Photo: pixabay user ‘padrinan‘, Creative Commons 0 license


In the past couple of years, the Government has created a programme with the aim of ‘raising aspirations’ for Higher Education in young people, approaching this in various ways, from mentoring programmes to creative interventions. The programme is geared specifically towards those who are on course for A*-C grades at GSCEs and live in wards whose citizens haven’t traditionally gone on to HE.

At first glance this seems like an admirable venture, until you consider that the problem isn’t young people not going on to HE. Rather, the serious lack of socio-economic opportunities for young people in deprived areas is the issue: when university drop-out rates for those from low socio-economic areas are higher than any other demographic, placing the emphasis on aspirations is at best short-sighted. We have to question why the Government insists on pressuring young people to go on to HE when research shows that this can have a more detrimental effect than not going in the first place. The Government are correct in presuming that secondary schools are the places to address certain issues but it is the structure of secondary schools themselves that are currently the problem. What is needed is systemic change.

I periodically work in secondary schools with those under the age of 16 in a drama/arts/performance capacity and it amazes me every time at the level and depth of understanding these young people have about their context. I’ve worked with groups of pupils who have investigated the issues in their local area and come up with viable solutions for them, who have wrestled with issues like regret, respect and changing who they are. All from 13/14-year olds. That’s a level of awareness and reflection I may not find in a 50-year old. My gut feeling is that they don’t have the opportunity to explore the ideas, frustrations, and issues they have during school time.

They seem to be treated – as Paulo Freire suggests – as willing receptacles waiting to be filled by the expert knowledge of the teacher. This view is compounded when I consider how I’ve seen some teachers interact with pupils. This interaction consists of a top-down authoritarian relationship in which the young person has little power to assert themselves. I’ve seen the results of what Arlie Hochschild calls ‘surface acting’ where teachers are required to behave in a way that is contrary to their personal feelings. Hochschild argues that if this goes on too long then workers stop caring and reconsider the amount of effort they put into work. I’ve heard and seen teachers refer to pupils in derogatory ways, belittle their work to other teachers, and react viscerally to perceived breaking of school rules.

On the other hand, I’ve seen teachers who genuinely care and treat the pupils as human beings with consideration and patience. To be fair to the teachers, secondary school is not the ideal place to care for students – Ofsted, targets, reviews, less time-more work, can all lead to burnout. There are some amazing staff, projects and school philosophies, but the structure of academies, trusts, Tory education policies, and neoliberal markets means that these young people are seen – again in the words of Paulo Freire – as empty vessels waiting to be filled, clay that needs to be moulded to the ‘banking method of education’, that didactic form of ‘education’ that places the teacher in a superior knowledge-holding role benevolently feeding their hungry, little, empty fish.

My work with young people and my interactions with schools – administrators, teachers, and heads – has led me to believe that pupils succeed in life in spite of secondary school structures rather than because of them. Such an approach predates neoliberalism– but with the pressures to ‘perform’, cut costs, and increase results that comes with being in a techno-capitalist society, students are inevitably seen as cups to be filled and pound signs to be earned.

The Government seems to be using private contractors to clean up their mess of austerity. The Government seems content to send in the arts practitioners (and others) to try and ‘raise aspirations’ revealing a very cynical view of those who are in wards that struggle: if you don’t a) aspire to be laden with debt, b) grab a piece of paper that doesn’t really validate your learning, and c) possibly suffer from mental health issues, then you won’t achieve in life. It seems that, ultimately, the Government aren’t willing to restructure their education system and so use the arts at a fraction of the cost to try to manipulate young people into debt.

I can only make an assumption that the Government want their unemployment figures low, an increase in mental health issues, and more citizens in debt because that seems to ultimately be the result of going to university. Some people do make the most of their degree. Some of us are extremely lucky in how things turned out post-graduation but there are those students who are filling job roles that would have been filled by citizens who didn’t go to university. Rather than actually bringing people out of poverty, these policies force the distinction between the haves and have-nots to be even more pronounced. Conversely, having more citizens in debt benefits a capitalist economy because it is a ‘claim on future labour’, as Marxist scholar David Harvey puts it.

So what could a new school system look like? If the Government were willing to they could employ a system of education that is based around empathy, creativity, and critical thinking, one where assessments for pupils aren’t a memory game but about genuine learning. A system of learning that isn’t visual- or text-centric but incorporates all of the senses, an embodied way of teaching and learning. Also, stripping back the level of external assessment and micro-management, bringing back publicly funded schools (and getting the drive for profit that comes with academies out of them), and starting to trust teachers with the passion that they trained for would be a nice start. In short, a more human way of learning.