Young people’s natural reserves of hope are running low in the current recession. As a result, much of Britain’s youth now seem strangely suspended between hope and despair.
In the London borough of Newham, reasons for despair are not hard to find. 1 in 4 young people are unemployed; a cohort of nearly 3,000. Even university graduates are having trouble finding work with over 40 applicants chasing every job. The state seems to be withdrawing much of its support for youth, with those eligible for bursaries reduced to a fraction of those who received the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which it has replaced and with the personal cost of a university degree stretching well into the future. To add to the sense of alienation and dislocation, the riots of 2011 highlighted how easily society’s fabric can be torn apart.
How do young people react when society seems to be turning its back on them? Responses include apathy and fatalism but also anger, protest and action. Many young people have found creative and constructive ways to make their voices heard. At Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) our students developed witty on-line videos against EMA abolition, they debated, lobbied MPs and marched.
But to some observers, protest and riot seemed indistinguishable. In the aftermath of the riots, Conservative politician Shaun Bailey wrote in the Guardian: “the liberal intelligentsia encouraged posh kids to protest and riot over student fees – and now poorer kids have joined in and we are all appalled. How can you complain when you supported such activism only a few months ago?” Our students are as far from posh as it is possible to be and when they marched against the cuts in March 2011 they were engaging in a peaceful and purposeful form of activism at the very opposite end of the spectrum from the wanton destruction of the riots later in the year and many of us were proud to march with them.
Riots, apathy and fatalism are the signs of despair while anger, protest and action are the signs of hope. This active engagement was a real political education for many young people and it can be harnessed constructively. Of course young people need to learn how slow social change can be and understand that a single march or campaign won’t bring an instant turnaround, but that is not an argument against wanting change or joining in the action.
One variety of hope we have here in Newham is that of the very real physical and commercial regeneration of our area, partly linked to the Olympic Games. Such opportunities are not on offer everywhere, but even this hope may be transient. Many of the stores at Stratford’s colossal Westfield shopping centre are staffed by young people but how many genuine new careers will be available to them? When there is less money being spent overall is it possible that this can be any more than a zero-sum game? Can retail boom in one part of East London without precipitating a crash next door?
Another variety of hope is that being offered by a range of new selective sixth forms including a 16-19 free school sponsored by a group of “top” private schools. This was founded on the rather shaky premise that greater social mobility and inclusion can be entrusted to those very schools whose main expertise is in promoting social immobility and exclusion and that better results will be achieved by segregating those 16 year olds who achieve higher grades at GCSE from their peers. This is a perversion of the free school ideal being neither non-selective nor a response to any locally expressed demand. It proclaims itself a “lifeboat” of hope for the disadvantaged youth of East London. As the local sixth form college we are presumably the “ship” these young people need rescuing from – despite the fact that our students achieve excellent A-level results and record numbers progress to university including an increasing proportion to highly selective institutions.
Such mutant varieties of hope seem more like signs of despair and social fragmentation, based as they are on nurturing pure self-interest in an increasingly polarised society where upward social mobility is a high-stakes project available to the few. At a time like this, the narrative of personal advantage is appealing, but it fails to make any connection between personal and social advancement. Surely at a time like this we need to be talking about the possibility of a better society and model how we might work together to achieve it. This would provide a more lasting basis for hope.
And such hope does exist. It can be found deep in the public service values of our comprehensive schools and colleges. Education here is an expression of hope in the whole community – not just one section of it. Our students are ambitious for themselves and for others; they want to make some positive impact on their world, most of them want to progress to university and hundreds of them regularly volunteer to help others. They know their peers and prefer to get on by working together rather than advancing at someone else’s expense. We need to see every one of our students as a vital thread in the social fabric.
In such a context we don’t need to artificially “raise aspiration” because aspiration is not what is lacking. What we need to do is provide the practical, material and intellectual means for young people to realise their aspirations and to give them some experience of doing it for themselves. We need to give them the tools to turn their aspirations into a better future.
Perhaps what we need in these hard times is a curriculum of hope rather than a curriculum of despair. A good broad liberal education to help all young people wise up about their world: literature, art, philosophy, history, geography, economics, politics, sociology, maths, science and technology from disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, global and local perspectives. We need to skill up tomorrow’s citizens by encouraging creativity, leadership development, research projects, community action, service learning and social enterprise.
To this generation hovering between hope and despair, our schools and colleges need to offer more than the limited hope of consumerism, social mobility or blind faith in the system. We need to say: “Join the human social project; locally and globally and think of yourselves as leaders and change-makers, shaping your world. Try to understand where we’ve come from as well as the challenges we face and learn to work together for change. Be inquisitive rather than acquisitive; ask the awkward questions rather than reaching for pre-packaged answers. Learn to work with others to find new answers and make a difference for the better, to weave the web of relationships, thought and action which can build a strong community.”
In hard times, young people need a rational basis for hope. Can educators rise to this challenge?