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Just Another Cog In The Wheel by Hilary Long

“It is poverty that robs children of life chances be they health, education, unsafe communities, food insecurity and poor housing.”

Schools have now been closed for the vast majority of children since 20th March. They won’t be re opening until August at the earliest.  Coronavirus has dominated the headlines from a health point of view and driven us all into lockdown. But now it is the economy that is dominating the news, and the question of schools reopening is critical to the economic recovery.

I have never seen educational establishments as places that children go to so that adults can go to work, however in a capitalist society that is their chief function as well as being agents of social control. And if you follow through on that notion then it stands to reason that the curriculum will be designed to produce another generation of economic fodder to keep the wheels of the capitalist economy well oiled. In the meantime politicians are crying crocodile tears about children missing out and falling behind particularly children living in poverty. That thing called the “attainment gap” is trotted out as if it is something that can be resolved by education without addressing the underlying systemic inequalities that brought it about in the first place.

It is poverty that robs children of life chances be they health, education, unsafe communities, food insecurity and poor housing.  28% of children in the UK are living in poverty and in Scotland 1 in 5 children live in poverty. 64% of these children live in a household where one adult works. In work poverty was alive and well before the pandemic but the furlough scheme and precarious employment have plunged many families to the point of total despair.

Last year I attended a seminar in Glasgow organised by Children’s University Scotland in collaboration with Children in Scotland “Opening the school gates: building a culture of learning to tackle the attainment gap”. Dr Janet Goodall, University of Bath in her contribution said that 80% of the difference in how well children do at school happens outside the school gates. Factors outside the school gates can often have the greatest bearing on children’s educational outcomes. The attainment gap is driven by how poverty and disadvantage impacts on the home, school and community, creating barriers to learning that directly affect children’s ability to succeed at school and in life.

So in my local community in the east end of Glasgow I spoke with a group of children about what lockdown from the point of view of their education has meant for them. The comments were very interesting.

For a start, and stating the obvious, not all children like school. So some of the children said that they were happier playing in the park and riding bikes. They prefer being outdoors because it gives them more freedom. Other things that they have enjoyed were not having to get up so early in the morning, more leisurely breakfast without being asked to “hurry up”, no school uniform and for a few no bullying. One boy said that he enjoyed doing things at his own pace rather than to a timetable to please other people. He said “I’m a bit slow with my school work and I get anxious but at home I can take my time and go and get a snack when I want one”. He also said that he was much better at amusing himself and enjoyed pottering and playing make up games. He was proud to tell me that he could cook a simple meal. He felt more independent and had developed some useful skills such as putting a washing on and playing with younger siblings. The biggest miss was socialising with his friends. Many children said that they had enjoyed spending more time at home with their family.

These experiences were common to many children. One thing that stuck in my mind was that several children remarked that as there was nowhere to go and spend money they had discovered that simple activities are good fun. Favourites were frisbees, roller skates, bikes, footballs, kites, climbing trees and good old hide and seek. Children did admit to not having done much “school work” but they felt that they had learned lots of things not taught in school.

So perhaps the experiences of the children and young people, instead of being seen in a rather negative light, should be used to inform an overdue reform of schooling and the curriculum. And as we move out of lockdown it is an opportunity to review our nation’s economic priorities too.

In the mean time New Zealand has virtually eliminated the virus and life is returning to normal. But it is a different “normal”. Earlier this year I listened with interest to Jacinda Ardern New Zealand’s Prime Minister speaking about her national budget and how spending will be dictated by what best encourages “the wellbeing of citizens” rather than based on productivity and economic growth.  She describes economic growth as an unnecessary evil and suggests that countries should ditch economic growth as a political priority.

Here in UK we hear so much about GDP from politicians, and for most people, including me, it is pretty meaningless. In capitalist society growth is more important than anything else. It is prioritised over our health, happiness and even climate change. Here the latest figures make depressing reading.  Or is this an opportunity to change our economic priorities and our education system to prepare our children and young people for the economy of the future rather than for one that is experiencing its death knell.

In New Zealand it is recognised that wealth doesn’t equal health or happiness. So announcing her budget, Jacinda has committed her government to a cultural change away from the accumulation of personal wealth and towards spending money ($200 million) to bolster services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, homelessness and mental health. Impact assessments will require to be done to demonstrate that spending advances one of the five government priorities – child poverty, mental health, inequalities, thriving in a digital age and low-emission sustainable growth. Jacinda Ardern also recognises the importance for the citizens of New Zealand of community and cultural connection and intergenerational health and wellbeing. GDP and welfare/wellbeing are being expressed as two different concepts. She also talks about kindness, empathy and togetherness.

Whilst we quite rightly mourn the deaths of people from the deadly COVID19 it is worth reflecting that  according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) austerity in the UK has been responsible for 130,000 deaths since 2012. (Guardian 1/6/2019). It characterises these deaths as “preventable” such as heart disease, lung cancer or liver problems, which can be caused by unhealthy lifestyles and habits that often form at an early age. The lead researcher Dean Hochlaf said “We have seen progress in reducing preventable disease flatline since 2012. At the same time, local authorities have seen significant cuts to their public health budgets, which have severely impacted the capacity of preventative services”. He cites two areas in particular – cuts to Health Visitor Services and reductions in physical activity in schools. Cuts to welfare, NHS and education have all impacted leaving the UK half way up the table of OECD countries on its record for tackling preventable diseases. Social conditions encourage harmful behaviours and governments place the responsibility exclusively on the individual rather than on government to create a healthy environment.

I like Jacinda Ahern’s approach to happiness economics that challenges the more conventional economic goals such as economic growth, employment and income levels. Taking into account more in-depth factors affecting the quality of life helps to make economics more relevant to real life. In a wealthy country like Scotland once we have separated ourselves from the disastrous social and economic policies of Westminster we will be able to focus on factors that affect happiness and indeed we need that debate before becoming an independent nation. Income is important although beyond a certain point it has diminishing returns. For ordinary people like me life satisfaction is related to quality of work, quality of consumption, leisure, welfare of family members and fellow citizens, the environment, social interaction, confidence and self-respect. The obsession with personal wealth has undoubtedly diminished life satisfaction for the majority of people.

The World Economic Forum has recently reported on the league table for the happiest nations. Finland tops the league again. Four Nordic countries are in the top five happiest nations (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland followed by the Netherlands). Unsurprisingly the UK came 15th. The Gallup survey undertook a 3 year rolling average of 6 factors – GDP, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and levels of corruption. The survey found that governments that are more representative have happier populations and governments that concerned themselves with citizen’s happiness had the best public services. Levels of participation were higher in happier nations and the Finns pride themselves on their generosity in relation to charity donations and volunteering. Finland tops the happiness list but does not have the highest GDP. It’s the country’s social safety net, personal freedom and work life balance that gives it the edge. Finns feel good about their environment, sense of community, public services and of course their education system. The USA had the highest GDP but comes in 19th due to worsening health and social trust, and trust in government as well as growing addictions to gambling, social media use, video gaming, shopping and consuming unhealthy food.

Children and young people will for the majority of their schooling be unaware that they are being “educated” to be compliant, employable citizens who are being shaped into a particular mould as uncritical neoliberal consumers. Children are not investments for future economic productivity. These “unprecedented” times are not all doom and gloom but an opportunity to fight for a world where democracy flourishes and where all children and young people have equal opportunities to participate, succeed and most importantly be happy.

Hilary Long

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