The right to think outrageously

9th April 2004 at 01:00
Twenty years after the miners' strike, many of the 16-year-olds I taught on a Youth Training Scheme in a solidly pro-strike area of South Yorkshire are now parents of teenagers. Yet new proposals to transform opportunities in the 14-19 curriculum show that such children are still some way from getting a genuinely useful and exciting education.

At the time of the miners' strike, young people with poor grades or no qualifications comprised what policy-makers referred to as "the bottom 40 per cent". They had four choices: the dole, work if they could get it, YTS or further education college. A year later, the first option was removed.

And 20 years later, the dire warnings of Arthur Scargill about the demise of the mining industry turn out to be a serious underestimate.

From a total of 180,000 miners in 1984, about 8,000 are left. Mining and industrial work, or any work at all, are now rare options at 16. In 1984, I was a "life and social skills instructor" on a YTS run by Rotherham local education authority.

"Trainees" did work experience in private firms, voluntary organisations and the public sector, with job-related training at a local FE college and day and block release courses in "life and social skills". Few had much chance of getting a vocational or academic qualification, some got jobs and some went on to do full-time FE courses.

We kept no figures for retention and progression, so it is difficult to be precise about what happened to them. If a meaningful education is the chance to gain a useful qualification, taught by qualified teachers with a clearly defined syllabus, assessment criteria and learning outcomes, most of our trainees missed out. Very little of their job-related training and none of their life and social skills programmes offered any of these.

Like many of my colleagues, I was trained in an ad hoc combination of youth work and counselling. In the absence of regulation, unemployment schemes had a free rein. The life and social skills course I helped to design was a mixture of guidelines from the Manpower Services Commission, our own ideas and the interests of the young people. Our course was a lively combination of outdoor pursuits, trips to judicial courts and exhibitions, all manner of job-seeking skills and every topic you can think of.

Twenty years later, one feature I recall of debates about education at that time is the effect of the strike itself. Many of the young people I worked with were proud supporters of Arthur Scargill. Some would arrive late from an early picket. Although not all trainees were from strikers' families, the atmosphere was intensely political. Many had strong views on everything. In contrast to the political apathy I found in FE, they wanted to talk about the media, the police, the Conservative government, racism, sexism and Northern Ireland.

Freedom from regulation enabled us to respond to all their interests. The MSC issued a directive the year before the strike, banning staff from bringing politics into life and social skills courses. In a memorable phrase, the directive told us that "politics were irrelevant to the young people's unemployed status". We ignored this.

From one perspective, we offered a lively curriculum that developed confidence, personal and social skills, new insights and new ways of thinking. But for many critics, unemployment schemes in the 1980s were often politically motivated, with no useful qualifications or worthwhile training. In the political hothouse of the time, many staff on schemes thought such objections were just intended to stop young people from understanding what was causing their unemployment.

Twenty years on, there is a better chance of getting a qualification from work experience, better quality training in FE colleges and opportunities to combine academic and vocational courses.

But the Adult Learning Inspectorate showed last year that a significant proportion of workplace training remains poor, while vocational education persists in having a low status.

Opportunities for young people to see things in new ways and to discuss topics that are genuinely meaningful to them are minimal now that "citizenship" has disappeared from the 14-19 proposals. Instead, the pathways and qualification structures that dominate the proposed 14-19 assessment reforms of former schools chief inspector Mike Tomlinson's committee are strong on usefulness but silent on inspiration and engagement.

Contemporary debates about what might count as a meaningful and inspiring education are so muted that the heated discussions of the 1980s seem as anachronistic as the strike itself. An unregulated curriculum is not the answer. But it still seems impossible to imagine one that offers useful qualifications, a decent job and the chance to think differently, even outrageously. The 20th anniversary of a defining moment in the UK's social and political history only serves to highlight how far we still seem to be from this goal.

Kathryn Ecclestone is senior lecturer in post-compulsory education at Exeter university

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