I had a dream...

Nigel Newton shares a nightmare vision of the future for families locked into very full-time education

The other day I had a strange and troubling dream. There was no time in the morning to discuss it with my wife, so I decided to share it with colleagues while we made coffee in the morning break.

I had arrived home from a stressful day at college to find my wife sitting in the lounge with a man and woman, well dressed and laden with glossy brochures. They were talking about my wife returning to work, a necessity we had recently considered.

Having three little children to provide for, and only one teacher's pay, things are often a bit tight at the end of the month. "What about the children?" asked my wife. "They will be taken care of in our new pre-school nursery. Next year, if you join our staff, they will automatically qualify to enter Asco primary, which is next door."

"Could I work flexitime, so I could pick them up in the afternoon?"

"Oh no, Mrs Newton, you wouldn't have to worry about that. Your children will be taken, by highly trained staff, to our after-school activity and homework centre at 4 o'clock.

"Between 5:30pm and 6pm they'll be given a well-balanced dinner. Then, depending on their age, we put them to bed between 7:30 and 10 pm." At this I noticed her expression change to shock. But the man continued, softly and confidently.

"At Asco we want to provide the best opportunities for you and your family.

We know how hard everyone has to work these days, and how stressful it can be to rush home late, make the dinner, care for children and still have time to relax before it all starts again. Our educational development project enables you to have more quality time with your children on Saturday afternoons and Sundays.

"This way, while being supported with 100 per cent childcare during the week, you can enjoy life and develop your career with the peace of mind that your children won't have to put up with stressed out parents."

"You mean they stay with you all the time?"

"Mrs Newton, you have direct access to them at all times, and with our state of the art CCTV system you can even watch them from your computer at work. As one of the largest educational providers in the country, you can imagine what an advantage we can give your children. And not just in the primary years, but right through to HE level."

"But how much does all this cost?" she asked in astonishment.

"We don't charge you anything. We are a registered educational provider and the State pays for all the nursery and schooling costs, as an employee for any of our companies you receive all the other benefits free. We look at it as a long-term investment. The country needs a skilled workforce in the future and we can provide a wider and more dynamic experience for children than any conventional school.

"Our hope is that, through our efforts in your children's education, there will be people with the abilities and skills needed to maintain our economic success in the world. Asco thinks big. We have so many different kinds of jobs within our organisation that while your children go through their secondary education we can provide them workplace experience of almost every imaginable kind.

"Think about it: from developing their creative skills through work with our marketing departments, to applied maths with accountancy, or historical awareness heightened through analysing customer records to providing them with the opportunity to be an Asco sponsored sports star, we can give your little ones the practical skills they will need to be successful in the competitive 21st century."

Unable to remain silent, I interjected, "But education must be about more than employability? I thought it meant helping the whole person develop; encouraging people to relate to others; instilling democratic values."

They all looked at me in silence for what felt like hours, then the lady responded, "Mr Newton, there wouldn't be any democracy without economic stability and success. What every young person wants is the opportunity to fulfil their potential in the future, using their skills to be part of a dynamic and progressive society. Are you going to deny them that possibility of happiness? Remember, work makes us free."

I awoke. One colleague was convinced that I must have been reading Huxley's Brave New World, but another shrugged his shoulders and said, "No, he's just been reading another educational white paper."

Nigel Newton is a lecturer in English at New College, Swindon

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