I grew up in a small town in Dudley in England’s West Midlands. My sister and I were the first generation to go to university. My parents probably would have done so today. Before retiring, my mother was a bookkeeper and my father designed machines for testing the strength of various components and materials. During breaks from university, I would work as a labourer in the factories of the Midlands – factories that could make anything, from anything. I would ride my bike because the privatised bus service was rubbish.
People from the Midlands have a strong accent. Although I’m not from Birmingham, those outside the Midlands do not recognise this distinction and we are all ‘thick brummies’ to them. Well, that’s the stereotype, despite our industrial heritage. I remember being called a ‘thick brummie’ at university. That did not end well. The brummie stereotype is just one reflection of the prolonged disdain with which London’s chattering classes and makers of the media view the industrial towns and metal-bashers of the Midlands and the North.
A few years ago, I led a school trip to London. We visited a TV production company and an advertising agency. The advertising agency struck me as the most fun place I could imagine working and the TV company had long lines of Tabithas and Julians queuing outside every time they were recruiting. As a young person, I was barely conscious that such jobs existed. Even if I had been aware, I could never have afforded to move to London, rent an exorbitant apartment and exist on the tiny starting salaries, or worse, unpaid internships, that are a necessary first step in such careers.
And so the Tabithas and Julians reproduce themselves, cruising around London on its gold-plated public transport system, disdaining England’s industrial towns and professing bafflement at Brexit. Such is England. Such is a largely political problem.
Is this a problem that needs solving? Perhaps. And there are two ways we might go about it, both with implications for schools.
Michael Merrick recently wrote a blog post expressing the first option. Struck by the coronavirus situation and our acute dependence on delivery drivers and supermarket workers, he wonders whether teachers have focused too much on academic objectives and university. Perhaps we should recognise that not everyone could or should go to university and that the alternatives are equally valid. Merrick recalls, with shame, warning a student that he may end up stacking shelves.
Perhaps we need a return to the kind of one-nation conservatism in which we pat the little guy on the head and congratulate him for the sterling work he is doing in keeping the country running.
I’m not so sure.
The alternative is not, as Merrick sees it, meritocracy. Rule by those who have ‘merit’ could only ever be imposed in an authoritarian state because someone would have to define merit and decide who has it.
And before we can be clear about an alternative, we need to address an assumption that has so far gone unchallenged: that education is all about the job you will end up doing. I don’t think that’s true. Education is much more than that. Education is about cultural enrichment. It is about knowing the world you inhabit. It’s about political engagement and performing your civic role. Just because someone becomes a supermarket worker, it shouldn’t necessarily follow that they never attend a Shakespeare play or go to a political hustings and articulately challenge the candidates on the state of public transport.
No, a better alternative to one-nation conservatism is to stop viewing education as a means of ferrying young people to particular destinations but to view it as a form of empowerment. The ideal is to give young people choice. Yes, choice is not an unalloyed good. It can be a burden. I make no apologies for that. It is often easier and more comfortable to have difficult choices made for you. But human flourishing depends on human agency. If we have control over our lives, we have nobody else left to blame.
And yes, we are far from such an ideal. So, if it is an ideal worth pursuing, the question we need to ask is what would take us one step closer? Teaching every child to read would be an excellent start. Then, once they possess this tool for learning, we can teach them a robust, academic curriculum consisting of the most powerful and enduring ideas – the ideas that have proved to be of most value in the past. We give young people no choice about that because we cannot know what their future selves may want and need. There is no sorting hat that can proclaim, “This child is destined to cut hair and will never need or want British history.” Then, once young people become young adults and start making choices for themselves, we empower them to do so by giving them opportunities and knowledge of those opportunities. Some may choose to go to university. Some may choose apprenticeships or other forms of vocational education. Some may choose work. Some may choose routes we haven’t thought of yet. And then, later in life, some may choose to learn and train again.
The better alternative to the English obsession with rank is not a one-nation conservative story in which the lower ranks are afforded the honour they deserve, although that is undoubtedly better than dismissing them as stupid racists who vote for the wrong things. The better alternative is to hand people their own destiny. Education has its part to play in that, but so does politics.