Reviewed by Nicola Livingstone
Allen and Ainley’s revealing book The Great Reversal may be short but it is certainly not sweet, as it pulls no punches in the way in which it exposes the fiasco of our present coalition’s ‘educational reforms’. The overall message is that education reinforces the power of the state and that the current neo-liberal policies are no different in their attempts to reassert social control and reinforce class stratifications by ‘working hand-in-glove to return English education to the 1950s’ (1). One of the strengths in this succinct and informative book is the reflection offered on previous state policies, which by the end had me not only frustrated with current political rhetoric, but also apprehensive of its repercussions for the future, as the after effects of previous governments are still being felt today.
The book offers a condemning critique and a rather depressing analysis of the current failures experienced in the English education system in the twenty-first century. Although particularly concerned with Gove and Willetts’ approaches to educational change today, the book reflects on how previous political interventions have also failed adequately to address or resolve the growing inequalities and alienation within the English system, from primary to third level education. Such inequalities are widening, which results in further financial inequalities in society, as capitalist reproduction continues to subjugate the majority of society through ‘legitimate’ educational politics. Social disparities and class relations are exacerbated in today’s austerity and recession hit society, as capitalism clumsily attempts to claw its way out of another self-inflicted crisis. In response to this crisis, education in England is in flux and although it is a time for change, the change implemented should not continue to ‘disadvantage the majority at the expense of an already advantaged minority’ (3). After reading Allen and Ainley’s evaluation of the system it is hard to see how any other outcome is likely under current policies.
The subject matter is not only education, but also the economy and the labour market, which are of course inherently interconnected. Allen and Ainley effectively communicate the pertinent challenges of today and link them with wider political, social and economic effects of our rapidly globalising culture. The book is presented in three chapters, the first considers the labour market and the dire position which the youth of today occupy within it, as ‘overqualified and underemployed’ (7). The authors suggest and then demonstrate how ‘the declining fortunes of young people in the labour market are not because of the “failure” of education, but more a consequence of long-term changes in the economy’ (14-15). The second chapter examines educational standards today and suggests the need for a new ‘correspondence’ between the economy and education, directly linking this to the class relationship. The ‘Great Reversal’ of the title here implies a contraction in educational participation, making education a luxury only accessible by the monied elite. In the third chapter Allen and Ainley do suggest a variety of possible alternatives to counteract the current crisis and restore upward mobility for young people. Their solutions are interdisciplinary, which should be ‘combined with more general social and economic policies to resolve the generational crisis in the interests of young people and the future of society’ (6). This is a book which agitates and provokes, but it is also refreshing in its outlook for change which should emphasis ‘education for democracy – to control and not be controlled by society’ (108). There is a need for a radicalisation of education, a substantial and oppositional move away from current ineffectual policies.
The stark statistics employed in chapter one are unsettling when considering not only the rate of youth unemployment (at 1 million (7)) but also the trajectory of the labour market itself. Education is referred to as a ‘positional good’ (7) and the social expectation embedded by the capitalist state is that more qualifications offer more opportunities in the future. Ironically, ‘despite being the most highly qualified generation ever, employment prospects for today’s young people are the worst ever’ (7). This is as a result of the negative repercussions of present day and historical economic and educational policies. Graduates are ‘trading down’, taking jobs for which they are overqualified, as jobs become ‘graduatised’ (11) and qualifications devalued. Considering the skill levels of said jobs have not changed, this also has a negative knock-on effect on those in the labour market without qualifications obtaining employment. Allen and Ainley pertinently suggest that we are currently experiencing a ‘proletarianisation of the professions’ (4), as our social mobility is forced downwards rather than upwards. Interesting reflections are offered on how the ‘knowledge economy’, the diminishing status of vocational skills and the effects of globalisation have resulted in a ‘global levelling down of wages’ (18) in addition to contractions in labour market opportunities.
How long can this ever-increasing reserve army of labour be placated? We only have to consider the riots and protests of recent years as demonstrations of dissatisfaction with our system of governance. There are young people who through the current system are earmarked for success and those who are deemed failures. Such social judgements are rooted in the politics of class and occur at a time long before the youth themselves are in a position to make independent and informed decisions regarding their own futures. Our experiences of labour today have become precarious, with an increase in part time working and ‘casualisation’. Allen and Ainley argue, that the emergence of the ‘precariat’ (47) as an aspect of the labour market has resulted in a recomposition of the class structure, representing the squeezed middle and the ‘non-class’ or ‘under-class’ below. In this respect, by increasing educational participation and creating a knowledge economy, labour opportunities have diverged to opposite ends of the spectrum as employment opportunities have decreased, young people have become the precariat and social inequalities are continually exacerbated. We cannot, as the authors note, ‘educate our way out of a recession’ (22); this is one crisis of capital where only significant political and economic change will effect an improvement in employment and education in our declining economy. It is likely that right wing policies will continue to be similar to the Gove and Willetts rut; any progressive challenges must come from the left.
Chapter two assesses Gove and Willetts’ attempts to ‘modernise’ the education system, through free schools, academies and the flawed introduction of the EBacc (English Baccalaureate). ‘The Importance of Teaching’ white paper of 2010 recognised the underperformance of English schools, their failure to compete internationally and a system which is ‘increasingly dysfunctional’ (80).
Reforms, such as those of Curriculum 2000 A-level modularisation have degraded the ‘gold-standard’ of A-levels to what is generally seen as a ‘dumbed down’ version of its predecessor, as ‘passes have risen to unprecedented levels’ (64). Even with this apparent increase in educational achievement, higher education institutions and universities observe a lacuna between school and university performance, as the high grades achieved far from guarantee that students are ready for third level academia. So far, the coalition has failed to address the complexities and challenges of the education system within the wider economy, representing a ‘retreat in understanding the crisis facing society and young people’ (85). An alternative programme could offer a ‘new intellectual clarity’ (84), one which does not reconstitute education as an enforcer of the class system or a supporter of poor economic policies.
Both the educational system and the labour market are exploitative. There is cause for concern over the privatisation and ‘marketisation’ of education, rendering it a profit maximising business, one prescribed and predefined, corralled by restrictions and yet supported by the state – the antithesis of academia as a hotbed of creativity offering opportunities for self-realisation and expression. With the increasing cost of attending university (UCAS estimates applications were down 10% in 2012 (73)), the system is situating universities as ‘a minority rather than a mass institution’ (73). So what of those who cannot afford to go to university, or choose not to pay the fees? The youth unemployment figures and Allen and Ainley’s reflections on the failings in the apprenticeship schemes do not inspire confidence in alternative career development. Internships and apprenticeships are often unpaid, providing free (or insultingly cheap) labour for the capitalists. Internships are almost an expected presence on a CV now for younger people; they provide free labour in pursuit of becoming a waged labourer. This is yet another indication of how the youth suffer due to faltering political rhetoric (such as the ‘big society’) and are drawn into the quagmire of an economy governed by failing principles.
So what is to be done? The third chapter offers some insight into how future change could be effected. Schemes with marginal impact (such as the Youth Contract) need to be rethought, the government needs to cease its incessant promotion of improvement through policies today and accept that change is inevitable. Apprenticeships should result in jobs, there should be more direct redistribution of taxes, and there is even the suggestion of a 21 hour working week. Allen and Ainley suggest that the development of ‘an alternative worth struggling for requires a different set of values and concepts to address the perennial question of “what should education be for”?’ (103). Intervention needs to be substantially different and innovative, or the legitimacy of the whole education system will be further questioned and challenged, especially with the support of unions and networks working together. The political, economic and cultural forms of our society need to be reassessed in the cause of better education.
Allen and Ainley reflect on attempts to rally against economic inequalities by David Cameron (who poured scorn on the bankers) and suggest that the largest ‘political parties compete to promote a “fairer” or “more responsible” capitalism’ (100). Capitalism, by its very nature cannot be ‘fairer’ or ‘more responsible’ and merely recognising the inequalities in society does nothing to actually move forward and alleviate them. However, in terms of education, this book’s acknowledgement of the problems and challenges faced, intertwined with the economic fiasco of today, is a timely and suggestive intervention. Allen and Ainley have given us an interesting, compact critique, full of facts, figures and analysis. I can only hope for the sake of future generations that there are some proactive, forward thinking politicians, educators and individuals out there with copies on their desks.
18 January 2014