New Year 2000

Argus title : I hope in 2008 my daughter’s generation will rock the boat and not be happy with what politicians assume they will accept – poor education, low pay and the unpaid care of others

My daughter told me to write about my hopes for 2008, so I will.

I hope she and her friends do as well as they would wish in their GCSEs. On the other hand, I’d like them, and other young people in their position, to know that if they don’t do well, that’s also fine – as long as they don’t give up learning.

There are always other ways to approach study and I wish schools were better at telling students about them.

The Argus has recently published the stories of two young girls who have pursued their education in unconventional ways. Sophie De L’orme experienced a breakdown while at Cardinal Newman School. She moved into the Stopover Project, which accommodates and supports vulnerable young women, and managed to complete her A levels. She is now in the final year of a degree course.

Lucy Todd is agoraphobic and therefore finds it difficult to leave her home. She experienced her first panic attacks 4 years ago, when she attended Davison High School in Worthing. She began to study at home and subsequently did very well in GCSE examinations. She had hoped to study for her A Levels at Worthing College, but found this impossible. She has persuaded the Open University to accept her as a student despite the fact that she is two years younger than the usual age of entry.

These are two young women who have not yet fully overcome their difficulties, but are finding a way through them. They have learned the hard way that if you run your head into a brick wall trying to get to something you want, you can choose to have another run at it. Or you can approach the wall from different directions and get behind it that way.

Of course, some walls are higher than others. Almost daily we hear educational pundits bewailing the way in which our educational system fails boys (which it does). What we hear far less frequently is how the system fails girls.

Girls have to study in an atmosphere in which they are under constant sexual pressure and in which sexual harassment by boys is rarely recognised as the bullying it is. If they do worse than boys, their failure raises little comment. If they do better, their success is heralded as a national crisis in boys’ education – or evidence that the examination system favours girls.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I heard it said ad nauseum that women were “incapable of genius”. The pseudo-scientific social theories of the time asserted that while men were “creative and inventive” women were “average”, and “conscientious” – and therefore well-fitted to the education and care of children and the elderly.
Now in the first decade of the 21st century those tired and dangerous old ideas are back with a vengeance. Only this week the Guardian quoted a academic who suggested that biology leads women to cluster “around the mean”, while men, being inclined to extremes, are “over-represented both at the bottom and at the top.”
I watched a children’s science programme the other day. The male academic who led it told his young audience – to some face-pulling by girls – that as a matter of genetic determinism boys are “risktakers” and girls are “cautious”. His assertions were made in the face of clear evidence – which he chose to ignore or called “atypical” – that the girls in the audience had an outstanding capacity for risk-taking.
One of the reasons girls tend to be more diligent at school is because they know they have to be. Girls recognise that education provides a route to employment and stability. In general, boys know that, however badly behaved or ill educated they are, there are many areas of relatively well paid employment that, unofficially at least, continue to be reserved for males. They know they are likely to earn more than similarly- or better-educated females.

The evidence for this is under their noses. Recent research indicates that local councils face a £2.8bn bill to pay back a generation of women who have been discriminated against – many of them in low paid work in schools.
The survey, based on 79 local authorities found that, on average, staff in schools account for about 29% of equal pay costs for a given authority – and up to about 75% in some cases.
The journalist Polly Curtis wrote: “Schools are to be told to find up to a third of the bill out of their reserves to compensate classroom assistants and cleaners who have been systematically underpaid.”
The overall pay gap between men and women is estimated to be up to 20%. Council leaders, forced to confront this, now estimate that 40% of their staff are women who are owed money.
The equal pay bill could escalate because local settlements are being challenged by no-win no-fee lawyers, who fight for individual women to get the full six years in back pay to which they are often entitled. Hitherto, local deals between unions and councils have tended to award smaller settlements to ensure all women affected receive, as the Guardian puts it “some money without making deep cuts in services”. Now female workers have woken up to the fact that many may have been short-changed.

Rosaline Wilson earned £6.50 an hour for managing 13 care workers who provided home help for more than 250 elderly people. She and 26 other women took Redcar and Cleveland Council to court in an equal pay case. She was awarded £32,000. After lawyer’s fees and tax she received £18,000, £13,000 more than she had been offered.

Stefan Cross, one of the most successful of the lawyers working on equal pay claims, is preparing a high court challenge against the GMB trade union. This involves 5.000 women who accuse the union of sex discrimination against its female members because, it is alleged, it encouraged them “to agree to a settlement in the north east that seriously undervalued their claims and prioritized pay protection for their male colleagues.”

The situation for university educated women is not much better. A recent report revealed that female university graduates will take 5 years longer than male graduates to clear their student debts.
The higher education minister, Bill Rammell, said: “We estimate that a male student who entered higher education in 2006-07 will take an average of 11 years to repay their student loan. We estimate that this will be 16 years for a female.”
Kat Stark, women’s officer at the National Union of Students, said: “Women are taking longer than men to pay off their student loans because they are paid less, not because they are taking time off to have children.”

She added “Within three years of graduating, over 40% of men are earning over £25,000, compared to just over a quarter of women. The pay gap is not a new problem – the government knew when it introduced the tuition fees system that female graduates would end up saddled with debt to a worse extent than their male counterparts.”
David Willetts, the shadow higher education minister, said: “This shows that women get a raw deal in the labour market. Women’s earnings are more intermittent and still lower than men’s. This year interest rates on loans doubled from 2.4% to 4.8% and this shows that those debts hit women the most.”
And so in 2008 my daughter looks to a future which – were it not for women’s improved control of their own fertility – would look much like the 1950s. It is a future in which politicians and economists assume women will continue to accept poor education and low pay and bear the unpaid burden of child care and care for the elderly.
The policy-makers may be right, but on the other hand the way women council workers have resisted pressure by both council bosses and trade union officials suggests that there is a spirit of resistance abroad.

As Rosaline Wilson said “The union said we were rocking the boat. They told us they would sort it, that we’d lose our jobs (if we went ahead), but they never did sort it… Yes, we paid (the lawyer). He deserved every penny. Without him they would have wiped the floor with us.”

So my real wish for 2008 is that my daughter’s generation don’t play safe – but follow the example of the women of Redcar and Cleveland Council in taking risks.

I hope that as a generation they will indeed rock the boat. And not stop rocking until they have secured the equal rights to which they are entitled.

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