It's the economy, stupid

16th September 2011 at 01:00

The White Queen in Alice in Wonderland proudly proclaims that she can believe six impossible things before breakfast. The coalition Government appears to have the same facility. Believing something does not, however, make it true.

There are many strongly held beliefs about education that, when examined, turn out to be misplaced. The relation between education and skills and employment and economic growth is one. If we are to believe politicians of all persuasions, education is the bedrock upon which economic growth is built. So, the narrative goes, we need young people leaving schools with the skills and knowledge to be utilised by UK Limited. Economic success depends upon the success of our education system.

Sounds sensible, doesn't it? And as a justification for educational investment it is second to none. There's just one problem - it's not true. Teachers and lecturers don't create jobs, employers do. Are young people in Cornwall or Cumbria or Merseyside without jobs or hope because their schools and colleges are useless, or because there is so little employment?

Alex Singleton, a Liverpool University academic, has plotted the addresses of those accused of taking part in the recent riots on to a map of socially deprived areas in England. The result? Forty-one per cent of suspects lived in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived places in the country. Singleton noted: "Rioting is deplorable. However, if events such as this are to be mitigated in the future, the prevailing conditions and constraints affecting people living in areas must form part of the discussion. A 'broken society' happens somewhere, and geography matters."

Indeed it does. Witness the huge gap in the academic achievements of school leavers in the affluent South East, which last year accounted for 19 per cent of A-level entries and achieved 23 per cent of A*s, against the North East, which produced only 3 per cent of A*s from 4 per cent of entries. As economic growth flatlines, the 2.5 million unemployed and 2.8 million underemployed cannot be ignored in any debate on educational standards.

When industrialists pioneered cotton factories at the end of the 18th century in my home town, Bolton, was it because schools presented them with work-ready labour? No, they created jobs through new technologies and took migrants from across the North West and Ireland and taught them factory work. Today, McDonald's reacts to demand with ever-expanding outlets, and through its own university does the same thing.

Economic migration has developed from 18th-century Bolton to the whole world today. In this country real wages have suffered long-term decline. Research by economists Brown, Lauder and Ashton (The Global Auction) reveals a global market for graduate labour, with the huge number of graduates being produced by countries such as China and India leading to excess supply and reduction in labour costs across the world. Past trends in the British graduate earnings premium may be just that - past.

It is not education which is failing, but the economic context in which some young people's only realistic expectation is have no outlet for the skills and abilities that schools try so hard to develop in them. Any debate on educational standards that does not start with the economy is false and fails to engage with reality.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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