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Magic bullet theory misfires

Education is not necessarily the lifeline to rescue people from the margins of society, delegates at the British Educational Research Association conference in Cardiff were told this week. Sue Jones reports

WELL-INTENTIONED government policies could be putting some young people at even greater risk of social exclusion, warned Professor Phil Hodkinson of the Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Leeds.

Emphasis on speedy, individual achievement could divide the excluded into two categories - "the deserving and the undeserving poor".

Deep-rooted social problems would thus be blamed on individuals and communities.

Inflexible responses and an insistence on tackling structural problems through individual approaches "amount to a misunderstanding of the nature of social exclusion and career," said Professor Hodkinson.

He outlined five aspects of the Government's policy which he thinks will undermine its efforts to help the excluded.

First, the Government defines social exclusion too closely in terms of unemployment, he said.

This fails to value unpaid contributions to society and does not tackle issues of low pay and bad working conditions.

Professor Hodkinson also argued that the Government will always find it easier to tackle poverty as a failure of individuals than a failure of a whole system.

A significant group of young people feel increasingly excluded from school by the very policies intended to improve their life chances.

Schools are under increasing pressure to show a measurable rise in standards, but as success becomes more narrowly defined, those who are struggling then become increasingly alienated, Professor Hodkinson said.

The Government's Connexions programme, which will provide teenagers with personal guidance and support, also comes in for criticism.

Many pupils will undoubtedly benefit, but those who do not get jobs with training by age 19 will be seen as even greater failures than currently. They will be the young people who "failed" despite the help they were given.

Some of them are difficult to assist and yet there may be little trainng to help their personal advisers devise the best ways of moving forward, he added.

Professor Hodkinson also questioned whether educational qualifications are the magic bullet which will be able to deal with social exclusion.

He spoke of "the dubious assumption that if those at risk of social exclusion can be given the educational trappings of their more successful peers, they will then acquire the sorts of careers that those peers currently enjoy".

Although there is a statistical correlation between low educational attainment, he pointed out, and later problems with health, criminal activity and unemployment, this does not mean that one causes the others. A whole range of inter-relating factors are involved.

He said that "an audit approach to education and training" has developed "which rewards colleges and training providers for higher retention rates, and penalises them if some of their students fail to complete the course, andor to achieve the aimed for qualification".

But as more people achieve level 3 qualifications- equivalent to A-level - other factors will come into play when job appointments are made.

"No matter how the educational and employment field is altered or developed, those with the most (cultural) capital will find ways of gaining advantage for themselves and their children."

Educational qualifications alone will not level the playing field.

Professor Hodkinson criticises the Government for dealing mechanically with people on the margins of society as categories instead of building on their individual strengths. This will have a degree of success for many in times of low unemployment, though it could be undermined by a recession.

However, "Those trying to work with the socially excluded ... are having to devote most of their attention not upon the actual needs and priorities of their clients, but upon increasingly punitive government targets," leaving "a significant rump of disadvantaged young people and adults beyond the pale," with an increased "sense of alienation, lack of self-confidence and distrust of official schemes and official helpers".

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