Reshuffling Education Policy : The New Vocationalism


Youth Work agencies and projects that believe they are tackling the deep-rooted issue of youth unemployment would do well to reflect on Patrick Ainley’s analysis of the latest twist in neo-liberal education policy.

A liberal approach in neo-liberal times means learning about work and not just learning to work. Westminster remains stuck in a rut of recycling failed ideas entirely unsuited to its economic model of low wage, low skill work.

But the problem remains that, however ‘employable’ schools, colleges and universities [and we might add youth projects – IDYW] claim to make their graduates, education cannot guarantee employment. So, fundamentally the perception of ‘the problem’ needs to change: from being one where young people are seen as having to be prepared for ‘employability’ by earlier and earlier specialization for vocations that may not exist. Instead, the starting point should be a common general but not academic schooling to 18 giving entitlement to progression for citizens ‘fit for a variety of labours’.

This implies confronting the possibilities of flexibility but avoiding the current situation in which there are more people in the workforce but many are paid little for unregulated employment. Of course, this would require an alternative economic framework but not necessarily ‘the right to work’ with which the orthodox left continues to operate in a post-war collectivised model of the labour market.

[Liam] Byrne’s [the Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills] proposals offer at least some possibility of HE recovering itself in connection with FE to build what has been called ‘A Liberal Vocationalism’ that is both theoretically informed and practically competent. But, unless this is related to economic reform to end austerity and the continued slide into low-wage, low-skill employment, these proposals risk repeating the failures to rebuild a vocational route to replace the industrial apprenticeships lost in the 1970s but this time at a tertiary level of learning. Or, worse still, they may involve forcing young people failed by an academic schooling into inferior vocational options with Chuku Umuna’s shameful promise to cut Job Seekers’ Allowance for under-25s ‘to plug the young unemployed into the global economy’.

Read in full at Reshuffling Education Policy : The New Vocationalism

This is the context within which a debate about what role youth work might play needs to take place. To my mind Patrick’s analysis lends weight to the notion that youth work ought to be first and foremost about preparation for life in an holistic sense. Youth work loses its way if it focuses on delivering skills training targeted at those young people deemed to be least employable. Contributing to the creation of active, critical citizens is youth work’s most valuable contribution to the struggle for purposeful employment and life-long educational opportunities. Youth work too needs to rediscover its campaigning history. It has to be repeated ad nauseam that youth unemployment is a consequence fundamentally of the system’s failure to create jobs. It has very little to do with young people’s alleged failings and deficiencies. Thus working with and alongside young people demands that youth work is political, that it challenges rather than colludes with the politics and economics of austerity, the manufacturing of low-wage, low skilled, precarious work. At the very least the question of youth work, employment and unemployment ought to be debated within our ranks.

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