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Further Education And Adult Learning Can Provide An Engine For Social Mobility Where Grammar Schools Can't

23/09/2016 12:12

I may be slightly late in throwing my two-cents on the regeneration of Grammar Schools debate, but I want to look at the notion from a different perspective.

For too long the British education system has been viewed as a one route pathway to success; an uncompromising rite of passage, dominated by the middle classes. Privately educated MPs have created a flawed education system measured by an obsession with selection and meritocracy.

Comprehensive education has always provided for a mixed ability cohort, which I believe offers young people transferable social and intellectual principal, from the most advantaged to the least. By reintroducing Grammar Schools that mainly facilitate for the privileged, we widen the social gap and limit the potential to socially manoeuvre the poorest in society.

Despite what the Prime Minster, Teresa May, has proposed, there is little tangible evidence to suggest that sitting eleven year-olds through a written paper that determines whether they wear a blazer or a jumper has ever improved social mobility. In my mind, it sends out the wrong message. Education should be about guidance, not selection.

I've often viewed education as a 'Plan A' with a 'Plan B' contingent. I believe that comprehensive education offers a suitable enough foundation as 'Plan A'. We go to school to learn a range of subjects and then we decide which of those subjects we want to study further. Or, perhaps we didn't get the required grades to further our learning in the school system? What if we'd rather study for a technical qualification and adopt a profession? What if we dropped out of school because we didn't have our life planned out at the tender age of sixteen? Enter Plan B - FE and adult learning; the option to take an alternative academic route towards university, or develop skills for trade based job opportunities at a college.

As well as plans to rejuvenate old and out of date ideas, it's been widely documented that we could lose this Plan B. The government's swathe of cuts to FE (Further Education) and adult learning, could threaten everyday people's prospects of salvaging themselves an education, developing trade skills, or resettlement opportunities that have historically benefited so many British people. Analysis by membership body the Association of Colleges has shown that spending on core adult skills for those aged 19 and over fell by 35% between 2009/10 and 2015/16.

My father is a classic example of a socially mobile British man. Born and raised on a council estate in Staffordshire, his aspirations went as far carrying on the family tradition of working in the (then lucrative) coal mines. When Thatcher closed down the mines and left him with no work alternative, he was encouraged by my (educated) mother to study, in an attempt to build a career for himself. He eventually undertook an Open University degree in English and History with an MA in Social Work. He then went on to become a successful Social Worker. If it wasn't for the flexibility of adult learning his life could have turned out quite differently.

I also didn't take the conventional route to University. I left school without the GCSEs required to stay on at sixth form. Instead, I opted to attend an FE College and grind out three years on a BTEC placement. This gave me the option to go to University where I graduated with a 2:1 in Theatre in Visual Arts. Without FE I wouldn't have had the chance to better my prospects. I was one of few from my university who went to college. A close friend of mine actually confessed that he considered college as an option for 'mostly thick kids'. Outdated institutions could dangerously hinder social mobility in working class Britons.

Our deluded education system is what is putting too much pressure on young people on GCSE results day, every August. If we can grow our FE provisions, we can alleviate that pressure to perform and provide multiple opportunities for all.

As a new father myself I will always want the best for my son and encourage him to work hard, but when he's sixteen if he doesn't get the grades he expected I don't want him to think his world is over. We can't write our children's academic journeys off because they failed to perform at sixteen.

Reintroducing Grammar Schools surely won't be cheap. I believe that budget could be better used to help support our FE colleges. Theresa May may have won over Tories hearts, but like the majority of her predecessors, she has proved to have too narrow a mind to win over everyday people.

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