‘Too High a Price’
By Carol Taylor
Working in adult learning doesn’t just mean campaigning and advocating for adults to have access to good-quality learning, whoever and wherever they are. It also means noticing the impact of social policy on certain groups of people, particularly the impact on access to learning opportunities and the benefits they bring. We have to remain vigilant about the impact, sometimes unintended, that changes in one policy area have on another. Marking the centenary of International Women’s Day on 7 March 2011 gives us a chance to think about all those women who fought in the cause of women’s equality. Much of that fight was for equality of access to education, and the impact these women knew this would have on their lives and those of their families. After all, as is often said, ‘educate a woman and you educate a nation.’
In the past century, women have gained the vote, the right to go to university and the right not to have to resign from work when pregnant. We have women professors, ministers of state, judges and even, occasionally, women plumbers. Universal child benefits enabled mothers to save for their children’s education, and comprehensive education, and the chance to go to university, opened up a new world for those born without privilege. But much remains still to do. A recent report from the Cranfield School of Management showed there are still 43 firms in the UK with no women on their boards, while only two per cent of executive directors are women. Yet, there can be no doubt that over the past 40 years educational opportunities have opened up to women.
Even today, with the growth in shared childcare and a rise (but not equality) in women’s earning potential, the major role in looking after children falls to mothers, just as the major role in looking after older people falls to women. And policies to reduce public expenditure are bound to impact disproportionately on the poor, on women and on families, as outlined by the TUC in December. Public-sector job losses will hit women hardest, and the emphasis on so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – at university will favour men.
Cuts to public services will mean that families with young children will start from even further behind. Those children will be even more disadvantaged as adults, as we recreate patterns of disadvantage. Every child making a bad start at school this year is more likely to end up not in training, education or employment; and every 12 year old already distanced from school will be more likely to commit crime, become homeless and struggle to find a job. Education has the power to ensure this doesn’t happen, and to change lives.
Nick Clegg said in November that ‘Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on from generation to generation’. We now seem to be watching the implementation of policies which are cementing inequalities for at least another generation. The impact of the cuts on the incomes of the poorest families are obvious to anyone who has spoken to those struggling to bring up young children, hold down a job or two and pay for childcare. This was what a young pregnant mum told me she would lose: £190 health in pregnancy grant gone; £500 child tax credit gone; increased costs of childcare by up to 10 per cent next year (from £400 per month for part-time nursery); the end of the Child Trust Fund of £500 per child, and with it a chance to start saving for her child’s university fees; and the freeze on child benefit, and working families tax credit. And, as she and her partner both work in the public sector, you can add to that the increasing threat of losing their jobs.
Poverty – and the lack of access to learning opportunities which it brings – directly impacts on the health, well-being, skills and opportunities of those we should want to help the most. It increases the digital divide, leaving the poorest and least skilled adults and children way behind, directly affecting their ability to participate in society. The closures, cuts in funding and ‘refocusing’ of Sure Start schemes will also impact directly on adults – Sure Starts have proved highly effective in engaging adults in learning, often for the first time. They are vital sign-posters to other services, including colleges and adult learning. A whole range of informal learning opportunities are suddenly closed to an adult with no money for fees or bus fares, as are a range of chances to develop skills through colleges. The potential social deficit, and the impact on adult skills over the next 10 years, is terrifying.
NIACE has adult learning as its charitable remit. But we have to keep one eye on what is happening to children and adults in families – families are the social unit to which most of us belong and all of us want, and as such, in the end, all social policies will impact on them. The devastating impact of the cuts on poorer families will undermine the ability of women to access the range of learning opportunities which will enable them to change their life, the lives of their children and their communities.
Carol Taylor is Director of Operations for the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, England and Wales.