The Meandering Social Worker

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Archive for the tag “work”

Poor white kids fail to get the most out of school

There has been enough anecdotal evidence that children from certain ethnic minorities do better in our education system than poor white kids (and good for them too).  Now we have the evidence.  And it might be worse than we thought.

The Centre Forum opportunity think tank has published it’s first annual report, “Education in England Annual Report 2016” showing that poor white kids who start school above average and with good achievements still leave 11+ years later with below average attainments.  By comparison, pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL) make significant progress during their school years.  Three groups do worse than white poor kids – they are White Irish travellers, White Roma and mixed-heritage Caribbean children.  Four groups do better: Black Caribbean, White Irish, Chinese and Indian children.  Two other features also leap out of the report: there is a north/south divide with pupils in the north generally achieving lower standards and pupils in coastal areas are also similarly disadvantaged.

But why?

Paul Mason, writing in the Guardian, makes some very relevant observations as he tries to make sense of the causes of this trend.  Referring back to the messages of the 1969 film Kes, about a working class boy learning to love and train a Kestrel, and the purpose that gave to his life, Paul Mason describes the annihilation of the ‘life story’ of the working classes in British society that started with Thatcherism and continues today.  Mason writes:

“It was not always the case that ethnic-minority children did better than white English ones, but the reason why some of them do now is pretty obvious: their problem – racism – is defined; their language skills tend to be well-developed; their culture is one of aspiration; they have social and religious institutions that promote cohesion.

By contrast, the problem of poor white kids cannot be properly defined: not in the language of freemarket capitalism, at least. It has nothing to do with being “overtaken” – still less with any reverse discrimination against them.

It is simply that a specific part of their culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.

Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in the solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave drivers; the outright hoodlums operating in plain sight as the cops concentrated on breaking strikes.”

As I look back over my memories of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and since, I recognise the changes Mason is describing.

But what is the answer?  If you agree with Mason then it’s not entirely in the education system.  The education system has been tinkered with in so many ways over the years, and the debate between selection and non-selection continues in some parts of the country.  Academisation (or privatisation) has been declared as the way forward, even though many academies continue to ‘fail’.  University education for all has been heralded as the answer, even though clearly that cannot be achievable.  The raising of school leaving ages to the point of legal adulthood is considered by some to merely infantalise our young people and delay emotional and experiential adulthood. Our children have been ‘tested’ beyond endurance over recent years, resulting in league tables and a different kind of segregation.  Our education system has had so much attention lavished on it, yet still the ‘problems’ are not going away.

Mason concludes his piece with these words:

“To put right the injustice revealed by the CentreForum report requires us to put aside racist fantasies about “preferential treatment” for ethnic minorities; if their kids are preferentially treated, it is by their parents and their communities – who arm them with narratives and skills for overcoming economic disadvantage.

If these metrics are right, the present school system is failing to boost social mobility among white working-class kids. But educational reforms alone will barely scratch the surface. We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story.”

We can’t go back, and for plenty of reasons we wouldn’t want to.  We have to find a way forward that enables ALL our children to have a decent education and access to opportunities.  As Mason says, it’s not about league tables, as useful as they are as measures.  Having taken the time to travel in other cultures I can step back and see what our society has lost, and it’s not education.  Identity and narrative, through culture, work, family and community are what gives children the framework on which to build their lives.  It’s what social workers do for individuals they work with.  It’s what society now needs to do for itself.

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The destabilisation of society

The current UK government are marching forward in their dismantling of social support networks, while increasing the pressure on the poorest, the most vulnerable, the disabled.  Vast swathes of society are being crushed – how long before this reaches the point of the destabilisation of our society?

In today’s Guardian respected academic Ray Jones writes on the privatisation of child protection social work.   Elderly care and children’s residential care have long been taken over by the private sector.  Some local authority social work is already contracted out to small independent social work companies.  It won’t take much to extend this to more ‘front line’ roles.  Social workers take note.

It doesn’t need any referencing to know that our education system is well underway to being privatised through PFIs, Academies, Free Schools.  It doesn’t need any referencing to know that our NHS is being back-door privatised, this hits the news headlines so often.

In the meantime the impact of cuts are being felt, and felt hard.

The irony is, it’s private businesses, large and small, in the form of those whose staff receive tax credits due to low wages who are the real beneficiaries of the welfare benefits system.  Private landlords might feel the impact of cuts if tenants default on their rent and they have to go through evictions processes, but until now they too have been beneficiaries of the benefits system.

Local authority housing tenants are to lose their right to a home for life, having their tenancies reviewed at least every five years and facing the possibility of eviction if they are deemed not sufficiently in need of social housing, dependent on an income based means test with no apparent consideration for social or family needs, the availability of private rented housing, or the stress and disruption forced moves will cause.  What incentive does that give to take care of or improve your home or your community?  What opportunity does that give for ‘estates’ to mature and provide a secure base for younger families? For those who do remain in social housing, rent caps will be removed for anyone earning above a certain level, increasing their rents to the same as the private sector in their area. What incentives do either of these measures give to people to get work or promotion if it means potentially losing their home or having their rent massively increased?

Instead of having the desired effect of motivation into work, benefit sanctions, alongside insecure job contracts, zero hours contracts, enforced part time working, threats to cut tax credits before implementation of a ‘living wage’, have seen a rise in mental health problems, avoidable deaths, poverty, food banks, and local authorities having to provide pauper funerals as well as a rise in the use of S.17 (CA’89) funding to make up the shortfalls caused by cuts in welfare benefits and sanctions.

In the autumn Spending Review, following sustained political pressures, George Osbourne made a great show of reversing planned cuts to tax credits in advance of the implementation of a new ‘living wage’, but still hit the poor and vulnerable with other cuts such as to housing benefits such that some suggest they will be even worse off than if the cuts to tax credits had gone ahead.

In true Tory style, instead of recognising that government policies and cuts are causing the problems they are trying to ‘cure’, the government have continued to blame the poor for their own plight, and, in the March 2015 Budget, introduced CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) as a condition for continuing to receive benefits while job hunting.

What all this represents is a worrying move away from personal individualisation and a forced conforming to what is considered by the government as a desired ‘norm’.  This in turn is reminiscent of what happened in Germany under the Nazis leading up to the start of the Second World War.

This in a climate where the police have only just staved off crippling budget cuts, which will undoubtedly resurface again later.  Then, if they succumb to the pattern so far, once the police have been incapacitated by budget cuts and privatised as underperforming, there will only be the Army left to deal with a destabilised society.

 

References and other things:

Nudging the disabled into work

How cuts to local councils will affect you

Rise in S.17 spending due to welfare cuts

Coasting schools likely to lead to rise in academies

Tenants in England spend half their pay on rent

Outsourcing child protection

The new Work and Health Programme: the government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

A well researched look into the government’s pursuit of the sick and disabled to bring them, often in an unrealistic manner, into the workplace.

Source: The new Work and Health Programme: the government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

What is the purpose of education?

As I’ve visited other parts of the world, not the tourist destinations but where people really live, I’ve seen all kinds of economic lifestyles.  Of the many things I’ve considered, one has been children and education.

There are plenty of places where education is not available for one reason or another.  Sometimes there is simply not enough schools for all children to attend – such as the Kibera district in Nairobi in Kenya: declared an illegal settlement the Kenyan government provide no services whatsoever while NGOs fill the gap and enable around 50% of Kibera children to attend primary school (up to the age of 14).  That is of course if their parents can afford to buy them a (second hand) uniform and a pen or pencil.  In other places the cultural lifestyle doesn’t make it easy for children to attend school – such as the nomadic tribes in Mongolia, where the only way for a child to attend school is to go into the towns and live away from their parents most of the time.  Or for the Himba people in remote parts of Namibia where they can be cut off for months at a time during the rainy season.  It might be absolute poverty, pure and simple – uniforms have to be bought, along with pens, pencils and notebooks, and often school fees paid.  Where there is not enough to put food on the table, where basic needs are not or cannot be met, then school looks like an unnecessary expense.

In these situations it leads to the question: what is the purpose of education?  What is the role of school in education?

For most Mongolian nomadic tribespeople, they will want their children’s education to include an understanding of the seasons, animal husbandry, how the rotational cropping of the sparse vegetation between different herds which graze at different levels can best be achieved through community co-operation and their nomadic lifestyle, how to ride a horse and manage a herd of sheep, cattle or yak, possibly several hundred in number.

For the people living in Andean mountain villages in Ecuador, their education needs to prepare their children for a life on the farm, herding cattle, displaying the courage and confidence to handle the bulls, while providing the opportunity for some to take advantage of their country’s position as a developing economy.

In the 1940’s Abraham Maslow didn’t rate child education high enough to specify it in his hierarchy of human needs.  Hardly surprising in the context that our modern education system only really took effect with the 1944 Education Act (which only made education compulsory, not school, and which has not been rescinded).

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the needs of a modern education are vastly different from Maslow’s time.  Much is made of the benefits of young people going to college and university post compulsory education, which is being extended to age 18 in 2015.  But what is the purpose of education in England?  What are we preparing our young people for?

Perhaps it’s time we were more honest with our young people.  We want to prepare them for possibilities.  Possibilities of fantastic opportunities to work in industry, education, business, primary healthcare and more.  We set their expectations high.  But do we meet the needs of the majority?  The real majority today who will not get the opportunity to experience these fantastic opportunities because there are simply not enough of them.  It is a question I’ve often thought – and one that sits uncomfortably for many people.  It harks back to the bad old days when grammar school selection syphoned off those considered better equipped (intellectually) to take advantage of those fantastic opportunities.  The majority, deemed to have ‘failed’ the 11+ as it was called then, were left to deal with the mental and emotional impact of being labelled ‘failures’.   Yet in our efforts to deal with this societal error we have surely opened the door to a new one.

Young people for years have instinctively recognised the lie that qualifications lead to good and well paid jobs.  They do, but there are only so many of those jobs, and as we know getting those jobs is not just about intellectual capability.  This week the largely tabloid headlines, picked up in a handful of blogs, declared Britain is now a ‘nation of shop assistants’.

Under the heading World of work’s becoming more polarised the Western Daily Press, reports:

Britain is a nation of shop assistants, cleaners and waiters despite increasingly better educated professionals, according to a new report.

The top five largest single occupational groupings include 1.1 million sales and retail assistants, 600,000 cleaners and domestics and 450,000 in kitchen and catering work, said the Jobs Economist consultancy.

Are we preparing our young people for those jobs alongside the possibilities of ‘fantastic opportunities’?  That’s the challenge teachers face every day.

 

Additional References:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs can be found in numerous places online.

Wikipedia provides a basic introduction to the current position of education in England today, including the raising of the school leaving age to 18 in 2015.

The Education in England website provides a more detailed history of education in England.

Counter-productive reform in helping disadvantaged young people get good jobs

A “major reform” in education, one that will specifically “help hundreds of thousands of young people get good jobs” has been announced in a government press release on Monday 2 September.

The “major reform” is that all children who leave school without a grade C in Maths or English must continue to study these subjects “in post-16 education until they get these qualifications”.

“The reform was proposed in 2011 by Professor Alison Wolf in her ground-breaking review of vocational education and backed by Education Secretary Michael Gove.”

And there are some very sound reasons behind the reform, in particular the press release outlines that:

  • many employers are not satisfied with the literacy and numeracy levels of young people leaving education, despite considering these skills essential in the workplace, and
  • many young people do not continue to study once they have left full-time compulsory education or go on to improve their literacy and numeracy skills.

I didn’t need to go to the Guardian online to know that many teachers will be sitting, like me, with their heads in their hands groaning in woe at this latest madcap idea.  None of us disagree with the importance of literacy and numeracy skills, but collectively a number of concerns are being raised:

  • Funding is of course an issue.  As this is still only a press release little information is available as to how the reforms will be funded, although there is reference to colleges being able to offer “other qualifications – including functional skills and free-standing mathematics qualifications accredited by Ofqual – as a stepping stone to GCSE study” and this being “a condition of funding for colleges from 2014”.  And, “a new 16 to 19 funding formula ending the link between funding and qualification success rates”, as well as “reformed performance tables”.
  • Apart from the acknowledgement of ‘stepping stone’ qualifications little has been said about children with special educational needs or those for whom English is a second language.  As one teacher comments, for some children with additional needs, a grade D or E is a major achievement?
  • The third key concern coming from comments by teachers is around availability of additional teaching staff in the midst of a crisis in teacher training as well as the strains the additional workloads will produce and the climate of changing relationships between schools and local authorities.

But I have some other questions and concerns about this “major reform”.

  • My greatest concern is the impact this reform will have on vocational education.  As one of the Guardian comments points out, literacy and numeracy skills are an essential part of much of vocational post-16 learning, which inevitably includes a number of students with additional learning needs.  If these colleges have then to focus on students passing one particular exam it will undoubtedly be at the expense of them studying a wider range of skill sets.  THIS WILL BE HIGHLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE.  Especially for students with additional learning needs.
  • No reference is made to life-long learning.  Even without having taken part in formal post-16 learning most people continue to learn new things as they get older and come against new experiences.  Skills that remain unpractised fade away.  I remember little of some subjects I supposedly have an ‘O’ Level in while in others my knowledge has continued to grow over the years due to exposure to reading, television and sources internet as sources of information.  We know that if we learn a foreign language but don’t practice it we soon forget it – sure, it comes back again but not as quickly as in ‘riding a bike’.  The emphasis on passing an exam and not in encouraging a real appreciation of using the skills learned is not necessarily going to have the desired result of producing young people ‘fit for work’.

My other concerns are a little more pedantic.

  • When does it end?  The phrase in the press release which says young people leaving school without a Grade C in Maths or English will continue to study “until they get these qualifications” has been ill thought-out.  What if they never get the qualification?  Is there an upper age limit?  Will adults still have to go to college when they are in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, until they get the required Grade C in these subjects.  The press report’s references to funding only refer to the 16-19 age range.
  • No acknowledgement is being made of the fact that Grade C was always meant to be an ‘average’ grade.  For Grade C to be the benchmark for average there has to be As, Bs, Ds and Es.  Call me old-fashioned if you like.
  • But most of all I hate the lie that is in the title of the press release: “Major reform will help hundreds of thousands of young people get good jobs”.  It won’t.  Cramming for an exam, being pushed through the mill to write the correct (or correct enough) answers to questions on a piece of paper in an exam room, probably at the expense of learning other skills, is not the route to young people getting good jobs.  Literacy and numeracy are vitally important, but when these skills don’t come naturally there are other (better) ways of learning them, as pointed out by the vocational teachers in the Guardian comments.

Instead of wasting time with reforms to put right what’s missing as young people are leaving school, research time should be spent on how literacy and numeracy skills can be better learned in the eleven years between 5 and 16.  What are the pressures that encourage or deter developing these skills in those years?  What are the existing policies that make it either harder or easier for teachers in promoting these skills?  And then let the vocational teachers do what they do best – develop literacy and numeracy skills alongside vocational skills.

Why should I be interested in educational reforms as a social worker?  Well, education IS relevant to social work.  It’s relevant to the people, the families, we work with.  It affects families with children especially, but the long term consequences of good or bad education policy affect every age group.

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