Losers in the fame game

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Why would young people stay on in education when Big Brother teaches them that being famous is easy? asks Graham Fowler

The Learning and Skills Council has chosen a good time to stress the benefits of staying on at school or college rather than dreaming of a life of fame; even so, it is not obvious this is a message young people will hear.

The LSC stresses the benefits of staying on in education until a level 3 (A-level-equivalent) qualification is achieved. Since the intention is to point to the more realistic aspirations that education can fulfil, it is either very wise or unfortunate that the benefits are stressed in financial terms. The difference between ending education with a level 3 rather than a level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification is that you are more likely to be employed and will, on average, be pound;4,000 a year better off.

The reason the publication of this research is timely is that this has been a bad few days for fame. Of course, the truly famous can survive many things: the end of a career - whereby they become famous as someone who used to be known for something - and, even, death - which can be a boon for the back catalogue or add to the value of artworks. However, those less well-known run a risk if they move beyond the confines within which they are famous to programmes where they are merely "being a celebrity".

George Galloway has taken this risk and appeared on Channel 4's Celebrity Big Brother. Since, in effect, he is the Respect party, he probably did not need to clear his appearance with colleagues, although it is far from clear that Parliament was informed. Regardless, he is obviously not available to his constituents. Of course, it is not unknown for MPs to be out of contact. However, far better to be on an overseas junket that few will know about than to appear daily on television, especially if that means acting in ways that leave one open to ridicule.

More significantly, Celebrity Big Brother has undermined the potentially precarious foundations of fame by introducing as a celebrity a "nobody", albeit one with a flimsy fake identity, as a member of a non-existent pop group Kandyfloss. The fact that Chantelle was not discovered and actually allowed to appear more famous than two of the celebrities, raises a real problem: a non-celebrity could win. What would that mean for fame?

In blurring the boundaries, the programme may have enhanced the idea that celebrity is available to all. And, yet, it may ultimately point to the futility of seeking fame for its own sake. And, if young people are watching this programme in large numbers, this may help the LSC campaign.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with young people, such as the 777 16 to 19-year-olds in the LSC survey, wanting to be famous. The individuals they admire - such as Richard Branson, JK Rowling or David Beckham - are all famous for a reason. The issue is that some young people would be prepared to sacrifice their education for a chance of appearing on programmes like Big Brother. This suggests they do not really want the kind of renown and celebrity that follows being successful at something; they simply want to be famous. This means the kind of vacuous, transitory and unlikely fame that mass media portrays and reality TV fosters. In practice, as the LSC comments, the chances of being selected for a TV programme on a major channel are very small, and most of those who are selected are soon forgotten. But that is precisely the kind of lottery that 11 per cent of the young people in the LSC survey (15 per cent in the North) would leave education to pursue. What such young people seek is not so much a justified reward for achievement as a randomly allocated "career" devoid of skill.

Arguably, this view of life is promoted by the National Lottery, so it is appropriate that the LSC research stresses that the chances of anything like lasting success through reality TV is less than that of winning the lottery.

In the LSC regions throughout England, between 8 and 12 per cent of those surveyed believe "fame is a great way to earn money without skills and qualifications". The positive exception to this is London, where only 2 per cent believed this. It is to be hoped that young people from London, as they usually do, are starting a trend that will lead to all young people taking education seriously, and not basing their lives on a lottery principle. There are many losing tickets each week; we cannot afford to have a similar proportion of young people with no option after their improbable shot at fame fails.

Graham Fowler is a consultant and writer on further education

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