Hugh Lauder is Professor of Education and Political Economy in the Department of Education at the University of Bath, and a member of the Royal Society Working party on broadening the curriculum. His latest book is The Death of Human Capital? Its Failed promise and How to Renew It in an Age of Disruption (Oxford University Press, 2020), co-authored with Phillip Brown and Sin Yi Cheung.

Despite the government’s slogans about levelling up, its determination to take away the £20 uplift in Universal Credit makes it clear that in education, little will change. It seems to have gone unnoticed among policymakers how distorted our education system has become, partly caused by children living, literally, on the bread line with families having to choose between eating and heating.

Recent figures tell us that some 4.5 million children are in poverty and this figure is likely to rise. We also know that poverty causes underachievement in education. So why then would this government consider reducing Universal Credit by £20 a week? It is, after all, concerned with levelling up, which in education appears to be translated in the meritocratic aspiration that all those with ability and motivation should be able to achieve upward social mobility.

While successive Conservative governments have canvassed a range of explanations for child poverty that have focused on problem parenting, there are perhaps three underlying reasons the Johnson administration views maintaining the £20 uplift as unnecessary.

The first is that educational competition is seen as a Darwinian struggle in which ‘natural’ ability will emerge irrespective of social constraints. This is one reason that social security such as Universal Credit is minimal. The second is that adults should be in paid work even if the state subsidises low wages. Now, it is assumed that shortages in the labour market will lead to a reduction in unemployment and a rise in wages which means support for low-income families reduces. The third is simply fiscal: the government wants to reduce social security expenditure in the coming Comprehensive Spending Review period. None of these reasons are convincing.

Focusing first on educational philosophy, we can contrast the English view of competition with that of the Northern European nations, where there is a radical difference in philosophy and outcomes. These are countries which assume that the working class, women, and ethnic groups need the social support necessary for them to escape what Ceri Brown has called the ‘binds of educational poverty’ - to have the confidence to achieve.

The picture in these countries is not perfect but remains far in advance of English conservative perspectives, which expect education to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to addressing poverty and inequality, with the straight jacket of testing to check how well teachers are doing with limited social support. Yet, in the absence of an adequate social net, schools are having to extend their remit to providing food for children in poverty, as has been highlighted during this pandemic.

That children should be going hungry in a wealthy nation is shocking, but we should see how that plays into education. Let’s start when children are born. In this country there is no substantial government support for early childcare until the age of three (although there are limited part-time places for two-year-olds from disadvantaged families). A recent report has documented how expensive childcare is. In Britain, costs are the third highest in the OECD countries surveyed, with 30% of the average wage being spent on it. It also notes that one in three of those on the lowest incomes had to cut back on food to pay for childcare. These costs hit single parents, typically women, particularly hard and effectively exclude many from the workforce.

When it comes to early childhood education, England is an outlier because of ideology and poverty. The government emphasises formal reading, writing and mathematics (the three Rs) from the age of five, although formal schooling may begin, in reception classes, below that age. In 2013, Liz Truss - then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for education and childcare - raised the ideological flag:

The twenty-first century will belong to those countries that win the global race for jobs and economic advantage. In order for every adult to fulfil their potential, they need to be properly equipped with essential skills from the very beginning of their lives.

In the same year she also rationalised the importance of early formal learning in the three Rs by arguing that:

At the moment we've got one of the biggest gaps between the performance of low-income and high-income students.

This meant that a less formal and more creative start to education was not considered.

Now consider poverty. A real-world example may be helpful: a bus driver that works split shifts, whose home is at a distance, cannot return between shifts and only sees their daughter one day in the week, so does not have the time to read to her. The government remedy is mandating formal reading, writing and mathematics at an age which makes England an exception in its view of early childhood education.

When we turn to secondary education, the link between poverty and high stakes testing is crystalised. In England, some of the most successful and lauded academy trusts, in terms of exam results, are those that operate a highly regimented programme in which the exclusive focus is on teaching to the exam.

Given the extreme levels of child poverty, the structure and control that these academies offer is arguably the only way to provide any kind of exam success. It is important to these students because it is the marker of their educational achievement. It also reflects the hard work of teachers and schools which is a clear improvement on similar schools 20 years ago. But it is a Dickensian approach to education. What it does to students’ subsequent life chances, when they are asked to think more openly, is yet to be investigated.

Testing and exams narrow the education focus, when, as the Royal Society has argued, we need to broaden education to meet the many demands that will confront the younger generation. Teachers also need more professional autonomy. The effect of such regimentation on teachers is that one in three leave the profession within five years.

When we turn to the results of this education system in terms of meritocracy, there is no room for self-congratulation. If we are to ask why the Northern European countries are better at promoting upward social mobility, then a key part of the answer is that they provide better social security nets and education systems that are not structured by poverty and focused on repeated testing and exam outcomes.

The second reason for the government’s rescinding of the £20 uplift is that the problem of poverty will be solved by the labour market. Despite the boosterism over job vacancies, we should be sceptical for two reasons. Firstly, labour shortages do not always translate into rising wages. Labour markets are far more complex than simple textbook representations suggest. The combination of Brexit and Covid have created some demand for labour. But if we think about the care sector, which has a massive shortage of staff, it is unlikely that their vacancies will be filled at current wage levels. For wages to be raised there would have to be a major restructuring of the sector which is not on the government’s agenda.

Additionally, many of the rungs in the labour market from those on the lowest wages to university graduates are broken, as Phillip Brown, Sin Yi Cheung and I have argued in The Death of Human Capital? This is clear amongst the low paid. The government might consider insecure low wage work as a first step on the jobs ladder for those with the motivation and ability to ascend it, but the data tell a different story. Only one in six low paid workers secured full time better paid jobs between 2007-2017, and 48 per cent fluctuated between low paid jobs and slightly better jobs (Low Pay Commission, 2017). Over a third of low wage workers also receive Universal Credit. Many on low pay are trapped caught between wages that require government subsidy.

Lastly, the government’s desire to reduce social security expenditure in the coming Comprehensive Spending Review belies confidence in its view that the labour market will solve the problem of poverty. If their bet that poverty will be addressed by the labour market is proven to be correct, then the cost of the £20 uplift would reduce over time anyway, as more workers enter well paid jobs. So why not maintain it?

Rescinding the £20 uplift tells us that despite all the slogans, this is a government set on returning us to the pre-pandemic failures in social security, education, and the labour market.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

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Posted in: Business and the labour market, Economics, Education, Political ideologies, UK politics, Universal Credit, Welfare and social security


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