Prof @ruthlupton’s Professorial Lecture – Poverty, Inequality and Education: A Manchester Perspective

Prof Ruth Lupton (University of Manchester) gave her inaugural professorial lecture ‘Poverty, Inequality and Education: A Manchester Perspective’ at the launch of the Manchester Institute of Education, on Monday 20th January. The departure point for the lecture was Stephen Ball’s (2013) observation that educational policy has become divorced from society’s growing structural inequality. With the de-unionisation, liberalisation and hollowing out of the labour market increasing numbers of adults, parents and future employees (children and young people) have to cope with there being fewer rungs on the ladder and bigger gaps between them, while enduring the uncertainty and precarity (Standing 2011) of low-pay, no-pay, low-pay cycles of underemployment, zero-hour contracts and agency work.

Despite these changes to society educational policy has remained the same with three tired approaches for conceptualising education: education for economic growth, social mobility, and economic equality. With different emphasises these undergird the unassailable link between education and future economic contribution and affluence. Thus although the link between education and the economy tends to instrumentalise education and reduce it to credentialism, any advocate of change must provide a substantive response to claims that they are defeatist or ‘the enemy of promise’ and indeed be aware that education is serious stuff especially for marginalised children with the most to gain from a great education.

Ruth noted that the relentless focus on standards has improved standards, including for those on Free School Meals, yet children from more privileged backgrounds have maintained their advantages on key criteria such as in the English Baccalaureate and facilitating subjects.  Private tutors and UCAS coaching are part of a ratcheting up of the effort and resources required to compete/ participate in the education system.  As some children become the equivalent of thoroughbred race horses those without the financial, social and cultural capital realise that they aren’t in a position to compete and disengage. National policy makers love aspiration, the higher the aspirations the higher the individual rises, however,

The problem is that low or limited aspirations may, at least in part, reflect knowledge of the state of the job market and the nature of the competition for those jobs/good jobs that are available. In other words, aspirations are sometimes structured, at least in part, by material conditions rather than simply reflecting individual attitudes/states of mind, or a sense of individual or collective defeatism. Those who believe, perhaps because of knowledge of the labour market or the experience of family members, that they are likely to be destined for bad jobs or unemployment are liable to perceive limited incentives to invest in learning and achievement. (Keep 2012: 16/17)

If society is not to be made fairer educational policy is, channelling Lawrence of Arabia, saying, “The trick, little Jimmy, is not minding that it’s unequal.”  Indeed, following on from this, arguments are being presented that the trick for policy is not minding those overly affected by inequality. Crawford et al (2011) in a literature review for BIS argue that where money is limited it might be best to leave the hardest to reach, the hindmost as they are sometimes called, to the devil,

Policies aimed at improving social mobility are often targeted on the most disadvantaged individuals and specifically the least skilled. Perhaps counter- intuitively, this may not be the most efficient way of improving mobility. Evidence on skill complementarity suggests that investing in individuals with only very low levels of skill will be costly, and that achieving gains in their cognitive skills in particular will be difficult. For the individual however some of these investments may still mean an increase in wage.6 Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that the UK labour market is “hollowing out”, i.e. that there are fewer jobs in the middle, though the picture does look somewhat different if one considers jobs by skill level rather than income level and this evidence is still contentious. This feature of the labour market does, however, have potentially important implications for how we might intervene to improve social mobility. It suggests that it will be harder and more costly to help those at the bottom to move up a bit than it will be to help those somewhat above the bottom to move higher. It is therefore worth considering interventions that are not exclusively targeted at the bottom of the skill/deprivation distribution.

As John Marsh (2011) has argued that we can’t educate our way out of inequality and what is needed is a profound rethinking of education, where education is about learning not earning and creating the scope for a much broader and enriching curriculum.  Yet disconnecting education from the economy and future working would require an almost unimaginable sea-change in attitudes and would result in an unwarranted separation.

The question is what to do about this? Ruth offered a few insights in what this might look like in Manchester.  Learning from but not copying Finland was one idea. Another was for Manchester to argue under the localism act that they need local control over the education system to reduce the fragmentation caused by national policy and create integrated structures and approaches to the region’s common problems and future vision.

All that is to be figured out, what is clearer is what academics might do. Ruth cited Lorna Unwin’s professorial lecture that researchers have been rendered passive by focusing too much on policy critique. What we need to do if focus now on the research and development of developing the alternative, which means working with practitioners and the general getting dirty of hands.

James Duggan

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