rethinking education, economy and society

April 4, 2014

GCSE with Chinese Characteristics (East Asian Illusions Part 2)

Filed under: Education and economy — sitemananger @ 7:23 am

11 (2)Ofqual justifies the latest reforms to GCSE in terms of needing to peg grades against those achieved in China and other East Asian countries, even if making these ‘incomparable comparisons’ raises as many questions as they provide answers and continues to ignore an array of other reasons for the staggering economic performance of these countries.   (

 But the real illusion touted by Secretary of State Michael Gove, continues to be that the huge improvements in grades achieved in recent years can only be explained by exams becoming too easy and thus generating ‘grade inflation’ – in otherwords the efforts of young people, having to work more and more, but getting back less and less as opportunities decline and of their teachers, forced to continually ‘improve’ and meet constantly changing targets are given no recognition whatsoever.

The new numerical grading system is not just another annoying change, although the last thing young people, most of who now stay on in full-time education till 18, need are more grades at 16.  An A** (grade 1) has been added which only half of current A* achievers will obtain and the new ‘midpoint’ grade 5, will be set much higher than the current grade C and will supposedly equate with ‘international’ standards. We should remember that one of the main intentions behind the E-Bacc Certificates announced in 2012 was the hiking up of different grade requirements. Despite Gove being forced to U-turn, this objective has continued to be pursued in the new GCSEs.

The real issue for Gove and the Coalition continues to be that too many young people succeed in education; but that this success no longer leads to success in the job market or even ensures a place at the university of your choice –thus education increasingly becomes ‘dysfunctional’. It’s disappointing that the momentum behind the E-bacc has not been able to continue and that potentially irreversible changes are now being made to public examinations.




April 1, 2014

East Asian Illusions.

Filed under: Education and economy — sitemananger @ 8:22 am

IMG-20140309-00049 (2)

Martin Allen    

(due to appear in Education for Liberation Journal of the Socialist Teachers Alliance, NUT Conference  April 2014)

Though his right-wing ideological credentials cannot be disputed; Michael Gove also continues to justify many of his curriculum changes in the context of the UK’s declining international economic performance and says we should import learning practices of economically high performing countries for inspiration, particularly those in East Asia, if UK economy is to ‘compete’.   As the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching made clear.

‘…the emphasis on effort is particularly marked in the Confucian-heritage countries such as China, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. The assumption here is that deep engagement with subject matter, including through memorisation where appropriate, leads to deeper understanding.’ (8.6) and ‘Hong Kong… as with South Korea and Singapore also operates with a curriculum model focusing on “fewer things in greater depth”.’ (8.10)

This theme has continued unabated throughout Gove’s offensive. Launching the new National Curriculum that requires 5 year olds to calculate fractions, 9 year olds to recite 12 times tables and 11 year olds to memorise poetry, Gove told ITV’s Daybreak (08/07/13), ‘I want my children, who are in primary school at the moment, to have the sort of curriculum that children in other countries have, which are doing better than our own.’

Despite Gove’s claims that officials in the Department for Education have spent years examining and analysing the curricula used in the world’s supposedly most successful school systems, this type of comparative justification has always been highly selective and compares very different traditions of education, including those requiring pictographic characters as opposed to phonic literacy! As Kevin Courtney, NUT Deputy General Secretary has emphasised.

‘Several successful international systems are quoted as the inspiration for the new curriculum but only one of these (Massachusetts) has the same school starting age as England. The rest start at 6 or 7, undermining the argument that more demanding content should be presented to children earlier. In fact, the opposite should be the case. The Secretary of State also quotes Finland at a time when Finland is taking a different direction for its curriculum by emphasising critical thinking over factual content, boosting cross-curricular themes and reducing content to give more time to learning.’ (

Even Sir Michael Barber, architect of many ‘school improvement’ reforms during the last two decades, has warned about the dangers of copying policy on the hoof (Guardian 22/8/12). Barber also pointed out that, as policy makers in the Asian Tiger economies recognise their economic systems need to become ‘more innovative’ and their schools ‘more creative’, some of the countries held up by Gove are looking to European education systems for inspiration. Oxford University researchers have also argued that international test data as a whole cannot be taken at face value and are extremely limited ways of measuring a country’s educational standards, or that there’s no evidence that ‘modular’ courses are less demanding than those with ‘final exams’( –and less than three months after Gove had published his proposals for Key Stage 4 reform, other ‘global league tables’ published by the multi-national education supplier Pearson and compiled by The Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked the UK sixth best in the world, although Finland and South Korea remained first and second.

Despite this and in response to publication of another round of PISA tables, dominated by East Asian countries, a delegation of headteachers under the leadership of Schools Minister Elizabeth Truss, were promptly dispatched to discover the ‘secrets’ maths teaching in Shanghai ( even if performances in Shanghai are not considered reflective of China nationally) and Chinese maths teachers are being recruited to help us ‘raise standards’.

The top five PISA performers in maths (and reading) may be in East Asia (South Korea tops the overall OECD list, Finland trails in sixth) but there are harrowing reports about the pressures imposed on young people in these systems, in South Korea in particular, where ‘double shifts’ are put in and huge amounts spent on private tuition ( .   Rather than just focussing on the statistical outcomes, it’s important to question the basis of what counts as ‘education’ in the PISA leaders. Most UK children, regardless of their performance level, would not be prepared to tolerate this sort of environment and few parents would want them to anyway. The economic achievements in South Asia cannot be disputed, but like with all countries the contribution made by education is just one aspect and we need to look to a variety of factors, social, political as well as economic for explanations – it’s even suggested that Chinese students perform better at maths because of the more logical nature of Mandarin characters!

The ‘education fever’ of Chinese and South Korean parents is as much a consequence of the rapid economic changes in these countries as it’s a cause, but despite booming growth rates and the increased opportunities for upwards social mobility into professional and managerial employment however, large numbers may still be disappointed, even more so if East Asian economies begin to slow down.

But quite astonishingly, Gove also argues that re imposing memorisation and rote learning will improve rates of social mobility, maintaining that state comprehensives, unlike the old grammar schools, have denied youngsters access to the ‘core knowledge’ about society, therefore preventing more disadvantaged children from ‘getting on.’ It’s true that rates of social mobility have declined, even gone into reverse, but this has more to do with changes in the labour market, with many young people finding there simply aren’t enough jobs available for the qualifications they have been encouraged to gain.

Education cannot ‘right’ society’s inequalities and it certainly can’t, at least by itself, be held responsible for the difficulties young people face in securing secure employment opportunities. With only 1 in 5 employers saying they actively try recruit young people, with 4 out of 5 of new jobs created since the economic downturn, being classified as ‘low waged’ and a third of recent university leavers reporting they are in work for which they are ‘overqualified’ it’s the economy that has failed education, not falling standards in schools,. The real problem for Michael Gove is that comprehensive education has been too successful, so opportunities need to be restricted. In otherwords, he wants an education system that’s primarily designed to maintain social divisions, one based on social control, not social aspiration –where social mobility is only available to the few.

Gove has claimed ‘unprecedented interest’ in his curriculum proposals. There certainly has been; yet much of it continues to be both critical and damning. It is also clear that Gove is not prepared to listen to the views of organised teachers and that he considers university departments of education to be run by a Marxist ‘blob.’ But with poll after poll continuing to show that parents see teachers as the people who know most about the curriculum, not government ministers, opportunities to involve parents in a general campaign around both teaching and learning, alongside support for the industrial action, can only grow.

‘Robbins Remembered and Dismembered’

Filed under: Higher Ed — sitemananger @ 7:28 am

Patrick Ainley

‘Robbins Remembered and Dismembered, Contextualizing the anniversary’ in Higher Education Quarterly Vol 68, Issue 2, pp.225-240 published online 28 Mar 2014.

Download  onlineLibraryTPS

‘With students everywhere complaining they are paying too much for too little, why do they keep applying? Prof Patrick Ainley decided to find out…’ (p.9) Latitude Lookout February 2014 Latitude Lookout February 2014 The February 2014 issue of Latitude Lookout, the Students’ Union University of Greenwich’s official student magazine.

February 28, 2014

A Great Training Robbery? Initial Research on Apprentices

Filed under: Education and economy — sitemananger @ 9:17 pm



                         ESRC Seminar   28/02/14    Martin Allen & Patrick Ainley

The new emphasis placed on apprenticeships by the Coalition (achieving 1.5 million starts since coming to office) is a response to the increasing difficulties young people face in entering the labour market, but also the need to provide alternatives to a higher education system fuelled by mountains of unpaid student debt and a generation of graduates who are ‘overqualified and underemployed’. It is also a response to a long-standing perceived UK skills crisis at ‘intermediate’ and ‘technical’ level with the CBI arguing that the UK cannot rely on traditional degree courses to meet all the needs of key industries such as manufacturing, construction, IT and engineering.

This contribution argues that, rather than contributing to increased economic prosperity, most of this latest crop of apprenticeships have been low skilled and ‘dead end’, aimed at regrading existing workers as much as recruiting and upskilling young people. Forty years after Ivar Berg’s Education and Jobs, The Great Training Robbery noted, ‘America fools many of its young by linking job opportunities to diplomas and degrees from schools that provide sometimes pitifully inadequate – indeed appalling – experiences’ (1973, 29), the main benefactors of this latest Great Training Robbery have been private training agencies.

The second part of the study assesses the future of apprenticeships. It contrasts the system of apprenticeships in the UK with the German ‘dual system’ – frequently cited as a model the UK could emulate – examining differences in state formation and culture. But it also questions the arguments and assumptions about employment and skills on which the latest expansion of apprenticeships have been based. In conclusion, an alternative approach related to higher vocational pedagogy is suggested…….

Download apprentices

February 26, 2014

Are young people the new poor?

Filed under: Lost Generation? — sitemananger @ 7:12 am

mcjobs_jpeg_size_xxlarge_letterboxNewspapers have reported research findings from the Intergenerational Foundation on how young people’s prospects continue to worsen compared to other sections of the population.

For the Foundation, young people are now the ‘new poor’ – facing  higher levels of unemployment than adults, suffering significant declines in wages and having to spend growing proportions of their income on housing and other daily essentials.

According to the British Chamber of Commerce for example, young people under-25 are three times as likely as adults to be unemployed (, while ONS  statistics show how the decline in earnings for young people in the 18-21 age group, with only a minimal increase for 22-29 year olds since 1997, can be contrasted with a 25% growth in real incomes for those over 50. Young people also make up the bulk of ‘generation rent’ –with one third of young men and a quarter of women still living with parents in into their 30s. (

It’s wrong however, to see ‘intergenerational’ divisions as being more important than traditional class divisions, or to accuse the ‘baby-boomer’ generation for having too much. Instead, we can only explain the experiences of young people by looking at more general changes in society and in particular, more general changes in the labour market – the decline of ‘permanent’ employment and loss of what used to be a ‘youth labour market’. Rather than a ‘knowledge economy’, the growth of a service sector economy generates low-paid, low-skilled and often part-time employment, where the minimum wage is becoming the going rate and where trade union representation and ‘collective bargaining’ is restricted to the few. Despite the much touted expansion of ‘self-employment’, the reality is that most newly self-employed people earn far less than they did previously. New economic conditions now mean that many people find themselves becoming part of a new poor. Class divisions may be recomposing but they are still paramount.

It’s also misleading to see the problems faced by the current generation of young people as being primarily the result of the recent economic downturn. The recession has accentuated these changes resulting in a situation where it’s highly likely that each successive generation will be poorer than the previous one despite being better ‘qualified’ than the previous one. In these circumstances, education cannot deliver upward social mobility save for an exceptional few, while for the majority the only absolute social mobility is downward. Like Alice through the Looking Glass, most young people have to run faster and faster just to stand still – like running up a down-escalator.

Instead of a new youth or intergenerational politics as some now espouse (eg., existing political organisations and parties, particularly those that claim to be ‘left wing’ or ‘socialist’ need to seriously re-adjust to these  changing conditions. As argued (Allen and Ainley 2013; 111, in relying on the power of social networking, the current generation of young radicals may have little time for the traditional campaigning activities of their parents’ generation, but  the power of young people to act as an independent force is questionable and a new youth politics will still need to use old alliances.

February 20, 2014

Grammar Schools: learning from the past to avoid repeating mistakes

Filed under: Uncategorized — sitemananger @ 7:33 am

Patrick Ainley  800px-Guernsey_Grammar_School

Today politicians offer everyone a chance of rising up through education, ignoring the fact that there isn’t employment for all those who qualify. They think bringing back grammar schools will restart what sociologists call the upward social mobility that existed after the war when selected working-class children could move up into growing managerial and professional jobs………….

full article:

February 16, 2014

Stuart Hall – rethinking education, economy and society

Filed under: Uncategorized — sitemananger @ 7:06 pm

Stuart-HallStuart Hall, who died last week, was regarded as one of Britain’s leading intellectuals and exerted huge influence on recent academic, political and cultural debates.

 Though not writing much specifically about education, Hall’s work on the importance of ‘culture’ as a key political area of social action and intervention provided a new intellectual framework for those with a more specific interest in studying the processes of schooling. In a limited space it’s almost impossible to provide an adequate account of Hall’s contribution to rethinking the relationship between education, economy and society, but the main thrust is as follows.

Though influenced by the Structuralist Marxism of Louise Althusser and his arguments about education being part of the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’, Hall and his colleagues at Birmingham University’s  Centre For Cultural Studies rejected the idea that ‘reproduction’ of class relationships was  direct or automatic.  Drawing on Gramsci, they argued that post-war social democracy represented a class ‘settlement’ –a sort of compromise. The product of particular historical conditions, it encompassed both progressive and reactionary elements, reflecting the balance of forces within society. Policy outcomes were also mediated by the interests of groups responsible for implementing them.

No more so than the education reforms of the post-war period, which – though implemented partly in response to popular demands for greater social equality and opportunity – were also deeply ‘unpopular’. Not surprisingly, as they were the product of an alliance of national political elites, LEA administrators and newly ‘professionalised’ teachers.  As a result, working-class students and parents, while designated as the main benefactors of an expanding public education service, were also largely excluded from any direct influence over it.

The ‘settlement’ was only provisional and the compromise could not last because it lacked real legitimacy and was thus always open to challenge. With a more difficult economic climate emerging from the late 1970s and the lack of any popular radical alternative, the Right succeeded in imposing a new and uncompromising settlement.  From then on, allegations that education was not meeting the needs of the economy and was not properly ‘accountable’ featured under both Conservative and Labour governments – Michael Gove building on many of the ideas of the Blair period as well as those of the 1980s’ Tories.

The Cultural Studies courses that continue to blossom  in universities have now adopted ‘post-modern’ terms of reference, while Hall’s teachings  about the complexity of the relationship between  economy,  state and  ideology have long since departed from most education departments. Yet, with evidence showing social mobility has gone into reverse so that having a stack of educational credentials  doesn’t  get you the sort of  job it used to, education is again losing its ‘legitimacy’ as a way forward for new generations.

February 12, 2014

Up to 27 applicants for every apprenticeship vacancy

Filed under: YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT — sitemananger @ 1:47 pm


As The Telegraph ( has reported;   recent National Apprenticeship Service figures show a huge shortage in the number of apprenticeships –with 12 applicants for each vacancy but over twice that in some sectors.

Having largely disappeared by the end of the 1980s, apprenticeships have been reinvented in response to high levels of youth unemployment and as an alternative avenue for thousands of young people who don’t think there’s any option but to apply to university  -proponents of apprenticeships  also arguing  that there is a potential shortage of ‘intermediate’ or ‘technical’ skills.

Official data shows however that the majority of apprenticeship vacancies are still only at Intermediate level (GCSE   equivalent) – an educational standard that most young people have already reached. These generally last for no more than a year, do not guarantee any automatic progression to Advanced level,   or lead to a definite job.  Now, new Higher level apprenticeships   have been established  but with only a few hundred school leavers able to start these last year, it’s far too early to consider them as university alternatives.

The UK apprenticeship system is very different to that in Germany, for example, where apprenticeships are a right to all young people, are at least level 3 and in 90% of cases still lead to employment.   German apprenticeships are also based on a ‘dual system’ whereby  as well as  training ‘on the job’ apprentices must spend a specific amount of time completing workplace training, but also technical education courses  in the classroom. In comparison UK apprenticeship ‘training’ can be  limited to a few hours each week.

While government and reformers rightly call for both the expansion and the upgrading of apprenticeships, the key question is how many employers really need them, or whether they’ve been sold them by private training providers who are then eligible to reclaim the costs from government. There is clear evidence that some employers have regraded existing trainees as ‘apprentices’ to access funds,  just over half of all apprentices are under 25.

For example 80% of the jobs created ‘post-crash’  have   been low skilled and the use of zero-hours contracts continues to grow.  Over recent years, many ‘middle’ jobs   have also disappeared –the   result of increased use of information technology and wider restructuring.  With only a small minority of employers recruiting school leavers directly, it’s unlikely then, that apprenticeships will either upskill young people or reduce youth unemployment significantly. Other   job creation policies are needed.

February 10, 2014

Download chapters from Education Beyond the Coalition

Filed under: Uncategorized — sitemananger @ 11:00 am

cover These are now available as free downloads at       

  John Yandell , Clare Kelly, Valerie Coultas, Martin Allen,

  Robin Simmons,  Patrick Ainley, Richard Hatcher, Ken Jones

February 3, 2014

Michael Gove’s Stratford Speech.

Filed under: Coalition education policies — sitemananger @ 9:27 pm

imagesMartin Allen and Patrick Ainley

Attack is the best means of defence so Michael Gove earns top marks for coming out fighting in his speech at the London Academy of Excellence today. He has reinvented himself as the champion of social justice and opportunity to distract from his controversies with Ofsted!

Gove has gone further than Harold Wilson’s ‘grammar schools for all’ by promising ‘private education  for all’ – or at least state schools as good as private schools. His many detractors will point out this is impossible without equal pupil-teacher ratios, facilities and funding, let alone pupils’ very different types of cultural capital.

Even if Gove’s advocacy of social mobility sounds powerful, things have changed since the 1950s and ‘60s. Then a significant number of post-war working-class young people did indeed benefit from grammar schooling (which only mimicked the private schools). They did so through being able to move up alongside middle-class children as the economy expanded and white collar, managerial and professional   employment opportunities continued to grow.  How much educational benefit  they got from the sort of curriculum that Gove now wants to re impose is an entirely different question.

In today’s labour market however, the majority of young people are likely to end up worse off than their parents, regardless of the type of curriculum they follow.  In fact, evidence from the most recent UKCES skills survey ( suggests that employers who  do take on school, college and university leavers, are generally happy with their educational attainment.  It also confirms that   the main reason for persisting high levels of youth unemployment is that there is too much competition for too few jobs with employers giving preference to more experienced adults.

With few other opportunities, it isn’t surprising that university applications from 18 year olds are also at their highest ever. Especially from young women for whom there are even fewer labour market options.

So Gove’s policies, which seek to complete a Great Reversal of comprehensive education reforms, are much more about using secondary schooling to enforce social discipline on young people. But imposing practices and sanctions from the past – like writing lines and picking up litter   – or  having to attend   after school activities is more likely to have the opposite effect.

 It may be the case that after the economy went into recession in the 1970s with more or less permanent youth unemployment thereafter, comprehensive schools didn’t really improve the relative chances of working-class young people. But at least by encouraging greater social mixing, developing a new type of curriculum and changing the way it was delivered, comprehensives did try to make education more relevant to young people’s needs and schooling a more legitimate form of activity not to mention  a more enjoyable experience.

Gove’s Great Reversal is given a spring board as a result of Labour complying with a large part of his programme. So it’s left to teacher unions, whose members are already subject to further attacks on conditions of service and pay, to promote real alternatives.

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