Education, economy and society (blog comment from

February 3, 2016

Two new books on social class

Filed under: Books — sitemananger @ 9:11 am

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley for Marx & Philosophy Review of Books 

Erik Olin Wright (2015) Understanding Class. London: Verso. 260 pages. £14.99 pbk. ISBN: 978-1-78168-945-5

Mike Savage (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin Random House. 449 pages. £6.29 pbk. ISBN: 978-0-241-00422-7

michael-ainleyContradictory class locations?

Erik Olin Wright is a US sociologist who in his 1985 book Classes developed the moratorium idea that lengthening education (which happened first in the USA) effectively removes young people from the labour market and consequently any allocation by occupation that could situate them in a class. As explained and generalised to others in apparently increasingly fluid capitalist societies, they thereby occupied ‘contradictory locations within class relations’ and so were ‘simultaneously in more than one class… [with] contradictory interests pointing in opposite directions’ (as summarised in this new book on p.168), taking on characteristics attributed to Marx’s petit-bourgeoisie.

Wright also tried to integrate Marx with Weber who had argued that, as well as Marx’s class divisions based on ownership or non-ownership of capital, there were also groups with different ‘marketable skills’ in the labour market. Weber’s was therefore a more labile and adaptable description than the two Marxist classes of capitalists and proletarians. However, Wright proclaims in the preface to this book that ‘My own approach to class is firmly embedded in the Marxist tradition’ and he looks back over a long career to ‘clarify and appropriate what is valuable rather than simply discrediting the ideas of rival approaches… to try to systematically integrate those insights into a broader framework.’ Whether he is successful or not can be judged from his conclusions Read in full

January 25, 2016

Morgan instructs schools to promote apprenticeships.

Filed under: apprenticeships — sitemananger @ 9:52 am

thFollowing Ofsted Chief Michael Wilshaw’s criticism of ‘one size fits all’ academic learning,   Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has criticised state schools for ‘outdated snobbery’ and promised a new law that ensures they promote technical education and apprenticeships as real  alternatives to university. Morgan told the Independent:

‘For many young people going to university will be the right choice, and we are committed to continuing to expand access to higher education, but for other young people the technical education provided by apprenticeships will suit them better’.

But the government’s own figures have continued to show only a minority of the 2 million apprenticeships created since 2010 have been for school-leavers – in 2014/15 just 20% of starts were by those under 19. Well over half of new starts have also been ‘low-level’ (being offered at Intermediate level – equivalent to GCSE, a level that most school leavers have already reached) and ‘dead-end’ (not leading to permanent employment, or allowing progression to higher levels of training). Meanwhile, ‘cutting edge’ apprenticeships in engineering and technology for example, are massively oversubscribed.

 Even Ofsted has published a damning report about apprenticeship quality:

‘Inspectors, observed for example, apprentices in the food production, retail and care sectors who were simply completing their apprenticeship by having existing low-level skills, such as making coffee, serving sandwiches or cleaning floors, accredited.  While these activities are no doubt important to the everyday running of the businesses, as apprenticeships they do not add enough long-term value.’ (Ofsted, 2015: 4)

Morgan, like Wilshaw, is very good at spelling out  options for ‘other people’s children’ but with so few alternatives available for young people, then it isn’t surprising that, despite the fees, most of those who are able  will try  progress to university to improve their chances of any type of reliable employment.  Schools can hardly blamed for encouraging this.

Another  Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative Alternative for Young People?

Rewritten and updated  January 2016front_page_001

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January 19, 2016

Academic education for some. Vocational courses for the others. Wilshaw’s answer to ‘One size fits all’

Filed under: Curriculum policy — sitemananger @ 10:30 pm


In a widely reported speech to  the think-tank Centre Forum,  Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw has slammed the  ‘One-size-fits-all’ emphasis on traditional academic subjects by secondary schools, declaring that this ‘will never deliver the range of success that their youngsters need’   Wilshaw is not promoting a more student friendly type of learning though, far from it –he despises the ‘misguided ideologies’ of ‘miserable decades of the 1970s, 80s and 90s’ which, he maintains allowed children to ‘pick out their worksheet and learn at their own speed’.  Instead, he argues that  the current secondary curriculum offer prevents ‘less academic’ students from getting the high quality vocational education to get them ready for the workplace, citing other countries with well-developed vocational pathways.  

Barely a year ago, Wilshaw  told a CBI conference that pupils should transfer to different schools at 14  Dissident Tory Kenneth Baker continues to argue this, gaining cross party support for his University Technical Colleges (UTCs). Now, Wilshaw, careful to avoid controversy about restoring grammar schools, says that vocational specialisation should take place within a ‘truly comprehensive’ system with schools working together in clusters and federations, rather than through the LEA, which would include a UTC, allowing students to ‘transfer across institutions’(!)

Many supporters of comprehensive education would consider the creation of vocational streams and certainly separate schools as a return to the ideas of the 1944 Act, yet Wishaw does appear to be right in his assertion that Germany and Switzerland, countries with established vocational pathways have much lower rates of youth unemployment. Yet this is mainly because these countries, particularly Germany, have a much more regulated youth labour market where vocational education is linked to an apprenticeship system which requires part-time attendance at specialist colleges, but more importantly, largely guarantees future employment for those who complete their training. 

In Germany, this is part of a wider ‘social partnership’, which despite its limitations and the Neo-liberal outlook of most of its leaders’ stands in sharp contrast to the UK (and US) ‘market sate’ approach.  Wilshaw, like others, point to the low quality of many vocational courses, but the real problem is that UK employers have never had the same commitment to vocational education, preferring to recruit candidates with higher status academic qualifications instead. This is the reason why young people, despite fees, sign up for university in droves. Compared to those in Germany and Switzerland, UK apprenticeships are short-term, low-level and dead-end with employers as likely to convert existing staff to apprenticeship status to access government funding as they are to offer young people real employment opportunities

Rather than spend money on lengthy apprenticeship training, UK employers also know they can recruit from a bulging graduate labour force, many of whom are being pushed down into the ‘middling’ jobs that vocational, technical and apprenticeship training has traditionally been associated with. But it’s also the case that many of these middling jobs have continued to disappear anyway as a result of developments in technology. This process being much further advanced in the UK (and the US), compared with Germany for example, which has been able to maintain a stronger manufacturing base and slow down the process of de-industrialisation.

In these circumstances and without other major economic and political changes,  it’s unlikely that hiving off students into vocational courses will improve their employment chances or that young people will be persuaded to sign up for this sort of pathway. Baker’s UTCs continue to open but several are finding it difficult to recruit a full cohort. What’s needed is a good general education for everybody, but this also requires major reform of academic learning –something that most curriculum reformers have not been prepared to address.   Wilshaw like Baker and for that matter, the CBI leaders who complain about schools becoming ‘exam factories’, is not critical of the E-Bacc itself, he wants to preserve ‘high-level academic study’ as a form of learning for the few. For these guys, vocational alternatives are always for other people’s children –never their own.

December 8, 2015

Apprenticeships. Channel 4 puts the boot in

Filed under: apprenticeships — sitemananger @ 8:38 pm

downloadSome three years after  the BBC’s  Panorama  dramatically exposed the misuse of apprenticeship funding by the supermarket chain Morrison; this week’s Channel 4 Dispatches provided further disturbing evidence of how young people continue to be short changed, but also public money misspent, despite government reassurances that the reintroduction of apprenticeships has been a resounding success. Dispatches main target was the clothing chain Next, where young people taken on as ‘apprentices’ complained of low-pay, little if no proper training and worst of all, not even being given permanent employment at the end. Meanwhile, the company had continued to receive government funding – £1.8 million last year – to run a training program now rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.

A Great Training Robbery
Using research by the Social Market Foundation, including that by Alison Wolf, commissioned to provide a review of vocational education by the Coalition in 2010, Dispatches argued that training organisations, in order to maximise their income have concentrated on providing low-skilled, but also ‘easy to complete’ and ‘easy to deliver’ apprenticeships in sectors like retailing; encouraging employers to use apprentices as a form of cheap labour without having any obligation to offer them future employment. These sorts of practices, do not, the SMF argues, significantly increase future earnings of the individual and they certainly don’t help the ‘skills shortage’ in areas like engineering or in construction (where apprentice numbers have fallen by a third since 2010) and where growth is essential if future economic prosperity is to be ensured.

As Dispatches acknowledged, the government plans to introduce a levy of large firms raising £2 billion annually, thus providing the funds for better, more advanced training to provide ‘the right people with the right skills’. It also intends to give individual employers more say over the content of apprenticeship training and how funding is used. But as these changes are not due to begin till 2017 at the earliest, the program concluded that in the meantime, young people could be just as likely to vote with their feet.

Dispatches and the SMF can be commended for continuing to expose the shortcomings of apprenticeships, particularly in the light of David Cameron’s pre-election promise of another 3 million by 2020. The failure of apprenticeships to provide real alternatives for young people has been largely ignored by most researchers, campaigners and activists who prefer to focus attention and energy on the inequities of the education system or the increasingly desperate plight of teachers. But it’s also the case that compared with the angry young school leavers parked on Youth Training Schemes in the 1980s, ‘apprentices’ are a diverse group, including people of different ages –many existing employers over 25 continue to be reclassified as apprentices so that training funds can be accessed –with very different experiences in different sectors. As well as thousands being like those at Next, there are also some very good schemes offering excellent training and real opportunities.

A jobs not a skills problem
Yet as well as giving apprenticeships a much greater profile, there’s also a serious need to develop a much wider understanding about their current limitations. Improving the quality and attractiveness of apprenticeships for example will be difficult without making other changes to the economy and the job structure which supports them. If thousands of apprentices are employed as counter assistants in Next, in coffee-shops, or in low-paid ‘customer service’ work, it’s in these sectors where many new jobs are being created. Likewise the reason why there are so few apprenticeships in engineering and in manufacturing is because only around 8% of the workforce are employed here. It’s not just that these sectors have collapsed as a result of overseas competition or extensive ‘outsourcing’, increased automation and the use of robotics also mean that the ‘traditional skills’ referred to by Dispatches  will no longer be sought –regardless of whether there is funding available. In otherwords it’s essential that alternative proposals for apprenticeship training (and education for that matter) are part of a wider alternative for the economy in which new types of employment opportunities are both properly planned, properly funded and allow both career and personal development. With a third of the population over 65 by 2050 for example, replacing the current decrepit care service with modern professionally staffed alternative, could be one place to start.

November 30, 2015

Osborne’s Spending Review. An apprenticeship levy and a ‘truce’ with austerity?

Filed under: apprenticeships — sitemananger @ 9:11 am

George Osborne’s decision to impose an apprenticeship levy v2-osborneon large firms represents a significant change in policy. In Germany and other European countries, employers are required to make a significant cost towards the cost of apprenticeship and skills training. Under Osborne’s scheme, employers with an annual wage bill of more than £3 million will have to make a payroll deduction of 0.5%. The scheme is expected to raise close to £3 billion –double the current size of the apprenticeship training budget.

Even though a step in the right direction, imposing a levy in itself is not enough to upgrade Britain’s ailing apprenticeships. Unlike in Germany, where agreements exist between employers, trade unions and state institutions, ensuring apprenticeships provide real transitions to work, UK firms will still not be compelled to offer them  and certainly not high-skilled ones.Though well over 2 million apprenticeships have been offered since 2010 –David Cameron promises 3 million more –the majority  have been ‘low-skilled’ and ‘dead-end’ –mostly at Intermediate (GCSE) Level, without guaranteeing progression to employment or further training. Significant evidence also shows that firms have reclassified existing workers to be able to access training funds . This has  allowed government to meet targets. Last year, for example, only 120 000 under 19 year olds began apprenticeships.  This can be compared to up to 60% of young Germans –mostly at Advanced Level.

FE gets off lightly?
There’s much relief that a further round of cuts will not decimate the FE sector as Osborne told MPs that core funding for FE (and Sixth Form colleges) will be protected. But the protection is in cash-terms and as  there may be  falling numbers of students because of demographic changes, colleges fill face reductions. The extension of the FE loans system to 19 to 23-year-olds raises as many questions as it provides answers as does the ‘opportunity’ for Sixth-Form Colleges to become Academies so as to be able to avoid VAT payments.

A ‘truce’ with austerity?
Because of growing opposition endangering his own ambitions to become the next prime Minister, Osborne made a significant U-turn on tax-credits.  Does this represent a fundamental change in course, or at least a ‘truce’ with austerity? Not at all. The Chancellor has been given extremely optimistic forecasts by the ‘neutral’ Office for Budget Responsibility (OBS) about future economic performance, that growth will be 2.4% for this year and next and that investment levels will continue to steadily increase.

As a result Osborne’s been allowed what the Financial Times (26/11/15) described as a ‘£27bn emergency exit route’ that allows him to retain his target for a budget surplus by the end of the Parliament –but more importantly, to continue to shrink the size and the role of the state to levels not seen since the 1930s. But previous OBS predictions have not always been correct, with the highly respected Institute of Fiscal Studies, continuing  to provide the clearest opposition to the government on economic policy, telling The Guardian (28/11/15) that it was only ’50-50’ that Osborne would not have too revisit his plans.



November 18, 2015

Is there a skills crisis?  Do schools and colleges contribute to it?

Filed under: Education and economy — sitemananger @ 9:41 am


Despite performance levels in education being higher than ever, some continue to bang on about skills shortages and about young people not being ‘ready for work’. According to the British Chamber of Commerce for example, two-thirds of businesses believe that secondary schools are not effective in preparing young people for employment and could do more to get them onto the career level. According to the BCC  director John Longworth ‘ high youth unemployment and business skills gaps are a cause for national embarrassment…..preparing students to face potential employers should be given the same level of priority as academic achievement in schools’. But is there a skills shortage and can schools and colleges be seen as contributing to this?

In the UK, unemployment continues to fall –almost reaching the level it stood at before the 2008 economic downturn.  But it’s also the case that pay rises remain subdued – with increases of just below 2.5% during the last year. If there were significant skills shortage in the economy, this would not be the case. Skill shortages would mean employers bidding up.  According to the highly regarded Certified Institute of Personnel and Development ( CIPD)  while half of employers may have hiring issues, only about a tenth of current vacancies are ‘hard to fill’ with the most common way of filling these being upskilling and upgrading existing employees.

This does not mean there are not particular difficulties in particular sectors like the construction industry and in parts of manufacturing and in parts of the public sector where training budgets have been cut back.   But according to CIPD only about a third of hard to fill vacancies – in otherwords just  5%  – are due to skill shortages. As the post below emphasises, employers continue to rely on new supplies of labour to fill low-skilled, low-paid vacancies.

The CIPD data reflects a more general trend –that employees are just as likely to be over-qualified for the work that is available. The most recent UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) skills survey reported large numbers of workers  not being able to, or not needing to use their skills. This is partly because of the large number of graduates  being pushed down into non-graduate work, but it’s also because as the CIPD previously reported, one in five of UK work roles only required a primary education and employment data shows that it is slow skilled work that is expanding the fastest.

So it’s difficult to argue that schools and colleges are holding back economic growth and that young people are not suitably prepared for work, though this doesn’t mean that the status of vocational learning should not be improved  its content broadened  and that the cutbacks in work experience placements should not be reversed.  These should all be part of a ‘general  education’ that could replace the narrow academic learning  which the CBI recently argued was not relevant to the needs of the 21st century.


Capital’s  new ‘reserve army’?

Filed under: Economy — sitemananger @ 9:39 am

Though UK unemployment continues to fall, more significant has been the much greater increase in the size of the workforce. For example, the most recent monthly Office for National Statistics data shows a fall in unemployment of  just over 200 000 over the year, but  a  400 000 plus rise in those working.

ONS data shows  a   325,000 increase in employment of non-UK nationals during the last year compared with 120 000 UK nationals, with the  latest CIPD labour market survey reporting   a fifth of its sample intending  to recruit migrant labour in the last quarter of 2015 – and reporting  difficulties in recruiting UK born workers for ‘unskilled and semi-skilled’ roles such  as factory workers (33%), kitchen assistants  and  retail assistants. Almost one in five care workers are migrants (Independent 17/11/15)download

Karl Marx used the term ‘reserve army’ to describe the pool of semi-employed or unemployed workers who were the consequence of ‘overproduction’ and also the rising organic composition of capital (the replacement of labour by machines) so while the concept might be a useful one, the nature of this modern reserve is rather different. Rather than being part of Marx’s impoverished ‘lumpen’ workforce, research shows that  migrant workers are likely to be overqualified  (compared with UK nationals,  a greater proportion have degrees) for the jobs they are recruited to  and in many cases, will have given up more highly skilled –though not better paid – employment in their home country.

It’s now also being  argued  that as the labour market tightens,   employers are increasingly recruiting more young people, the group that have suffered most in the period since the downturn. As a result, there’s optimism about a future increase in the number of apprentices.  The number of 18–24 years that work  is up nearly 80,000 over the year,   but half of these are full-time students (the largest increase in employment for young people has been among 16-17 year old students). Classifying young people as a reserve army is therefore problematic. But on the other hand if education’s  main role is now primarily to delay young people entering the labour and reduce official unemployment figures, the reserve army   analogy fits very well!

October 26, 2015

Low-level apprenticeships reflect Britain’s ‘coffee shop’ economy

Filed under: apprenticeships — sitemananger @ 7:30 pm

Blog Post for Reclaiming Schools *network                                                                          

Ofsted’s hard hitting report on the quality of apprenticeship provision, confirms what is increasingly becoming apparent. Large numbers of apprenticeships are poor quality, involve little real training and merely certify ‘existing low-level skills, such as making coffee, serving sandwiches or cleaning floors’ (Ofsted p 4**). Ofsted reports  low rates of progression from these low-level schemes many of which, it argues, add little value to either the individual or the employer.

In particular Ofsted identifies a shortage of apprenticeships for school and college leavers. This is confirmed in the latest government data which shows only 1 in 4 new starts by those under 19. It calls for schools to do more to promote apprenticeships, says that careers advice is ‘not sufficiently detailed’ (Ofsted p 5) and that too few  pupils  experience high-quality work experience during their time at school.

There are some good apprenticeships however. Ofsted identifies engineering, motor vehicles and the construction sector in particular, but though these can lead  to higher salaries and promotion it argues there are nowhere near enough. Ofsted sees recent changes being made to apprenticeships, moving in the right direction. New Trailblazer apprenticeships, directly designed by employers, include more off-the-job, training for example, but it argues, apprenticeships as they are presently administered are not delivering the skills needed to promote economic growth and are wasting public funds.

Ofsted, particularly its chief Michael Wilshaw, is not usually right on very much, so in one sense this report should be welcomed. Ofsted though, has a rather shallow explanation for the failure of apprenticeships. There are major problems with design and implementation, but a key reason why there are so many  apprenticeships in retail, social care, leisure  and in customer services, is because the economic ‘recovery’  has been based on the growth of low paid, low skilled work in these areas. (The UK is becoming the coffee shop capital of Europe!) Engineering and manufacturing now employ less than 1 in 10 of the workforce and only about a quarter of new jobs created could be described as ‘professional or managerial’. 

We should continue to support all initiatives seeking to improve apprenticeship, but if employment opportunities for young people are to be seriously improved,  an alternative policy for the economy is also  required. In other words the apprenticeship problem  is a jobs problem, as much as it is one of  training and skills. Critics of apprenticeships often look to the German system for inspiration. German apprenticeships provide a ‘licence to practice’ an occupation, are to a much higher standard and require attendance at college,  but there, employers, trade unions and government are involved in much greater cooperation over apprenticeship provision, economic planning and labour market needs.

Meanwhile, schools will not be persuaded to promote apprenticeships  as alternatives to higher education, while they are clearly not.



October 18, 2015

Now Apprenticeships failed by Ofsted

Filed under: apprenticeships — sitemananger @ 5:07 pm

Skills Minister Nick Boles  might be  correct to claim that more people than ever are now currently on cup-of-coffeeapprenticeships, but  the  government’s  own  data published last week   shows it  will struggle to create the 3 million (high quality) new apprenticeships promised by  the end of the Parliament.

It’s true that the last academic year saw almost 500 000 starts, but 60% of these have been at Intermediate (GCSE) Level – a qualification most school leavers already have.  In comparison barely a thousand 19 year olds started the Higher Level schemes that are being promoted as alternatives to university.   Around 4 out of 10 new apprenticeships are still started by adults, many of whom are existing workers – while less than 1 in 5   new starts are by somebody 19 years old or under.

Ofsted will report on apprenticeships this week.   Ofsted boss   Sir Michael Wilshaw telling the BBC   that the expansion of apprenticeships had ‘devalued the brand’ with ‘making-coffee’ and ‘cleaning floors’ being accredited.  (He might have remembered that in April David Cameron launched a Costa-Coffee scheme  as part of his election campaign)  According to the BBC, Wilshaw (not usually right on much) claims some young people taken on in jobs classified as apprenticeships are not even aware they are on them. Quiet Likely!

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October 15, 2015

Labour and the Fiscal Charter    ( ‘Living within our means’ Part 2)

Filed under: Economy — sitemananger @ 10:18 am

jeremy-corbyn-john-mcdonnellPredictably, in the run up to the Parliamentary vote on the Fiscal Charter,   media attention focused on the fall-out from John McDonnell’s sudden   ‘U-turn’ and the way Labour MPs opposed to the Corbyn leadership sought to exploit the situation.

Much of the confusion has arisen from the Shadow Chancellor’s attempt to ‘out Osborne, Osborne’ (his own words) arguing  that a balanced budget  applied only to current expenditure and that Labour’s emphasis on capital spending would, in sharp contrast to Osborne’s policies,  enable the economy to grow generate the extra taxation necessary to reduce debt.  But it’s now clear that Osborne’s Charter is intended to apply to all expenditure, forcing   McDonnell to backtrack, citing deteriorating economic prospects as the reason for his change of policy. (Not to mention a little pressure from Scottish activists perhaps?)

McDonnell’s performance   in the Commons   might not have been exactly convincing, but Labour now has the beginnings of  a clearer line on economic management, around which it can begin to reshape other policies –those on employment and education and training for example. The charter only applies to ‘normal’ conditions anyway   and with another economic downturn on the cards, it’s likely that Osborne will also have to ditch his commitment to ‘living within our means’ as the Neo-liberal argument that the economy should be run like a prudent household, becomes increasingly unsustainable.  

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