No place to learn about life

19th December 1997 at 00:00
When the Prime Minister finally launched the long-awaited Social Exclusion Unit earlier this month, he emphasised truancy and school exclusions as key issues.

But the truth is that, of the connections between education and social exclusion, these are the easy ones to solve. What we should really be addressing, although the Unit is unlikely to acknowledge it in public, is that much education is responsible for the wider problems of social exclusion. Social exclusion means lack of access to the most important life chances a society offers - to work, better oneself, have confidence in one's ability to achieve, be part of the community. While poverty is solely a matter of income, social exclusion is multi-dimensional.

There is consensus that schools are delivering far too many young people into social exclusion. But that is not just because "standards" are too low. It is because conventional education does not prepare young people adequately for the risks, responsibilities and challenges that they will face in adult life.

Under the pressure of league table competition, schools have become exam-result machines. For many with qualifications, they do not deliver access to employment, real understanding of the subjects they have studied,or basic readiness for adult life.

A failing school is defined by its exam results and the physical security it presents, not by whether its alumni are happy, mature people who understand the world they inhabit. No wonder so many young people find school irrelevant. A glance at a wider set of indicators - relationships, psychosocial disorders, emotional problems, employment, problem drug use, suicide, political alienation, - shows that attendance and attainment are a small part of the picture, and that something is going seriously wrong for too many young people.

We are beginning to recognise that social exclusion is largely a consequence of "network poverty" - a lack of the social ties one needs to find work and other opportunit ies.

As young people move towards adulthood and the labour market, the attachments that matter are weak ties; friends of friends and acquaintances, rather than strong ties to family and close, long-standing friends. Young people need rich, diverse networks of people unlike themselves in order to thrive.

But the basic model of schooling works in the opposite direction. School segregates young people, excluding them from mainstream society and putting them in a largely adult-free zone. Informal relationships are restricted to a narrow peer group, and many of the values promoted by schools are based on the assumption that only strong ties count.

Similarly, the system of instruction, assessment and examination perpetuates assumptions that are increasingly unhelpful. The focus on isolated individual performance, and growing dependence on a set curriculum, discourage the capacity to work in teams, even though this is the most common way of organising adult employment. Where schools encourage teamwork, teachers tend to determine the size and membership of teams and the distribution of roles. No wonder so many young people find teamwork hard when they enter employment.

That is why it is so alarming that schools are themselves excluded from society, and becoming more so. Our obsession with physical safety has created a culture which builds secure enclaves against the outside world, containing both learning and young people within institutional boundaries. Schools should, to some extent, be sanctuaries - safe environments where learning can be pursued in peace - but making the barriers too high means that what happens inside the school will be unrelated to what happens outside its walls. Young people are unable to apply what they learn, schools are unable to use the social, cultural and human resources of the communities that surround them. Each successive campaign against truancy only reinforces the idea that school is a place of custody.

At the heart of the problem is the culture of risk that school imparts to children and young people. As a society we are gradually, painfully realising that living with uncertainty is a fact of life, and that managing risk well is essential to thrive. But nowhere in the national curriculum do we encourage the skills or disposition s which enable young people to manage risk successfully. Conventional education promotes the message that there is an answer to everything, and seals students off from risk by creating systems which are enclosed and self-contained, related only distantly to the challenges they will encounter in later life.

Managing risk successfully requires us to find and use information in enterprising, creative ways, and to act through networks of others who can help pool, reduce or mitigate the individual risks we face. Almost nothing in the structure of conventional education gives young people any practice at doing these things.

The Government is making only the simplest of connections between social exclusion and education - those who do badly in the instruction and examination system are at risk of social exclusion later on. Ministers seem to imagine that if they kick the school system hard enough and produce exam results it will prevent social exclusion. It reminds us of John Cleese, in the famous Fawlty Towers episode, kicking and cursing his broken-down car.

Tackling social exclusion is not simply a matter of improving school "standards", but of designing systems of learning which support young people in acquiring network skills, understanding risks and fulfilling the roles and responsibilities of life. To start doing this, we recommend six key measures.

* Prevent the national curriculum from filling all available learning time.

* Introduce community placements and apprenticeships which allow students,from the earliest age, to integrate formal learning with practical experience in adult society.

* Develop practical means of learning "risk literacy" by encouraging analysis and even experimentation with certain kinds of risk.

* Begin to assess young people's work in teams as being more important than solitary study.

* Schools should be open for adult learning and a variety of other uses, so that children and young people will constantly mix with adults from the earliest age.

* Instead of a fixed school leaving age, offer various ways of combining study with work from the age of 14, with the assumption that concentrated learning in some form will continue until at least 19.

In a few years, digital television, mobile telephones and the Internet will deliver information and instruction much more effectively than schools. If by then, schooling is still failing to deliver the understanding, networking capacities and risk cultures that their children will need, people will start asking themselves what state schooling is for.Wired truanting may become the smartest thing young people can do.

The danger is that the people least ready to exploit these new alternatives will be those most at risk of social exclusion. If the Government really wants to prevent social exclusion, getting people back into school may soon be the last thing it ought to do.

Perri 6 is director of policy and research, and Tom Bentley is a senior researcher at Demos, the independent think tank.

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