The Children of Austerity

The scale of school cuts since 2010 mean that Britain's public education system is being transformed. Each day it becomes less about educating and more about subjecting young people to market discipline.

If the 2008 financial crash signalled the crushing of the economic prospects of millennials, then the subsequent election of the coalition government in 2010 marked the formal transformation of the successive generation to becoming the children of austerity.

Just as the millennial experience has been defined by accelerated neoliberalism–encapsulated by the destruction of the opportunities offered by the post-war settlement–the children of the new generation have been exposed to the effects of defunding, marketisation and privatisation. The latest, sharpest expression of this are the huge cuts to schools, and the decimation of local government.

As with many other aspects of British society, the austerity programme has hit schools hard. Billions of pounds have been taken away, a fact highlighted by both the National Education Union (NEU) in their prominent School Cuts campaign, and other other organisations. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, since 2010, pupils have suffered an 8% cut to funding. It is no surprise then that almost a third of all council-run secondary schools are now in deficit. Similarly, 80% of academies–privatised schools touted for their efficiency–are now in the red according to a report by Kreston UK.

The government has tried hard to obscure this gargantuan crisis, both glossing over its scale and understating the response needed. One of the most prominent examples of this is the £400 million payment to schools offered by the Chancellor Philip Hammond. When he declared that it would “help our schools buy the little extras they need”, he was rightly mocked.

The effects of the funding crisis on schools are enormous. As schools struggle to find the money to recruit an ever-diminishing number of teachers, class sizes have become bigger. Non-compulsory ‘creative’ subjects such as drama and music have been culled, which will close off these subjects except to the wealthiest. Young people with special educational needs have been some of the biggest victims of these cuts, depriving thousands of young people of the support they need.

Many people have justifiably railed against this state of affairs. Head teachers, not normally known for their political activism, have campaigned against the government’s cuts, even marching (politely) to Downing Street to demand an end to the cuts. Ordinary parents and school governors have campaigned against the cuts, and the NEU’s Kevin Courtney has suggested that the depth of feeling on this issue contributed to the Labour Party’s strong showing in the 2017 general election. In this context, it is not difficult to see why over 1,000 councillors from around the country signed a letter to the education secretary condemning the cuts.

As an educator myself, I think one of the lasting legacies of this is not only the squandering of the potential of many young people but, perhaps just as seriously, the accelerated commodification of public education. Though possibly not by design, this is the path we are heading down–as more students compete for ever fewer and costlier resources. Taken to its logical extreme, it will not be surprising if subjects are eventually prioritised purely on the basis of market advantage.

This fundamentally reshapes public education. The risk is that it extinguishes its potential to empower people. It represents the zenith of neoliberalism, best captured by Thatcher’s declaration that “economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.” Public education is gradually being reduced to a means to subject young people–much like their older counterparts–to market discipline.

With this in mind, it is easy to understand why local government funding, and in particular services used by young people, have been decimated. Libraries and youth centres are easy targets, deemed not educational (at least, unlike schools, not quantifiably) and offering little ‘economic value’ (as with music and drama in school). The nearly 500 libraries and more than 600 youth centres have closed since 2010.

The effects of the government’s vandalism are effectively demonstrated by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime’s, whose latest study links the rise in knife crime to the closure of youth centres. A report by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights goes further, painting a picture of Britain which is more Dickensian than one which belongs in the Information Age.

Whether the government will, or even want to, reverse this trajectory is questionable. After all, the imposition of austerity on young people prepares them neatly for a bleak future in the workplace. Just as millennials are subjected to ever-increasing economic precariousness (what mainstream economics would call ‘freedom and flexibility’), for a generation of young people who have only known cuts perpetual austerity represents the new normal.

Despite such pressures, the children of austerity do feel the lack of respect shown them by the government, and can see plainly its abject moral failure. They are smarter than they are given credit for–cementing the issue of climate disaster into public consciousness just recently. It is therefore no surprise that, just as with millennials, they are increasingly underpinning the Corbyn movement here and the Sanders movement across the Atlantic.

If and when the Corbyn-led Labour Party secures the keys to Downing Street, it must not only immediately end and reverse austerity, but perhaps more importantly, create a detailed alternative to the current neoliberal model. Austerity has made a mockery of what public education can be. The National Education Service could play a key role in this conversation, but it urgently needs fleshing out. Whether it can live up to its–and young people’s–potential remains to be seen.