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 Education for all (home)

Section 3. Social and Economic Context

It is one thing to have a general idea of the aims of education. It is quite another to see how they translate into practice in context which are so diverse socially and economically. Such diversity and its significance were extensively described by the Reviews. 

Key points

  • By 2050, 25 million UK citizens will be over age 50 – with implications for life long learning.
  • People from ethnic minorities number 5 million – with implications for education.
  • 25% of young people grow up in households with one parent; 16% in workless homes.
  • The more disadvantaged a child, the lower the level of educational attainment.
  • Percentage of 17 year olds in employment has reduced from 60% to 30% in 15 years.
  • 10% of young people suffer from psychiatric disorders; 60,000 are in care, 40,000 are teenage mothers, and 3000 are in penal custody.
  • Half the prison population do not have the skills required by 96% of jobs.
  • Educational failure can often be related to home contexts and to the need for greater support for parents and the development of parenting skills.

Education and training do not occur in a vacuum. They are influenced by social and economic contexts in which policies are developed. In this, all the Reviews agreed – an agreement not always shared by policy makers who often hold schools and colleges responsible for the effects of wider social problems. Particular references in the Reviews were made to the following features of the present context which affect educational success and failure.

Demographic changes: (IFLL p.83-6; NR p.28/29))
Educational provision is bedevilled by changing demography.  Birth rates vary historically and such fluctuations move slowly through the system, causing shortages of teachers and resources in some years and excess in others. The 14-19 cohort declines about 10%, over the next 15 years, with likely competition between schools and colleges for the declining numbers and between providers and employers in the latter’s demand for skilled labour. At the same time, despite the fluctuating birth rate, there is a constant increase in those who live longer. 16% of the UK population is over 65; by 2020, 25 million will be over age 50.

  • The learning needs of those in ‘the third age’ need to be addressed – and, indeed, of ‘the fourth age’, viz. the growing number over 75;
  • 14-19 provision should be so organised that there is greater local and regional organisation of resources and collaboration between providers.

Multi-ethnic society (NR ch.3; MCWB p.8; CCPR p.113/5; IFLL p.70/1))
Given changing demography and global trends, the ethnic mix is changing. The number from minority groups in Britain is nearly 5 million, and growing. Moreover, they are often heavily concentrated in disadvantaged areas. Significant differences are noted between ethnic groups in participation and achievement. Reports have warned of an ethnically segregated Britain and a growing minority feeling isolated from mainstream society(v).

  • A special task of education is to address issues arising from ethnic diversity (e.g. racism or alienation) through the curriculum and through links with the respective communities.

Relative poverty: (NCDS; NR p.30-32; CCPR p.58/9, 75/87, 110/15; IFLL p.35)

Increased economic prosperity is counterbalanced by increased poverty for many and growing segregation of the well-off from the disadvantaged. This further embeds inequality in society, reflected in the differences in attainment between children at an early age – differences which accumulate throughout formal education and affect individuals in later life.(vi)

  • Policies such as ‘Sure Start’ and those set out in Every Child Matters(vii), integrating education, social and health services in a holistic approach to young people, are based on strong underlying evidence.

Social mobility  (IFLL p.38-42; NR 32/33; MCWB p.26; NCDS p30.; TLRP 4)
The more disadvantaged a child’s background, the lower the level of educational attainment likely to be achieved and the less likelihood the take-up of available job opportunities. The historic data shows that those with O Levels, A Levels and degrees, have had average wage returns of 18%, 24% and 48% respectively compared with those without qualifications. Positive returns are noted with Level 4 craft based qualifications. Social and economic class still affect attainment despite the many educational reforms, though there is mobility where higher level qualifications obtain.

  • Educational reform is a key to improving fairness and must go hand in hand with wider social programmes.
  • Since economic contexts make upward social mobility impossible for everyone, such social mobility cannot be the major aim of ‘education for all’.
  • Further education, widening participation in HE and adult education are crucial in compensating for earlier failure and creating new opportunities.

Family structure (NR 29/30; CCPR p.73/89; MCWB p.8; IFLL p.27; NCDS p.19)
Changing family patterns affect educational prospects. 25% grow up in households with one parent (there is a link between one parent families and poverty). Over 16% grow up in ‘workless families’. Achievement is heavily influenced by family background as measured by social and economic status. Parenting skills are a significant factor.(viii)

  • Central importance should be given to (i) creating close relations between schools and social services, (ii) support for parents and (iii) resources for schools serving areas of social and economic disadvantage, especially during the early years.

Economic needs (TLRP 5, 8 and 10, NR p.35/37, IFLL p.29; MCWB p.13)
Changes in the need for skills and high technical knowledge put pressure on the education system to prepare a more highly skilled workforce, especially with regard to functional literacy and numeracy, but also including, ‘a national transformation of higher education in response to the growth of the global economy’ (TLRP 10). However, arguments for the ‘skills shortage’, stemming from the Leitch Review(ix), have been questioned by the NR (ch.9).

  • Apprenticeships need to be increased, but with greater emphasis on work based training, on employer support and on Level 3 attainment (see TLRP 5)
  • The significant role of higher education in producing the high level technical knowledge and skills (TLRP 8) must be acknowledged(x).   

Extended dependence of young people (NR p.26/28; MCWB p.14)
The period of financial dependence has been extended. The number of 17 year olds in employment has reduced from 60% to less than 30% in 15 years, making often difficult demands on young people in their adjustment from childhood to adult status. They are bottom
of the international league table of the wealthiest nations in terms of physical and social wellbeing – and drank more alcohol, took more drugs and had more under-age sex(xi). Teenage pregnancy is a major issue.

  • Young people, in their interaction with teachers, trainers and others, need more opportunities to develop personal responsibility and independence, and a greater sense of relevance of their studies than often prevails.  

Hard to Reach students (NR ch.3; CPR p.87, 119/21)
Many are unable to access mainstream education due to caring responsibilities, exclusion, medical problems, school phobia, etc. For example, 10% of young people suffer from psychological disorders, 60,000 are in care, 40,000 are teenage mothers, 3000 are in penal custody.  They need to be reached

  • Alternative educational provision is essential if these young people are to be reached – through home tutoring, communication technology (see pages 24 and 41) and liaison with social and health services.

Those in Custody (IFLL p. 37)
In a prison population of over 80,000, half do not have the skills required by 96% of jobs; 43% have a reading level at or below that expected of an 11 year old; 82% a writing level at or below that expected of an 11 year old; only 1/5 can complete a job application form. The social and economic costs of such educational failure are enormous.

  • Effective learning opportunities, within prison and extending to cover the transition from prison, are an important route for integration (IFLL, p.37).
Evidence suggests that if commitment to fairness is pursued through sustained, practical policies, then some social disadvantages can be mitigated. In difficult financial circumstances, with education budgets adjusting to new norms, there are significant dangers of deepening inequalities.

(v) See in particular Swann Report, 1995, Education for All, London: HMSO

(vi) See the report on child poverty, Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2010, How Fair is Britain?

(vii) DfES, 2003, Every Child Matters, London: Stationery Office.

(viii) See Field, F., 3.12.2010, Commissioned Report to the Prime Minister on Poverty

(ix) Leitch Review, 2003, Prosperity for All in the Global Economy: World Class Skills, London: H.M. Treasury.

(x) Roberts Report, 2002, SET for Success: the Supply of People with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Skills

(xi) UNICEF Report, 2007, Child Poverty in Perspective: an Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.


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