During the Industrial Revolution in the UK, education underwent a transformation. Introduced in 1870, a series of reforms collectively called The Elementary Education Acts enabled children to obtain an education.
Before, many of these children were sent to work in the most dangerous parts of factories, where injury was common, all for small change that their families needed to survive. Thanks to these acts and other social reforms that continued into the 20th Century, children could access schooling for free and, armed with an education, go on to careers that lifted them and their families out of poverty.
Now, as the effects of the cost-of-living crisis truly manifest, we are beginning to see regression. Our students are having to make choices under a pressure they should never be subjected to in their teenage years: Do they learn and starve, or earn and survive?
In any other decade, such a claim would have been dismissed as hyperbole – and understandably so! If it wasn’t for seeing it first-hand and talking to those involved in FE and the local community, I would hardly believe it myself.
I first noticed the change last year. Learners who had been attentive and bright at the start of the first term were missing classes or turning up late. When they did attend, their excuse on arrival was always the same: they had been offered an extra shift and taken it.
Companies could be accused of being complicit in this, but from their side an increase in overheads means that employing 16-year-olds works out nearly £5 cheaper than employing a member of staff in their 20’s.
This year, things are worse. Despite my college pulling as much funding into its bursary and free meal schemes as it can, more and more learners are asking, some as their first question at enrolment: “Can I skip classes to take a shift if I promise to catch up?”
Our vice principal, Carole Todd agrees that it is a growing concern for the college and the country that learners are forced to make this hard choice between learning and earning. Few would disagree that a strong vocational education opens doors to well-paying, non-exploitative careers while entry-level jobs often start and end on the minimum wage and zero-hours contracts.
But the reality is that last year in the construction department alone a few dozen learners across the trades left the college half-way through the course, lured away by promises of quick cash-in-hand work. It is the families that often make this choice for them. Financial hardship and cultural poverty mean they need their children to be earning and lack the guidance themselves to advise their children to seek out training courses such as apprenticeships or T Levels that would allow them to learn and earn at the same time.
In the community, there is evidence of this change as well. Speaking to my local councillor, Sajna Ali, I discovered that teenagers are recruiting other teenagers to jobs with poor hours and worse pay for a little kickback of their own. “Often,” Sajna told me, “these poor kids are being offered cash-in-hand work in restaurants owned by friends of the family miles away from the town. They are picked up mid-afternoon and returned after midnight, and for what? £25? How can they learn when they are so tired from such shifts?”
This decade will be defined by the situation we’ve called the ‘cost-of-living crisis’, but if we fail to act on behalf of our learners it will soon become a ‘cost-of-learning crisis’ that will damage the workforce for years to come.
FE has become a last line of defence between a life of skilled success and one of below-the-breadline suffering.
We need to be more vocal about the horrible choices our learners are forced to make. And we need a plan to mitigate the cultural poverty that inhibits families from seeking the right sorts of help, as well as plans to feed and support these learners economically.
And we need this before they stop even turning up for enrolment to ask the question.