Last year, I visited an inner city academy in a deprived part of a northern city, where I met an eleven-year-old girl. Let’s call her A. What - I asked A. with stunning lack of originality – do you want to be when you grow up? A lawyer, she said, shyly.
Why did A.’s dream leave me feeling so uneasy? After all, here she was, a talented Year 7 (first year) student at a shiny new academy with keen teachers eager to help her and an admirably aspirational personal dream.
The answer, unfortunately, is not that hard to unravel. The curriculum at this shy young student’s sparkling new school was clearly shaped to suit its business sponsors’ expectations of the very deprived area it served; it was largely geared to vocational work. Not long opened, there was already a sense of cheery fatalism about what the children at this academy could, or could not, achieve.
What real chance does a child like A. have compared with a child from an affluent background? Even if A. were to have access to the full array of ‘hard subjects’ - such as the single sciences and at least one modern and one ancient foreign language - now so favoured by our Government, how would she develop the psychological stamina to keep going through GCSEs and A-levels, possibly with no parental backing? And how then would she be able to negotiate the byzantine process of university application, let alone find the funds to pay the extortionate costs of higher education. In short how would she negotiate a system that, in Britain in 2011, so favours the rich in every way?
So, how likely is it that she will become a lawyer when as Alan Milburn’s 2009 report on social mobility showed, increasingly it is the privately educated who are taking most of the plum professional jobs? According to Milburn, currently 75 per cent of judges and 45 per cent of civil servants are privately educated.
A.’s story is a forceful reminder that, while there are thousands of excellent schools, leaders and teachers in today’s schools, our education system remains stubbornly and profoundly unequal. According to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the UK now has one of the widest gaps ‘between the reading abilities of our quickest and slowest learners … Most of the differences are explained by differences in the socio-economic background … in short, we operate a kind of educational apartheid’.
Another report, from the children’s charity Barnardo’s, published in 2010 and entitled 'Unlocking the gates: giving disadvantaged children a fairer deal in school admissions’, revealed that poorer children find themselves effectively ‘locked out’ of many high-achieving secondary schools. As a result, half of our most disadvantaged children are concentrated in a quarter of our schools: an astonishing and depressing figure.
While all sides of the political spectrum agree that there is a real problem, there remains major disagreement, not strictly drawn up across party lines, about the causes of this inequality and how it can be fixed. Those whom we would consider broadly on the educational right, argue that so-called ‘comprehensive reform’ has failed and that this is to blame for the apparent stasis in social mobility in this country: a simplistic and highly politicised position which ignores a wealth of complex evidence that suggests the halt in social mobility is a mix of changes to the structure of our economy, the growing role of women, the continued hold that the privileged exert in our society and very little to do with educational reform in our state sector.
The new evangelists
Despite this, the new educational evangelists - many of them, like education secretary Michael Gove, privately educated - persistently run down our state system – a national sport stretching back decades. They believe that the answer is to foster greater parent choice, and to create new schools: that is, more academies, or new ‘free schools’.
So, how likely is this to work? The early signs are not promising. Of the first wave of free schools opened in autumn 2011, most seem pretty clearly to be of greater benefit to the already affluent. According to a close analysis of the catchment areas of the first 24 free schools approved by government, undertaken by the Guardian newspaper (which supports free schools in principle), most are skewed towards the middle-class; white working-class pupils are under-represented within them.
Even those that proudly proclaim themselves comprehensive in intake, like Toby Young’s much-discussed West London Free School, take relatively fewer children on free school meals, a standard register of deprivation, than the surrounding local schools. The Government claims this will change with the next wave of free schools due to open in autumn 2012.
Yet the Government and its allies remain stubbornly silent about the pyramid of inequality, reinforced at every turn by the financial, academic and social selection that defines and distorts our education system. Instead, they are opening a new wave of vocationally based schools, mimicking aspects of the ‘dual education’ nations such as Austria where more than half of all 14-year-olds go into work.
These developments are taking place against a background of huge cuts hitting the majority of schools – particularly those comprehensives and community schools now so invisible to this government that they are no longer even mentioned on the Department of Education website. The maintained schools - those which receive their funding through the much maligned and now pruned local authorities - have lost out on everything from new buildings to one-to-one tuition, to sixth form funding and sports provision. Other cuts include the slashing of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which enabled so many low income students to stay on at school.
Meanwhile the prosperous and successful schools have been bribed by central government to convert to academies (thus becoming legally independent of local authorities). In January this year, Liberal Democrat Councillor Peter Downes, a leading internal critic of the Coalition’s education policy, worked out that in his local area of Cambridgeshire, converting schools were being promised £337 per primary pupil and £318 per secondary pupil annually. And yet the amounts actually recouped from the local authority were around £65 and £24 respectively. Clearly, the more vulnerable schools and pupils that remain within the ambit of the local authority are now paying for the conversion of successful schools to academy status.
After a year of coalition government, it has become clear that the Government’s real motive in the long term is to create a privatised education system. Academies and free schools by-pass local authorities entirely and have a direct, and often secret, funding relationship with central government; they also enjoy greater freedoms than other local schools, some of which (like the right to hire non-qualified teachers) are rather dubious.
Increasingly, schools will be run by charitable and private providers, including a growing number of educational chains such as ARK and E-Act. Michael Gove has recently approved a list of a dozen ‘preferred’ sponsors to take over schools he regards as under-performing. Among them are three leading American for-profit charter companies – EdisonLearning, K12 and Mosaic. If the US example is anything to go by, many of these educational organisations may offer our children a sterile, limited education, of vastly uneven quality.
And while the poor are being ‘taught to the test’, broad-based rich curricula will, once again, remain the preserve of an affluent elite. The tripartite system, first set up in 1944, and then dismantled due to parental pressure, will return in new form. Except that no one will be directly sent to a secondary modern. Instead children such as A. will be subtly channelled into different kinds of schools shaped, almost certainly, by class-based expectations.
Our common endeavours
For all these reasons, increasing numbers of parents, teachers and school governors are urging that we develop an alternative, genuinely collaborative system, that will give all children access to a good, general education within an accountable framework, untainted by the profit motive. Some of the top performing systems in the world are based on non-selective, neighbourhood schools, with high degrees of professional autonomy for school and teachers, fewer league tables and more individual assessment. It is crucial that our schools do not specialise too early, and that all children receive a mix of academic and vocational education.
We need to invest far more in schools in poorer areas. Every child deserves to go to school in well-appointed buildings, have access to a range of first class facilities in science, art and sport, and to be taught by highly trained teachers. Smaller classes and one- to- one tuition should play a central part of a national state education system, as it does in the private sector.
Fair admission policies, which prevent schools from overtly or covertly selecting the easier-to-teach, are vital to ensuring that our children are educated together and not separated into religious, social or ethnic ‘silos’. We also need to ensure that children like A. get extra help with university admissions.
Education is our most vital common endeavour. It is the responsibility of government and far too important to be handed to the charitably minded elite or to the mercies of the private sector. Neither will provide young aspirational 11-year-olds such as A., nor the many thousands of young people like her, with the rounded and rich education they need and deserve.
This article is part of the new dialogue on opendemocracy 50.50 Centrestage
Melissa Benn's latest book is School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education, published by Verso books.
Get our weekly email