Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education

Author(s) Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen
Publisher Continuum
Published 2010
Pages 192
Price £16.99
ISBN 9781441134707
Reviewed by Prof John Field
University of Stirling
Review published 17 December 2010

British education, according to Ainley and Allen, stands at the edge of a precipice. As a result of conflicting demands, inflated expectations, continual policy tinkering and the self-interested irresponsibility of some educators, the system faces a ‘crisis of legitimacy’. The crisis is most severe, not among the marginalised ‘underclass’ nor the privileged elites, but for large sections of the ‘working middle’, who have bought into ideas of lifelong learning and social mobility, only to find themselves loaded with debt, living in their parental homes, and – if lucky - forced to take the sorts of jobs they had hoped to avoid by going to university.

Ainley and Allen are scathing about the New Labour vision of ‘education, education, education’. Rather than emancipating teachers and opening up the curriculum, New Labour produced greater centralisation and control, often cloaked in the language of standards and improvement, they argue. Teachers and teacher-educators alike are locked into ‘an iron cage of micro-management’ (p. 66), so that vast numbers of pupils are let down by schools that are unable to adapt pre-specified learning objectives to their needs. Expansion of post-16 education and training has been done on the cheap, and with little regard to the interests and aspirations of young people. Increased participation in higher education means that student life is no longer experienced as a distinctive period of transition, but is more and more like school – something that young people no longer treat as a special phase of experimentation and exploration, but rather endure. Plagiarism, complaints over grades, the constant search for the easiest module: these are the symptoms of a society that holds its young in a parking slot, while promising them a comfortable graduate career in the future.

All of this, the authors argue, is at odds with the realities of the British labour market. The lives of young people, they say, are played out far from the high skills, knowledge intensive utopias beloved of policymakers. Citing the veteran skills policy analyst Ewart Keep among others, they view the youth labour market as often characterised by part-time work, temporary jobs and unskilled roles of various kinds. Even graduates are likely to find themselves working for some years in non-graduate positions; little wonder, the authors say, that so many young people start but do not complete vocational degrees that cannot deliver on the promise of a graduate job.

In short, Lost Generation offers a trenchant critique of Britain’s education system, from primary school to higher education. It has some inexplicable blind spots, most notably the world of education and training in adult life. The book says nothing about the train wreck that was New Labour’s policy for lifelong learning. It barely mentions older adults, who have largely been left to the market place of Saga and the like, or to the self-provided education of the University of the Third Age. In spite of overwhelming evidence on the value of continuing learning in adult life, governments since the early 1980s have systematically and consistently dismantled local adult education services, but you will not find a mention of this remarkable slaughter. Scotland and Wales are simply missing from the volume. And the authors are weak on explanation; in so far as they try to find a cause for the policy failings of New Labour (and in a final chapter, they extend the critique to Michael Gove), they tend to blame a rather nebulous abstraction called ‘neo-liberalism’.

Of course, it is one thing to rail against the system, and quite another to spell out plans for change. And but for its question mark, some may find the book’s title misleading. The authors refute the very idea of a lost generation, which they denounce for portraying young people as passive and clueless. Though they do devote part of one chapter to their own ideas (mostly immediately underpinned with criticisms of actually existing policy), they spend most of their time denouncing what they see as old and tired strategies for youth and education, such as those of New Labour.

In place of Blair’s slogan, they offer denunciation, denunciation, denunciation. But this isn’t much of a complaint. Patrick Ainley is one of the best denouncers in the business, and his expertise in further and higher education is complemented by Martin Allen’s insights as a comprehensive teacher and union activist. If we needed any more evidence, the most recent PISA results confirm that, if ever trenchant criticism was merited, it is surely richly deserved in the case of Britain’s failing education policies.