Tuesday, June 12, 2007

 

Social Engineering has a Chequered Record

[This image would have been better illustrating yesterday's post but I couldn't resist using it for today's] Social engineering is a curious notion, criticised savagely by the right but used by them(private education?) almost as much as by the more usual suspects on the left. Reading the article by Jessica Shepherd, we learn that Aim Higher, the organization tasked(fairly expensively) with broadening participation in higher education, has not had any notable success to date. We also learn from Polly Toynbee that Sure Start has had a happier effect in cancelling out the effects of inequality.

Many of us have been the objects of social engineering. My father's parents had to pay to send him to Bangor University in the thirties; I went to university, expenses paid, courtesy of the 1944 Butler Act and my local authority. Many of my fellow grammar school mates enjoyed the same good fortune and have prospered as a result. The secondary modern lads from the village in which I grew up did less well and it is the disadvantage of their stratum, a generation on- which New Labour have sought to reduce. But billions can be spent on the quest with precious little outcome: comprehensives, for example, have signally failed in achieving the objectives at which they were aimed.

I suspect that Aim Higher has been less successful because the children targeted were too old to respond sufficiently, too immersed in a culture of non achievement literally, to 'aim higher'. The millennium cohort study of the 15.500 babies born 2000-2 shows that the class divide is apparent after just three years in terms of social and educational development. So Sure Start, which

in every community point the way, catching babies from birth with intensive health visiting to find depressed mothers and families in trouble. Early help with play, talk and parenting works. "Early Talk", "Every Child a Reader" and "Every Child Counts" are excellent programmes that rescue young children who are not talking, reading or counting at the right age.

Similar programmes initiated by LBJ in late sixties USA repaid a big dividend in terms of education achievement and crime free lives. Similar programmes in Scandinavia reflect similar results. It is the earliest years when children can be influenced out of the handicaps which poverty and disadvantage confer and it is to be hoped we reap an equal or even greater dividend in the decades to come.

Comments:
I've visited a few Sure Start centres over the last few years (Gloucester was an early adopter of the scheme) and they have all been incredibly heartening. The good they are doing both for parents and children is palpable - they make me remember why I pound the streets urging people to vote Labour.

But I doubt if Sure Start wins Labour more than a handful of votes or whether more than 5% of the population have any real idea what it's about - politics is a tough old world...
 
Hughesey
You're right, of course, that voters tend to respond to the hear and now and not the promise for the future; it's us rather than the politicians who insist on short-termism. But I'm pleased the Sure Start experiments in your area (Cheltenham?) are appearing to be so hopeful. I'll think about them as I pound the streets up here on similar missions to yours.
 
One of the Blair and Blairite rationales for Top Up Fees is that if he did have an extra £8 billion in the coffers he would apply it to early years. Democratic socialists like David Chaytor bought this ... and the ages old paradox that FE students of whatever class pay their way - subject to means test and fees remission for the poorest - while HE students enjoyed a more generous system.
 
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