Education and social inequality

Inequality is all around us.  To some people this is a ‘shame’ but not something they feel is necessarily anything to do with them.  To others, it is one of the worst blights in the world today.  Some people are starving to death, unable to escape the circumstances of their birth, while others (seemingly unaware of the privilege that they have) are more interested in extending their own wealth and status, than addressing the root causes of this difference.  This is a brief summary of a meeting of Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) Fellows exploring the theme, which appeared on the Society’s blog the other day, however, I hope there might be a few ideas of interest to others too.
As a General Election had recently been announced, it was perhaps very good timing for an evening exploring inequality and social mobility.  It is a theme that all political parties claim to be the champions of, and their followers believe passionately that their policies are the best at addressing it.  Meanwhile, their detractors all say that this is rubbish and that everything will get worse.  Gathered in a recently refurbished suite at the City of Oxford College, twenty Fellows and friends watched four RSA talks from recent months, all on the same theme;
  • Prof. Angus Deaton (Nobel Prize Winner)
  • Prof. Danny Dorling (University of Oxford)
  • Prof. Robert Putnam (Harvard University)
  • Dr Helen Pearson (Chief Magazine Editor, Nature)
You’d be hard pressed to gather such an esteemed panel in one room at one time, but through the magic of the RSA’s many lectures, seminars and workshops, and their commitment to sharing the knowledge base they have created as widely as possible, we were able to cram all four into the space of an hour of ‘social watching’.  Fueled with a few refreshments, the group then split into clusters of three or more, and explored three questions about the issues raised.
What were the immediate ‘take-aways’?
 
Firstly, the groups agreed that these issues need a far wider conversation.  More people need to have the opportunity to discuss them, because otherwise opinions are formed based on ignorance, and people choose what to do (such as voting or endorsing public expenditure) on the basis of those opinions.
There was a collective sense that the ‘academics’, or experts in these fields, need to be more directive.  It is one thing to make us aware of the issues, but we need guidance as to what to do aout them.
Education is at the root of so many of the inequalities in the world.  We tend to worry about the bigger picture, but don’t do enough to tackle the day-to-day barriers.  In the UK, there was a concern that the move to turn polytechnics into universities, and the mantra of a “university education for all”, had not had the impact that was intended, and along with the significant financial cost of higher education (HE), there was a need for more diversity to be brought back into the HE options available for young people.  It was acknowledged that the FE sector was trying to respond to this but the issue is as much one of public awareness.  However, the issues of education are global, and the UK has a significant role to play in ensuring that no children are deprived of it.
What actions do the Fellows feel need addressing urgently?
The urgency for action was stressed at a global level especially.  There’s a lot that we don’t understand sufficiently to address the issue of inequality.  The metrics used need to be far more precise and better communicated, and more people need to be equipped to dig deeper into them.  For example, simply quoting “life expectancy at birth” conceals many problems and the significant differences between communities.
What could the RSA Fellows do locally?
There was strong support for the need for us to understand local inequalities, and some concern that the statistics provided locally were wildly inaccurate or politically motivated.  We recognise that ‘wicked’ problems need collaborative solutions and there is a potential role there for Fellows to cement the relationships that might stimulate a multi-agency approach.
The diminishing tendency for people to volunteer their time to worthy causes was a cause of concern to many, and there was a sense that we might engage with the job of promoting this as a life-enhancing activity.
One specific type of volunteering seemed to resonate with several members and that was mentoring – whether professional, for life, or as part of a more diverse educational package.
If just one or two Fellows left the meeting and started to do something about these issues, then that alone would be a good justification for the RSA Watch concept.  The next event is on Monday 10th July, the theme has yet to be decided, so if there’s a burning issue you’d like us to explore with the help of the recorded talks from the RSA, please get in touch.

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