The final report from the Times Education Commission, set up in 2021 to examine the future of education in Britain, makes for very grim reading indeed. It states clearly that the government wittering on about literacy and numeracy has little relevance for schools in the most deprived parts of the UK. Not when some four- and five-year-old children are unable to say their own names, and others are still using baby bottles and asking for “bot-bot” when thirsty, incapable of forming a sentence as complex as, “Can I have a drink?”
I wish I could stop relating these terrible details, but they go on and on: half of reception-age children in one school were still using nappies as they had not been toilet-trained. Assemblies on using a knife and fork, since students are eating only with their hands. A child brought to school in a shopping trolley. Another who had had 14 sugar-rotten teeth removed. Worst of all, a child who has spent so much time sitting in front of a TV that he or she was unable to walk properly.
Before you assume that there is a simple answer to this mayhem, these schools are already offering classes in parenting and adult literacy, and social services are already intervening in the worst cases. Could these services be better funded? Surely, yes. The principle behind New Labour’s Sure Start programme was to intervene as early as possible with support for poor children and their families. Since 2010, Sure Start funding has been cut by two thirds and 500 centres have closed. The one-two punch of austerity and lockdown has had its miserable, predictable effect on society’s most vulnerable.
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But this isn’t just about a lack of material resources. There are other destructive forces at work in the households that cannot so much as toilet-train their four-year-olds. Addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling is one, severe mental illness another, as well as learning disabilities that make basic tasks almost impossible. Even in a wealthy country such as ours, there are people at the bottom of society who can barely care for themselves, let alone their children.
The report’s findings may shock most middle-class people, unless they work in professions that bring them into direct contact with these families. The nature of inequality in the 21st century – in the UK and elsewhere in the developed world – means that socio-economic classes are both geographically and socially distant from one another, and therefore rarely collide. The doctors, social workers, teachers and police officers who do venture into the poorest postcodes will not be surprised to read of children whose young muscles have atrophied from watching television. Their peers, though, are amazed. Can this really be happening in a society as technologically sophisticated as modern Britain? It can – and it is happening in part because of our technological sophistication.
The US sociologist Joel Kotkin writes in his 2020 book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism that Western societies are increasingly arranged into rigid strata, not dissimilar to those of the Middle Ages. At the top is an upper class composed of oligarchs and what Kotkin terms the “clerisy”, an intellectual elite who dominate the media, universities and other cultural institutions. At the bottom is a new class of serfs dependent on government handouts and the whims of their feudal masters in the private sector who control what little employment is available to them.
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This new feudalism is distinguished from the older version, argues Kotkin, by the role of technology: “A technologically driven society tends to show a widening gap between the ‘elect’ who are highly gifted in science and tech, and the many who are not. Today it takes only a small cadre of coders, financial experts and marketing mavens to build a billion-dollar business, without much required in the way of blue-collar workers or even middle managers… Like the castle towns of Japan or the walled cities of medieval Italy, a few choice locales are enclaves of privilege.”
Kotkin demonstrates that the 21st-century nobility is defined not so much by birth as by an ability to compete in a globalised economy that values a particular set of cognitive and temperamental traits. And, unlike their medieval counterparts, they feel no sense of noblesse oblige, since they believe that their talents and efforts entitle them to their position at the top.
“Meritocracy”, remember, was never supposed to be a good thing. When Michael Young coined the term in 1958, he was warning against a society in which the clever and the ambitious were automatically granted elite status, and felt justified in their privilege. To some extent, Young’s vision has been realised, as London and other world cities have sucked up human capital, further entrenching deprivation in parts of the UK and elsewhere that were already economically stagnant.
As compensation, the communities left behind by the advance of technocapitalism are offered its various pleasurable products. TV, social media, junk food and betting apps – plus opioids and other synthetic drugs – are meant to while away the depressing hours.
This treacherous form of compensation takes its toll on children most of all. A brief period of social mobility in the second half of the 20th century seems to be over, and many families now find themselves shut outside the city gates.
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This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down