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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Aimlower: The Coalition Targets the Young and the Poor

Friday, November 26, 2010

I am too busy to be blogging right now, but this morning I am in a particularly bad mood; nay, fury is bubbling in my brain, and must be safely vented before I can get any productive work done.

The cause for my anger is, unsurprisingly, the government's education policies. After the second national protests on 24th November, it seems that some sort of serious momentum is gathering against the cuts to higher education, the imposition of massive fees on students, and the scrapping of Educational Maintenance Allowance. However, with the news today that the government is to demolish Aimhigher, it is hard not to feel that we are trying to march up a slippery slope of inequality, tilted against the youngest and poorest members of society.

Aimhigher was set up by the Labour government - after their wrong-headed invention of tuition fees - to encourage aspiration among those who might not otherwise aim for a university education. It ran mentoring schemes which paired up university with A-level students; provided summer schools for children from local schools; top universities, previously guilty of elitism, ran schemes to allow youngsters from weaker educational backgrounds to apply to university with reduced grade requirements, provided they could demonstrate their potential by attending workshops.

As I blogged back in September, I had the privilege of working for one such scheme in my university. My university has an undoubted elitism problem. Situated in the northeast, which has some of the worst unemployment and poverty in the country, my university nevertheless takes around 50% of its students from independent schools (and up to 75% in my own subject of English). It is viewed as a bubble world by the local community, who believe that only those with London accents are allowed to break through its glass barriers and join in the quaint rituals of gowns and academic processions.

However, through the efforts of a small team of students and staff, supported by those at the top, things were changing. Funded by Aimhigher, the schemes in which I briefly participated had, over the past two years, really begun to make a difference. Those children I met on the scheme bowled me over with their raw enthusiasm and ability which, though that alone may still not have sufficed to give them the three As that are a common entry requirement of my university, would nevertheless have amply compensated for their less strong educational background were they still allowed to start their degrees.

Scrapping Aimhigher and the university schemes it funds, at a time when the popular understanding is that both rich and poor alike are going to have to stump up £30 000 to study at university, sends out entirely the wrong messages, and can only narrow rather than widen access. I can already hear the voices of privilege echoing ever louder in the corridors and tutorial rooms of my university over the coming years.

Compounding this is the government's cutting of Educational Maintenance Allowance for 16 to 18 year olds. The tabloid press and coalition spin doctors would have us believe that this £30 a week, given to those poorest students who opt to stay on in some form of further education or training, was being frittered away down the pub. However, my experience is very different.

My partner works for BTCV, an environmental charity which, among other things, provides training in practical conservation skills for this age group. In a scheme she ran last year, she took out eight lads who had dropped out of college, but who had volunteered to spend 25 hours a week working out in cold and soggy nature reserves, mending fences, laying paths, and layering hedges, serving both the community and their own skills in the process. For coalition millionaires, £30 a week might seem like loose change, so scrapping it won't make much of a difference. However, for lads like these, that £30 often provided a necessary support to help them buy food or pay for heating; without it, their parents would have demanded they return to the dole, where they could get more money on benefits.

However, more important than the money itself was the message it sent out, one that should have been music to the ears of Iain Duncan Smith: work pays. It may have been far below minimum wage, but for their 25 hours a week outdoors these lads received some form of recompense. They were in constant touch with careers advisers and (at least before the spending cuts hit) could see the sorts of jobs to which their training would give them access: council work, conservation work. These may be poorly paid, but are £15 000 a year better than benefits. I am not surprised that recent surveys suggest up to 60% of England's poorest students would drop out of education or training without EMA. Would you want to spend 7 hours a day up to your ankles in mud, mending fences without any kind of financial reward?

My recent blog posts on the Browne review show how concerned I am about the proposed rise in tuition fees. Yet my concern is tempered by my awareness that were I faced with them when I was a child, higher tuition fees would have had little effect on my life, only on my bank balance. Born in a middle class family, my dad came back from the library every weekend laden with books for me to read, before taxiing me off to my music lessons and drama clubs. I was supported every step of the way through my education, and there was never any doubt that the final one would lead to a good university. The prospect of £30 000 of debt might have caused a brief tut, as I strode through the oak doors of my traditional university, which had been held open from moment of my birth into the middle classes.

I am sad at the financial situation I would be facing had I the misfortune to be born a decade later. But my anger, my real fury, is reserved for the way in which the coalition has targeted those who have the misfortune to be born into the wrong sort of lifestyle: those who have the temerity to grow up in households where no one has previously been to university, which is seen as a privilege not a right; those who have the gall not to consider becoming bankers or lawyers, but to do practical, outdoor jobs. In their different ways, Aimhigher, and Educational Maintenance Allowance encouraged people to put the fluke of their birth behind them, and take the opportunities of training and development that the state could place there. To cut off these opportunities at the root is to destroy that fragile seed that ought to be nurtured to fruition in all young people: aspiration.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:24 am

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