, Charlotte Sweeney. Paul had brought  his ‘cheerful persona’ – I suppose a fiscal commentator doesn’t get much chance to be cheerful in times of  austerity or maybe it was the fine dinner and multiple courses of wine which improved his mood and manner. In  the spirit of 'never stick to the script if you possibly can', Paul gave us a guided tour, and unsurprisingly some key  stats, through the shark infested waters that are British education. Or should we call that British schooling?

(Stats which follow are Paul Johnson’s, interpretation’s the author’s own)...

In the 1960’s (before I was born, but moving on) around 5% of young people each year went into Higher Education. In the 1980’s (this is me!) it rose to 10-15%. By the 2010’s, it was over 40%. Despite that, the premium achieved by having undertaken higher education hasn’t fallen. So despite those tuition fees, it’s still worth it!

In the 1980’s, 25% of young people achieved 5 good ‘GCSEs’ and this when a grade C in maths required you to score 45% in the final (albeit rather testing) O level examination. By 2010, this had risen to 60% of young people achieving 5 good GCSEs and there was some closing of the social class gaps (children from lower socioeconomic groups were doing better comparatively then they had in the 80s).

However, it’s not all good news for Jack and Jill from the bog standard comprehensive down the road.

  • Income distribution in the top 20% is ten times that in the bottom 20% of socioeconomic groups and poorer children are far less likely to attend the better (typically Russell Group) universities.
  • Poorer children end up earning less than their better off classmates even when they have attended the same courses and the same universities. This is thought attributable to the value attached to social skills and networks. It’s not just what you know but very clearly who you know and how you mix.
  • Industrial and coastal towns are doing particularly badly. Whilst London schools have improved (thank you London Challenge), the likes of Blackpool and Burnley are not making the grade. London immigration is as likely to be Northern flight as EU these days.
  • And then there’s the gender gap. No, not that gender gap, the other one. Yes, boys are not doing very well at school. Particularly white working class (make that poor) boys. Whilst we need to smash the glass ceiling and address equal pay issues, we are starting to create a lost generation of males.
  • England is the worst country in the developed world for basic skills. Our young people are no better skilled than the 55-64 year old age bracket. We’re not getting better.
  • There is still a marked sense of failure for non A Level students – a kind of second class of opportunity and we are still obsessed with this high stakes exam at 16 (the GCSE) which determines our futures.

Our fellow members then treated Paul Johnson to some thought- provoking questions, including Calvert Markham querying the distinction between education and schooling and Bob Harris asking why we seemed to denigrate and underinvest in our better-performing students when we ought to be developing elite intellectual talent to be more competitive in the world. Perhaps we can expect to see an IFS report on this in the not too distant future? There was further talk of sheep, goats and Butlers – not an elegant description of sheep driving over London Bridge but a reference to the 1944 Education Act. Some things live on…

The final question of the night addressed the ‘role of the human’. “As machine intelligence increases in sophistication and people skills become a differentiator, what impact does this have on social inequality and what do we do about it?”

An enduring question for our time? Well, robots are doing more and more work, algorithms are replacing a lot of the ‘smart’ effort we once contributed and there seem to be two types of ‘role’ left. On the one hand there are the high social skill and high trust roles – you might not like ‘computer says no’ but you might take the advice from me if I can show you empathy and credibility and build a relationship with you. This is ultimately where bespoked consultancy services, coaching, counselling and support will lie. Companies and wealthier individuals willing to pay for something distinctive, or public services mandating some things (like final legal judgement) needing to be verified by a person or group. On the other hand, there are highly personal and manual activities such as caring (for the old, sick or vulnerable), nursing and arguably childcare (would you trust your children with a robot?). These are essential, difficult but not impossible to automate, and have never been adequately valued in economic terms (witness low wages for careworkers, nursing staff and those working with young children). So whilst the accountants may be extinct and replaced by machines in 20 years’ time (cheer or boo here as you wish), I wonder where the poorer, less academically successful (and I make a distinction here that ‘academically successful’ is different to ‘well educated’) children of today and tomorrow will end up. I suspect that lack of social skills and networks might keep them pinned down in the bottom socioeconomic group, arguably subservient to machines.

And I really, really don’t like that. The thought that another poor boy from East Lancashire won’t make it to dinner on HQS Wellington in four decades time distresses me.

 

We need to do something. We know the challenges, we even know some of the solutions. So are you up for changing things or are we pulling up the rope ladder and leaving our less advantaged young people to flounder with the Great Whites? Or are we going to get a bigger boat and make this happen?

 

 

 

Dr Simon Davey,  Freeman and Chair of the Education and Schools Panel