Social capital in the trenches

Poster from September 1914, British Library exhibition "Ednduring War: Grief, grit & humour"

Poster from September 1914, British Library exhibition “Enduring War: Grief, grit & humour”

I’ve known for a long time about the Pals’ Battalions in the First World War. Recruiters – who included ‘philanthropists’, civic dignatories and religious leaders as well as the military – played on young men’s personal loyalties as a way of persuading them to enlist in groups. Initially the ‘pals’ came largely from the middle classes, though nowadays we tend to think of them as drawn mainly from the industrial cities.

In war, as in many other situations, friendship and workplace networks are an obvious way of swelling the ranks. It isn’t simply a matter of getting more bangs for your buck, so to speak, by recruiting a whole group rather than individuals. Social capital theories suggest that not only will people volunteer more readily as part of a group, but that they will be able to draw on their learned resources of trust and co-operation once they are in uniform.

This poster, which I spotted at a fantastic exhibition in the British Library, sets out the case very clearly. It was aimed at ‘young men from 19 to 35, especially those employed in Banking and Commercial Houses’, and its main selling point was that the recruit would ‘Serve with your friends’. I guess it must have worked well enough for a time, because the same approach was then extended to the industrial north.

Of course, social capital theory tells us that connections can work in many ways. It suggests that soldiers who know each other well can also organise and co-operate to resist authority. It also suggests that strong bonds might predispose some young men to refuse to serve in war, and indeed the BL exhibition includes a moving statement by a young Quaker and Socialist who stood trial rather than be conscripted.

No one has claimed that social capital theories identify some entirely new phenomenon. The value of connections has entered cliche corner a long time ago, through phrases like “old school tie” and so forth. What the theories can help us do is to understand the nature of those ties, the meanings that they have for people, and the ways in which people use them, for good or for ill.

Should we fine ‘bad parents’?

We all know that family support is vital for a child’s education. Parents provide help with homework, discuss progress with teachers, provide transport to sporting and cultural activies, and generally help to create a culture of enthusiasm for learning. Ideally, they will also model that enthusiasm by learning themselves, and talking with others in the family about how they are getting on.

Inevitably, though, some families don’t meet that admirable ideal. We could ignore that, on the grounds that people’s attitudes and values are their own business and not the government’s. But that is a pretty short-sighted view, especially given what we know about family support for education and people’s life chances as adults. So if we do think something should be done, what is the best form of action to take?

Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of education for England, has suggested that schools should be able to fine parents who allow their children to neglect homework, miss parents’ evenings or fail to read with their children.

Well, it’s a solution of sorts, though it strikes me as hopelessly out of touch with reality. Who will fines hurt most? How exactly will fining people change their attitudes and behaviour? Do schools have the capacity to handle appeals? Will headteachers really send for bailiffs to collect unpaid fines? How will such fines affect relationships between parents and teachers?

More to the point, Wilshaw is ignoring evidence of an alternative approach to parental engagement that actually appears to work. This at first seems strange, given that some of that evidence was produced by the inspectorate, which collaborated with the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education on a series of pilot projects to promote family learning.

Family learning offers a far better approach to engaging disadaged families than fining them. But it requires a much more strategic approach to learning across the life course than either Michael Wilshaw or the current government is willing to consider.