Major fault line in the British Education system

An open letter

By Ben Childs

Contrary to Art Cockerill’s opinion, student riots and protests in major centres of England and Wales are not the work of a small number of yobs, but rather by disaffected youths who have reason to feel alienated with the system. This may take some explaining, but stick with me. You will be enlightened.

As to my qualifications for this response: I studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford (known to those in the know as a PPE degree) and later worked as a Conservative researcher in the House of Commons alongside some of the current UK Government’s new ministers. The Parliamentary Select Committees on Education, Defence and Treasury were my specialties. So much for credentials, but wait, there is more to come in dues course.

The behaviour of protesting students from England and Wales is indeed disgraceful, but note that Scotland provides free university education so has not witnessed protests. This student-rioter behaviour has many causes: some are logical consequences of previous Government policies while one in particular is a phenomenon of contemporary social science. I'll explain what's at the root of the current student protests and leave explanation of the phenomenon for later.

Part of my job when working at the Houses of Parliament was to analyse the English and Welsh education system. Surveys from all quarters and all schools and universities I visited stood as testament to the same problem: namely that the modern standard of education in the UK has fallen considerably. To this conclusion I add Scotland, for standards of education have declined equally in that country over the last 15 years. This decline in both school and university education has been complained about regularly by Oxbridge (ie: Oxford and Cambridge universities), the Russell Group (ie: the UK’s other top universities) and the Headmasters’ Conference (ie: the strategic standards branch of Britain’s best independent fee-paying schools that also includes a small number of exceptional state-funded schools).

To summarise briefly the last decade’s rapid decline in academic standards: the mere pass grades that 16 and 18 year old school children could gain in 1997 are equivalent to the highest grades attainable in 2005. Since 2005 standards dropped further to 2008 before rising marginally for the last two years.

Perhaps not coincidentally it was in 2008 that the less smarmy Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair (nicknamed Tony Bliar) as British premier. The biggest decline in education occurred between 1997 and 2008 (oh yes; Bliar’s tenure!) This was the period during which the previous Government, under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, made a point of encouraging schools and universities to teach less academically demanding subjects such as dance and expressive. Tellingly, this has led to a situation in which of the British population under the age of 25, a little over half are semi-literate and semi-numerate; and a quarter is illiterate and innumerate. As often reported in United Nations comparisons, there are third world countries with superior education systems; while every European country is superior. Poland is Britain’s closest European rival, but for “close” read “far removed”, as in Poland nearly all school leavers have two languages (less than 5% in the UK) and half have studied sciences (less than 10% in the UK). Also, much was made by Blair that Poland has about 500 universities: Blair wanted as many in the UK. However, in Poland most university courses are for technical and vocational qualifications similar to Britain’s Higher National Certificates/Diplomas; and are most certainly not referred to as degrees.

Britain used to have higher education courses for technical certificates and diplomas. They were world renown. The institutions offering them were called polytechnics. Literally over night these all became degree-awarding universities in 1992 as the culmination of former Prime Minister John Major’s disastrous education reforms between 1987 and 1992. (Yes, sadly the rot started with a Tory: he’s fondly remembered as “Jonny Boy” by his former Conservative Party chums. When Minister for Education he was the only Cabinet Minister to have not attended university – he was reportedly given the job because Tory big wigs thought he was too dumb to do any harm). And technical qualifications nowadays? Hard to think of any of merit; very hard indeed. Training is done via sandwich courses in the workplace, but standards vary considerably. Most courses are structured around customer service computer and telephony support.

The current student protesters are mostly still school children. They claim to be protesting about the three fold rise in university fees that is now law. Contrary to many reports, especially in the United States, England and Wales did not cancel free university education in December 2010. In actual fact the last students to receive free higher education began their degree courses in 1969 at a time when the UK had one fifth as many universities as in 2010. Since 1970 university students have had to pay part of the cost of their higher education. Last week the proportion payable was increased by 300%; but this still means education at top universities shall be subsidized by 40%. At lesser universities students will in future receive fewer subsidies than those at top performing universities.

Now to the student protests that have wracked the country. Today’s university students grew up under an education system that dates back to 1987 and the replacement of O Levels by GCSEs. Since then other secondary education reforms (i.e. schools, 11-18 year olds; changes relevant to the 2000s) and university education reforms (i.e. 1992 when all vocational polytechnic colleges became universities; and in the 2000s an easing of higher education regulation as the previous Government manipulated lower class aspirations in order to gain votes) have been enacted and all effectively lowered standards. The UK Government education inspectorate has reported this for some years; so too has the Headmasters’ Conference, the Russell Group and Oxbridge.

The protesting students are well aware that if they gain a place at a good university (and the UK has very few extremely good ones nowadays with just four comparable to other leading world-class universities) they will repay their student debts to the sum of £7 per week compared to the previous system's sum of £81 per week. Higher calibre students will, in the course of their working lives, repay about half the cost of their university education. On the other hand, students who enroll at poor quality universities will not be subsidised by Government (ie: tax payers). Subsequently, they will pay the full cost of their education. Universities not subsidised will have fewer students and so will wind-down and close. In the week prior to the worst of the student riots, three new universities/former polytechnics have closed their doors. (Brief explanation: new universities have known that the Russell Group and the Confederation of British Industry have had it in for them since the 1992 higher education reforms so have planned closures in advance).

Before these ‘higher education’ reforms of 1992 there were 38 universities in the UK. In 2010 the number is unknown - but probably in excess of 200 - so it is entirely reasonable to read into this as meaning that many of the so-called new universities are cowboy operations. They are unaccredited, unchecked, uninspected and under the tutelage of inadequately qualified staff.

The problem has reached such proportions that UK businesses no longer know which universities are of tolerably decent calibre and which are not. Since 2001, the Confederation of British Industry has annually petitioned 10 Downing Street to ask that higher education be reformed in face of economic trends and the lowering standards in education. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair repeatedly made all the promises but delivered none of the action. Much to his credit, the other Labour Prime Minister of the past 13 years, the media shy but academically adroit Gordon Brown, did instigate Lord Browne’s report on which the 2010 Higher Education Reforms are based.

Sadly, many children in the UK no longer respect technical and vocational training. 45% of 17 and 18 year olds (ie: those still in education) want to go to university to avoid manual labour occupations. Yet the UK simply hasn't the economic conditions to provide employment to such large numbers of ‘apparently professional’ university graduates.
Those conscious of the decline of UK manufacturing since the 1970s will not be surprised that neither does the UK have an adequate pool of unskilled labour jobs. Consequently over the last 10 years - though the trend covers more like 20 years - more than 80% of school leavers aged 16 (i.e. those not continuing their education) have not entered the ranks of the employed.

The trend is predictable. An increasingly larger number of the long-term unemployed will at best achieve only periodic casual employment.

As a result attending university has become a statement of intent to avoid unemployment. Since the 1980s and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher the UK has developed a substantial customer service industry - indeed it was Thatcher’s stated economic policy aim to make Britain a customer service centre - and it is this industry that employs the largest group of UK graduates over the last 30 years. Thatcher believed all Britain needed for economic prosperity was not a large manufacturing base - she practically destroyed that in a move to silence the trades unions - but rather a nation of salesmen in which no one made anything, rather they would merely sell to one another. Hence the customer service industry has become the UK’s largest employer while the manufacturing industry has barely struggled to survive amid closures and bankruptcies. Somewhat obviously, the UK imports other countries’ produce like it’s going out of fashion. And imports in an absence of domestic produce require exponential credit lending.

Such a model is unsustainable. As proven by the global credit crisis - demonstrating there is a limit to how much people can afford to buy on the never-never - the Government has, over the past ten years, attempted to redevelop a UK manufacturing sector. It is a fact that the UK Government and the City of London, along with the financial institutions of the entire Western world, saw the credit crunch coming as long ago as 2001. That is why the previous Government sought to invest in the UK manufacturing industry. But such things require liquidity. Hence 2001 was the year in which Chancellor-later-to-be-Prime Minister Gordon Brown realised the only way to avoid a recession was to relax the UK credit regulations in order to manufacture a false (but very popular!) spending spree. The model of people spending what they could not afford was copied around the world. As some readers may have noticed, it did not end well… Certainly, former Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, William Hague MP, was warning of the dangers of a credit crunch during the UK’s 2001 General Election. 

I myself was taught about the UK’s impending financial meltdown while an undergraduate at Oxford in 2002 (there is nothing like mathematical finance to make the point clear!) and by 2005 had already witnessed the professional classes’ knowledge that recession would be announced circa 2007-2008. Likewise, I witnessed the lie of the 2008 Credit Crunch take form at the Treasury Select Committee, perpetrated by the Rt Hon John McFall, a Labour MP from 1987 to 2010. His lie spread around the world and is now the generally accepted version of events. Reality is that politicians and business leaders the world over saw it coming, and people in credit debt surely knew they could not afford their liabilities, but peoples’ hands had been tied by egotistical and charlatan prime ministers and presidents. Like the saying goes, power corrupts. And they will do anything for your vote.

The current prosperity and growth of Jaguar-Land Rover, BAE Systems (both aircraft and ship building), and the recent bail out of Vauxhall Motors are proof of the decade-long aim of HM Government to redevelop a UK manufacturing sector. Now that the UK has began to redevelop its manufacturing and technical industries it is necessary to have people - crucially younger people - work in them. This is why HM Government is enacting reforms aimed at reducing the number of university students and appalling new universities.

One hopes that in future young school leavers who don’t make it to university will have the sense to enter the vocational unskilled and semi-skilled work force (where there are opportunities to become professionally qualified and highly skilled) instead of pursuing pathetic courses of so-called university studies that in most cases are not credited by the Government inspectorate and the universities' inspectorate because such courses and universities that provide them have no academic value.

As for the timing of the current higher education reforms; these are being enacted by the new Coalition Conservative-Liberal Government. The report on which they are based was commissioned under the previous Labour government. The basis for that report came from the Parliamentary Select Committees for Education and Higher Education. While the three main Parliamentary parties politicked over voting for the reforms, the fact is that whichever party or parties were in power the Government as a servant of the Crown would have recommended the Bill. It was a case of the writing being on the wall.

My having made a case for the background to contemporary Britain readers naturally wonder what it has done to the British social fabric and how this relates to students rioting about education reforms. So what did I mean by “the social phenomenon” of recent British culture?

One of the most frequent phrases in the paperwork of the Coalition Agreement between the Conservative and Liberal parties is ‘class realistic expectations’. This is perhaps the most important shared ideology between the two parties and it will be a hallmark of their Coalition Government.

It has been apparent since the Thatcherism of the 1980s (itself based on the Heathism of the 1970s) that working class aspirations have led to increased political charlatanisms. Blairism in particular was infamous for this. The social phenomenon of contemporary Britain is that many lower middle class and working class people (blue collar workers or junior office workers; this is, the majority of UK voters) have been brain washed by Heathism, Thatcherism and Blairism that the solution to their envy is access to easy credit. Thatcher and Blair made a definite point that voting for them meant a vote for aspiration. The new Coalition Government’s term “class realistic expectations” is a denouncement of aspiration and greed bought on the never-never of easy credit and the lack of fiscal liquidity and inflation that this creates. “Class realistic expectations” has become a policy meant to support industrial growth and reduce credit reliance.

It is often thought by academics, economists and political scientists that pursuit of the popularist vote led to the debt-fuelled UK credit culture of greed and one up-man-ship. This caused two consecutive mortgage collapse-led recessions, one in the 1980s, another in the 1990s followed by the 2008-2010 credit fault recession. It can also be abbreviated that aspiration means no-one in contemporary Britain is willing to do menial jobs. As a consequence, Eastern Europeans have immigrated into the UK and, as it happens, being better educated and less snobbish they do such work to a higher standard.

Among the Coalition Government and each party’s highbrows - some of whom are Conservative Government ministers with whom I used to work - it is considered that the 30 year long lie from politicians about British people being able to afford anything they want is the major factor of why the UK continues to have a boom-and-bust economy contrary to those of Germany and the United States. Simply put, we British have become an extremely profligate society as evidenced by a profusion of electronic gismos, new cars every couple of years, three or more foreign holidays per annum all paid for on credit, and a vast waste of food stuffs. (The British throw away enough food to feed another 60 million people per annum!)

Aspiration is not only about one's credit rating and purchasing power, but also one's education. As such politicians have since the late 1980s repeatedly degraded the education system in order that some aspirational home's Little Jimmy can gain a dozen highest grades (even if his father's two bare passes were actually harder to gain) and then go on to study for an unaccredited ‘degree’ (even if his mother's accreditation as a herbal remedy-ist is actually worth more in the view of the Department for Education).

After graduation, Little Jimmy - or Little Priscilla not to be sexist about it - does not in fact enter the professions, for these are dominated by Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates. Instead, he or she flounders without direction or discretion between customer service (well, one must need a degree to answer a telephone!), recruitment (asking a series of set questions designed to select shop assistants - does this require a graduate? is it a profession?) before settling on periodic unemployment (remember, Jimmy and Priscilla are unqualified) and occasional sales jobs (as in being a shop assistant; alongside Vera, a semi-retired pensioner who works only to be able to talk to people).

It is this bizarre social construct built upon lies and based within envy that the rioting students represent. While the Veras of Britain represent a more honest past. The discontented students are faced - and are the first people to be faced with it for 30 years - with the reality of ‘class realistic expectation’, as the Government puts it. The fact is that if the Little Jimmys and Little Priscillas of Britain worked for 40 years in a blue collar occupation they would be wealthier, more secure, have better family lives (the UK has the largest divorce and teenage pregnancy rates in the EU; this is related to poverty and greed) and in many cases would become professionally qualified experts.

As for the sheer number of protestors, rioters and vandals; they have come out in such numbers because they are the symptom of a lied-to youth. In the UK we have as a hangover of Blairism and consequent of some rather silly laws that particular prime minister put forward a recent history that any adult talking to any youngster other than their own must be suspected of intent to perform child abuse, kidnapping, sexual abuse or murder.  In particular these laws applied to teachers, though the Coalition has to its credit already reversed some of these ridiculous laws. 

Consequently, over the last decade school children have had very little contact with adults. Left untended and unadvised they have developed their own cultural norms: these are delinquency, illiteracy, innumeracy, violence, a dislike and distrust of authority, contempt for learning, a primitive desire to have children in order to firstly, prove maturity and, secondly, to find a loving relationship absent so far in their lives. Such phenomena are referred to by sociologists as "boomerangs". (Their precursors are "boomers" - the standard wretched criminal).

What is the result? A new-order organised crime wave is occurring in many schools. In most state ran schools the police carry out searches of pupils for weapons, stolen goods and drugs on a number of days each week. The numbers of state education teachers being attacked by pupils has increased dramatically and gang rape of school girls, and sometimes female teachers, has become normative behaviour for the school children organised crime gangs. This has been reported in a number of criminal prosecutions, in the press, and by the respected BBC Panorama documentary television program.

Some head masters have been exposed in criminal trials - usually gang rapes or stabbings - as having attempted to cover up such horrific crimes not only for fear of the crime gangs but also the previous Government’s practice - through the local education authorities - of sacking any head who reported problems within his or her school. Headmasters also learned which boxes to tick to make out their schools were still normal.

My prediction is that over the next ten years the UK will witness an explosion in the level of crime. The Metropolitan Police have stated that there is no evidence that the current student protestors have been infiltrated by criminal gangs. Rather, those violent gangs are a part of the contemporary education system in Britain.

I would sum up the new Coalition Government and this first of many class realistic reforms by saying that Thatcherism and the Blairism that mimicked it is well and truly dead. That exceptionally few adults have sympathy for the opinions of the protesting students indicates what the majority view is. Those of us from the UK workplace, unlike school children and students at less than salubrious universities, have no illusions about life and can recognise failings for what they are. We are thankful that at last after so many years of lies and failures a new Government has acted to protect the world famous British institution of a genuinely world class education system, not a profane, deceitful and defunct system of bestowing degrees on people best described as morons.

Finally, that son of the Pink Floyd musician - a Cambridge undergraduate and associate of the Royal Family no less - is a pillock and proof of the dangers of an all-too-easy life. Sadly what with my having been educated at some particularly privileged schools before joining the Duke of York’s Royal Military School, I've seen his like before and know of a small number today. He is a different entity to the other student rioters: just a fool thinking money buys him immunity.

Such is my explanation of the historiography of the current university funding reforms in England and Wales, the Government agendas behind them, and the social consciousness and aspirations they effect upon. The criminality of some school children - and by natural consequence some university students - may disappoint readers, although that precedent was set in the USA and other realms west many years ago.

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