Monthly Archives: August 2008

Driving lessons

Just a quick note about the lack of context in your average news story containing social science, and the most basic at that. Today’s Observer has a story about the credit crunch and driving lessons: apparently the tightening of mum’s purse means 17-year-olds aren’t getting driving lessons for their birthdays.

Figures from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency show that there were 52,000 fewer applications for provisional driving licences this year compared with the same period last year – an 8 per cent fall.

It is the first time this decade that the number of people learning to drive has fallen. From 2000 until the end of 2007, the number of applications rose year on year by an average of 3 per cent. But thousands of families looking to reduce non-essential spending are no longer willing to pay for lessons – the average cost of learning to drive is now £1,500.

The AA said the number of people taking lessons at its driving schools mirrored the DVLA statistics. ‘We think people might be reaching 17 and thinking about the rising cost of fuel and insurance and deciding to wait,’ said AA spokesman Ian Crowder. Both the number of people taking tests and the percentage passing first time had fallen, he added.

I’m sure that the lack of money is likely to have some effect, but they don’t have any concrete evidence of decision making processes. It could also be because teenagers are now more likely to go to university, so won’t be working, won’t have money, and won’t need to commute. It could be because the cost of fuel makes driving lessons more expensive: perhaps if instructors absorbed some of their higher costs, then demand would increase.

More obviously, though, and certainly with a cast-iron cause and effect, a large part of this historical change is because of the change in numbers of 17-year-olds. This is data from statistics.gov.uk showing the number of 17-year-olds at the middle of each year:

2000 632,257
2001 644,386
2002 672,903
2003 673,918
2004 687,209
2005 708,081
2006 701,293
2007 706,947
2008 715,934
2009 702,627
2010 680,805

Between 2000 and 2007 the population of 17-year-olds increased by an average of 2% a year, explaining for most of the increase in applications. The number of 17-year-olds becoming 17 from July 2008 to June 2009 (those who will be 17 on 1 July 2009) is 2% less than the year before, so the number applications would be falling even if teenagers continued to apply at the same rate. Indeed, it looks like it’s going to get worse for driving instructors, even if fuel prices fall.

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Class: Trevor Phillips breaks rank

A couple of weeks ago was some news I thought I’d never hear: someone in the higher echelons of our government / state said that ‘class’ was more important for inequality / life chances and so on, than other inequalities such as race and gender. Trevor Phillips broke rank with the Blairite rhetoric that we live in a ‘classless society’ (see this for optimism about class).

Of course, the idea that background differences (of wealth/education/’standing’) is common knowledge and common sense. Money can buy better education, good manners help one to ‘get on’ (see Pierre Bourdieu), and the idea of a kid from a council estate becoming a minister or a senior business figure makes the news because it’s so unusual.

Way back in 2002 I did some work for the Equal Opportunities Commission (now part of Trevor Phillips’ organisation) and the general public, in a survey and focus groups, told us that the circumstances (class / area / poverty) of growing up were more important than other inequalities. But this would suggest we need to do something about those inequalities caused by material facts, not arbitrary inequalities of gender and race. If you made the world so that black middle-class people were just as likely to get middle-class jobs as their white equivalents, there would still be lots of working-class people who wouldn’t get the chance.

Unfortunately, any equal opportunity for the poorest people would require some middle-class people to fall down the class ladder – only half of us can be in top 50% – and this wouldn’t be a popular measure. To make things fairer we’d also need to make the differences smaller: again politically difficult.

Instead, the political consensus has addressed inequalities that, although real, are more about symbolism than improving the lot of society as a whole. Letting Oxford educated women into government didn’t do much for women at large. Letting posh black people get posh jobs doesn’t help the kids on rough London estates. At the bottom, anti-discrimination means letting the working-class compete on equal terms for a limited number of minimum wage jobs. That won’t solve the problems of an unequal society.

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