Wednesday, 29 June 2011

not another post about the education white paper: some uncomfortable thoughts about inequality

Is there something about maintaining inequality in society which can contribute to society working effectively? This is an uncomfortable thought, but I think it needs to be considered carefully. To unpick it, we need to consider where the inequality might lie: obviously we think about wealth... but I'm not sure wealth is the most useful distinction: after all, everyone has got wealthier at the same time as inequality appears to have risen.

Thinking about the distribution of risk is more interesting because it relates directly to biology, and risk is partly managed through economic behaviour. Does an inequality in the distribution of risk produce a more viable economy? I'm wondering if in creating pockets of risk creates social dynamic forces that can drive sections of the economy - like education, for example.

In a sense we have always done this: maybe prison represents a 'risk concentration', which in turn concentrates the minds of those not in prison, and leads them through anxiety to pay their taxes and stay within the law.

What about a multi-tier education system, where the rich get 'the best' and the poor get low-grade privately funded facilities with accreditation from remote universities? Individuals are born with unequal risk burdens to begin with. Might the levels of risk in different levels of the education system serve to create a dynamic economy in education? Where are the dangers for such a system? What is lost? What are the long-term consequences for society?

It seems almost certain that an uneven distribution of risks in education is what is being unleashed. On a number of levels I'm left wondering if it might actually 'work' in the sense that the young will be presented with a variety of options with varying levels of risk, and they will be 'free' to choose. Certainly a broadening-out in higher-education provision will create employment in the education industry. But I doubt if it will be as simple as that: the inherited burden of risk will force most into well-trodden routes for their economic and social class. Social mobility will become even more difficult. But of course,  might that increase the distribution of risks and the dynamism of the economy? I find this hard to think about.

What seems very clear is that the education we are about to see is not the education that I received, and certainly not the education that existed for my parents. Education appears to be reinventing itself as a fundamental part of the economy - not to train workers (as it might have once appeared) but in itself to create employment and stimulate local economies. The 'code' of education is changing. But it will only work if the young are anxious enough about their future that they reach for education as a key to realising their potential. Inequality in risk distribution could work to produce that anxiety.

This seems very depressing. But the uncomfortable questions are nevertheless there for us, and challenge us to suspend our idealism for a second and look at what's happening. For me the hope is to find a way of describing what's happening that allows us to grasp how we might undermine it. My instinct is that it's simple: don't worry - be happy!

No comments: