“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”
— Jesuit saying
This week I spent a couple of days watching every movie in the Up Series, a set of seven documentary films that follow the lives of a group of English children over a period of about 45 years.
The Up Series is an unusual and fascinating project that began in 1964, when a program was commissioned by Granada Television as part of the World in Action TV series. The first episode, Seven Up, was directed by Paul Almond, and Michael Apted took over for the following six films which were produced in 1970, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1998, and 2005.
The films follow the lives of 14 children who were initially chosen as “representative” of various socio-economic class (SEC) strata. The program was designed to focus on the “determining” role of class in people’s life circumstances. The group of children included was geographically and socially diverse, ranging from one child from the rural Yorkshire Dales to those from London’s East End and suburban Liverpool.
In successive episodes, the participants were asked about various topics including their leisure time activities, educational environment, family, class and money, and race. The project later delved more into participants’ personal lives — choices and relationships, attitudes and motivations, and self-awareness. Several of them bowed out of a number of episodes over time.
Aside from the fascination of watching lives unfold, I was most interested in the role of education, which was a focus in the series because of the association made between education and SEC. There were varied educational experiences within the group, including elite private and prep schools (singing “Waltzing Matilda” in Latin!), state comprehensive and grammar schools, and a charity-based boarding school; several of the children later attended Oxbridge while others didn’t complete high school. Style of education is framed as an early sorting mechanism, as in the first episode where the narrator argues that the “distinction between freedom and discipline is the key to [the children’s] whole future.”
What’s become clearer over time is that this series also provides a small portrait of a generation. Born in 1957, these children were part of the long post-war Baby Boom. They grew up in an era of unprecedented change, both to social values and to economic prospects; and they benefited uniquely from the Keynesian “welfare state”, much of which was built by their parents’ generation.
There was a huge difference in the perception of education between participants, as well as between “then and now”. Those who weren’t from privileged circumstances seemed to see higher education as optional to a full life, including a career and a family, though for some it clearly wasn’t an option presented. This was a contrast to the children from wealthy families who knew from a young age the stepping-stones to professional careers.
The trajectory of life in general was also different, possibly because of the timing of education. Many of the participants had married and had children by 28. Several of the marriages had lasted over 20 years by the time 49 Up was filmed in 2006 (though several others had divorced). Most started full-time work at a younger age than the current average — including the one participant who became an academic.
Within a generation, we’ve already seen this picture change beyond recognition. It’s now uncommon for teens to leave school at the age of 15 or 16 for other prospects, probably because there are no prospects without at least a high school diploma. High school alone is not “enough” anymore; class mobility is practically impossible without a post-secondary credential, and even then, the competition is fierce. These days, the news from the UK indicates that teenagers there (and elsewhere) are thoroughly preoccupied with trying to map our their life choices at earlier ages as they navigate the educational system, suffering increased anxiety over future prospects, and sometimes a sense of lethargic hopelessness in the face of increasing economic inequality.
Class still matters, now as much as ever. Watching the Up Series films made me think about what we might learn about class, culture, and education if we had not only longitudinal, statistical information, but qualitative work that fleshes out the complex processes involved in people’s decisions, the opportunities available to them, and the ways in which education is involved. The larger story of a life in context tells us more than a series of numbers. But with cuts to education research in Canada, it’s hard to imagine that kind of study being pursued in the near future.