A pound;6m campaign doomed to fail

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Last month Tony Blair, speaking in his highly engaging but deeply superficial way, launched the pound;6 million ASPIRE campaign at a hotel in his Sedgefield constituency.

The campaign seeks to raise the aspirations and educational performance of young people in the North-east and act as a model for the rest of the country. Unfortunately, the campaign is based on a dangerous half-truth and is therefore very likely to fail.

The Prime Minister claims that education and training are the determining factor in whether nations succeed or not. If only it were that simple. In fact, investment in education is a necessary but not sufficient condition for prosperity. As well as excellent education, we need more investment by business and government in physical capital and research and development to improve the quality of the jobs and of the goods and services we produce.

Tony Blair's statement is also dangerous because it diverts attention solely onto education and away from the harder task of increasing productivity. Education and training alone cannot deliver economic success for all.

What was missing from his speech was highly significant. In front of an audience mainly composed of employers, Tony Blair singularly failed to challenge them to invest in all their workers, to provide more apprenticeships and to support the Tomlinson proposals in full.

Instead his fire was aimed exclusively at the young and their alleged lack of aspiration. Would it not be more accurate to blame employers' lack of aspirations? And would it not be better to move beyond blame to establish a social partnership of employers, unions, government and educationists to raise our game collaboratively?

The Prime Minister devoted the time at the end of his speech to a photo opportunity, not to taking questions. It was as though he wanted to squeeze as little learning as possible from a golden opportunity for dialogue.

What model of learning was the PM demonstrating to the young people present? "I impose my ideas from the centre. I Smile. I don't need feedback, as I've no doubts I'm right. I Smile. Getting my picture in the paper is all important. I Smile. I pressure the powerless. I Smile. I placate the powerful. I Cringe pre-emptively". After seven years in power, is this the best New Labour has to offer? Smiling and cringing are not acceptable substitutes for thought or policy.

The thinking behind the ASPIRE campaign is also flawed, because it wants to change young people's attitudes by means of media razzmatazz, a logo and a website. Also, you don't persuade people to change by telling them at the kick-off that their culture is at fault.

And is it seriously being suggested that all young people have low aspirations? Let me offer an alternative explanation of why so many young people plan to leave the North-east. They do so because so many 16 to 19-year-olds cannot find apprenticeships and graduates cannot find graduate jobs.

To set out to change the culture of young people is to blame the victim.

It's like blaming the spectators for Newcastle's recent defeats. Low motivation is middle-class code for working-class behaviour which is not understood.

The campaign is "business-led", but financed by taxpayers' money. Before any more of it is wasted, I urge the campaign team to pause, reconsider and change its objectives. If the diagnosis is wrong, the treatment will be inappropriate and the problem worse because the real causes are not being dealt with.

One of the key issues that needs to be tackled is the structure of the local labour market; in particular, the low quality of so many jobs. The media campaign is a colourful but costly diversion.

Could Tony Blair try a little lifelong learning, respond positively to constructive criticism, and change the same dogmatic speech on education and skills that he has been parroting since 1997?

And let's have some stretching targets for a government which is addicted to setting them for others. On behalf of all our young people, Mr Blair, stand up to those employers who won't train their workers. Set them targets for apprenticeships, work placements and paid educational leave. Come on, Tony, you can do it! But will you?

Frank Coffield is professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is writing in a personal capacity

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