Education and Britain’s inequality crisis

Britain has an inequality problem. It is probably the biggest problem it faces and it is getting worse. Increasingly, how long you live in Britain depends on where you live. Life expectancy has stalled since 2010 and in some cases has gone into reverse. People living in rich parts of Kensington and Chelsea can now expect to live on average 16 years longer than their poorer neighbours in the same council area. Wage growth has stalled for all but the already very rich, whose salaries continue to soar (executive pay went up 11 per cent last year alone). The mean pay ratio between FTSE 100 CEOs and the mean pay package of their employees was 145:1 in 2017 (compared to 128:1 in 2016). Income inequality, already higher in Britain than in almost all other European countries, is growing. Work in Britain is no longer an effective defence against poverty. One in eight workers live in poverty – 3.7 million – and, of the 12 million working-age adults and children in poverty, 8 million live in families where at least one person is in work. Meanwhile, a fractured and self-contradicting government, tied up in introspective knots as it steers the country towards a Brexit outcome that only a minority of right-wing zealots want and that will worsen the lives of the worst-off still further, has no answers and seemingly no interest in doing anything about it. 

Britain looks increasingly like a country in need of an intervention. We are locked in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour, aware of the harm we do ourselves and others but seemingly unable to stop doing it. Politicians often talk about the problems Britain faces, commissions are set up and inquiries launched, critics are co-opted and reports published, often with the best of intentions – but there is no appetite in government to deal with the underlying causes, or even to talk about them openly. And for much of the mainstream media, the day-to-day struggles of people living with poverty are simply off-radar – a foreign country which, in the best English tradition, they would rather sneer at than try to understand. We are, increasingly, in denial about who we are and where we are going, puffed up by self-delusion and beset by imaginary bogeymen, frequently mistaking our friends for our enemies. We need to acknowledge this and begin talking honestly about the challenges we face. The starting point for any intervention – and the first step to recovery – is acceptance: we must, first of all, accept that we have a problem with inequality and that we are, as a society and as individuals, in crisis because of it. We also need to accept that none of this is inevitable – it is the result of the choices we have made – and that we can change it.

It is increasingly clear that the inequality crisis means that very many people in Britain now face difficulties that make their lives unmanageable. Inequality, as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson show in their new book The Inner Level, is not just about material goods and wealth; it ‘eats into the heart of our immediate, personal world’, increasing the social distance between people and making us ill at ease with each other, becoming, in short, ‘the enemy between us’. They point to evidence from a Mental Health Foundation Survey, which found that 74 per cent of adults in the UK were so stressed at times in the past year that they felt ‘overwhelmed and unable to cope’, with one-third reporting suicidal thoughts. Socioeconomic inequality ‘strengthens the belief that some people are worth much more than others’, they say. ‘In more unequal societies we come to judge each other more by status and worry more about how others judge us … [Inequality] increases status anxiety in all income groups, from the poorest ten per cent to the richest tenth’. This can take the form of ‘lack of confidence, feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem’, resulting in ‘high levels of depression and anxiety in more unequal societies’ and leading to greater alcohol and substance abuse. Those living in relative poverty, no matter what their material living standards, tend to experience a feeling of failure and a ‘strong sense of shame and self-loathing’, while the rich tend to flaunt their worth and achievements, to ‘self-enhance’; and ‘become narcissistic’. Interestingly, Pickett and Wilson report, more unequal societies are also more likely to have high levels of personal debt as people ‘try to show that they are not “second-class people” by owning “first-class things”’.

Inequality is corrupting, in all sorts of ways. Not only is it a driver of depression, alcohol and substance dependency, debt and acquisitiveness, it is also inimical to the health of our democracy, allowing the wealthy to exercise a disproportionate influence over government and its institutions. As the Economist reports, the political influence of the rich tends to increase as inequality grows – they are able to spend more on political donations and are much more likely to have regular personal contact with elected officials. More insidiously, they have the power to shape public opinion, through ownership of media outlets, the financing of ‘nominally apolitical think tanks’, and so on. These efforts are sometimes ‘used to influence the result of a particular vote’, such as the vote on Britain’s EU membership. However, ‘it is often deployed more subtly, to shape public narratives about which problems deserve attention’, focusing attention on matters of ‘social order’, such as crime and immigration, rather than issues of economic justice.

Inequality also inhibits social mobility – the gaps between the rungs of the ladder make the risks of failure that much greater, and make education a high-stakes, high-risk endeavour, which incentivises system-gaming of one form or another. This means that the wealthy are better able to monopolise positions of power and influence within society, something that is exacerbated by systems of first-rung internships and the prohibitive costs of living in London. This, in turn, helps ensure that senior positions in the media are dominated by people from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, pushing the lives and concerns of working-class people still further down the news agenda. Much of the bias this creates is unintentional. The appalling neglect of further education and technical qualifications in the national media, for example, is down as much to ignorance (they are for ‘other people’s children’) as it is to a deliberate policy of exclusion.

We seem to be approaching what Danny Dorling describes as ‘peak inequality’, a situation where ‘the town you live in is so segregated that the school-aged children do not mix – not between schools, not socially, not at all. Peak inequality is where the best-off people in your workplace demand “housing allowances” because they could not possibly live near those who clean their workplace, or those who ensure the photocopier works, or who keep the computer servers working night and day.’ If this situation is not immediately familiar to you, you probably do not live in Britain. As Dorling notes, inequality now ‘pervades every aspect of our lives in Britain in ways we now accept as normal’. We see it in our over-crowded railway carriages (and often near-empty first-class carriages), in our under-funded public services, our impoverished schools and hospitals, our booming (and publicly subsidised) private-school sector, our shabby, sometimes derelict public spaces and the ongoing ‘cleansing’ of old working-class neighbourhoods. Inequality is everywhere. It is saddening to see how accustomed we have become to political failure, to things no civilised society should tolerate.

So, what can we do to change things? Education has a crucial, underpinning role to play, although it is only one part of the story. To really change things, we need a huge shift in political will, backed by a broad national consensus about the kind of society we want to be. Such change would inevitably involve a substantial redistribution of wealth, a reduction in health inequalities and a properly funded health service, fairer pay and greater pay equality (with curbs on soaring executive pay, which has leached also into the public sector), and more affordable housing. But education can often be the start of such change, which is why I attach so much importance to it. Specific educational interventions can make a big difference. I want to talk about three.

First, we need to level the educational playing field to ensure equal opportunities for all. Britain is a complete outlier internationally in deliberately perpetuating a two-tier school education system, in which the majority of wealthy parents send their children to private schools, where they meet other privileged children and greatly improve their chances of attending an elite university and being successful later in life, and the rest send their children either to a state-supported selective school (often dependent on living in the right area, access to academic coaching, etc) or to a ‘bog-standard’ state school, which, like the parents who send their children there, is likely to be struggling to provide basic educational necessities for their kids. The current government has deliberately exacerbated an already bad situation, by reducing real-terms funding for state schools while finding extra money for selective schools to expand. Astonishingly, and in the face of all evidence, ministers implementing these policies claim to be acting to promote social mobility. This is an example of the kind of Orwellian doublespeak now routinely employed in government departments, and it is a particularly bare-faced example. The reality of their policies is a reinforcement of social inequality, selection based on class or wealth, with middle-class parents (who have the knowledge and resources to do it) incentivised to game the system in favour of their children, panic among parents desperate to get the best option available for their kids, and greater consciousness of failure in selective areas among children who have not made it to a selective school (in effect, the presence of a selective school turns neighbouring state-maintained schools into ‘secondary moderns’). The great irony of this is that all of it, including the elite private-school system, is subsidised by ordinary tax-payers. Getting poor people to pay for this must rank among the greatest con-tricks on public opinion of all time.

The term ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ was coined by Tony Blair’s attack dog in chief, Alastair Campbell, to justify his government’s promotion of specialist schools and academies. Subsequent Conservative-led governments have reinforced this rhetoric, emphasising choice and diversity rather than uniformity of quality, and systematically reducing the funding available for the education of ‘other people’s children’. It became perfectly clear, particularly under Michael Gove – the worst, most arrogant and irresponsible education secretary in living memory – that the life chances of poorer children were a price worth paying for the government’s experiments in selective education and their attacks on ‘the blob’, the rump of experts, academics and teachers trying to educate kids in spite of the mess created by Gove and his moronic acolytes. Parents want choice, we were/are told. But in fact parents want nothing of the sort. What they want is bog-standard schools – schools that are of a bog-standard high quality and offer the same opportunities to every child – and a system that is fair for everyone, no matter where they live or how wealthy they are.

Uniformity of quality in school education is generally regarded as rather a good thing in countries other than Britain. No-one minds sending their kids to a ‘bog-standard’ school when the standard is uniformly good. When I moved to Hamburg a couple of years ago, people looked at me uncomprehendingly when I asked where the best schools in the city were located. Generally speaking, they told me, they are all good. There is no mainstream private school alternative and the social mix of state schools reflects that. The parents of the children in my son’s school include neurosurgeons, architects, GPs, teachers, nurses, lawyers, police, retail workers and cleaners – not a mix you would find in many British schools where social segregation is, for the most part, the norm. The reason for this is that the British education system has developed to perpetuate privilege rather than to challenge it, to compound advantage and to stifle equality of opportunity rather than to promote it. If we had set out from scratch to design a system for just this purpose, it would look something like the system we now have. To change this we need to follow the example set by Finland, as set out by Melissa Benn in her excellent Guardian ‘long read’, by abolishing divisive, privilege-entrenching fee-paying schools and establishing a genuinely nationwide comprehensive system. The reforms in Finland, as Benn notes, helped close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students and turned Finland ‘into one of the global educational success stories of the modern era’. With sufficient political will, we could achieve this in Britain too. The best and surest way to improve our education system and ensure it is fair and well-funded is to have a single system in which every parent is equally invested. We would soon see public funding for schools rise. Taking away the multi-million pound state subsidy for private schools and redirecting it to struggling state schools would be a step in the right direction, but it is nowhere near enough.

My second intervention is to increase support for those who have already been through compulsory education to improve their lives and prospects and those of their families, particularly their children. The past two decades have seen a remarkable erosion in opportunities for adults to learn, whether in the community, in work, in further education colleges or at university. It is important that this decline is reversed, and in a way that acknowledges the importance of wider learning: learning that makes us more creative, confident, ambitious, resilient and sensitised to learning, as well as work-ready. Adults who have been failed by our faulty and systemically unfair education system deserve a second chance. This is crucial not only for them but also for their families. Parents are desperate to support their children through school but many lack the knowledge, skills and confidence to do so. Working-class parents in particular often still bear the scars of their school education: some need support with basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, others, labelled ‘thick’ or ‘stupid’ at school, find the classroom a scary, intimidating place. These are all issues they need to overcome to engage fully in their children’s education. This is why I think family learning is a particularly useful intervention, and something that should be a much more recognised – and much better funded – feature of our educational terrain. It not only provides parents with a powerful incentive to engage in learning, often for the first time since school, but has also been shown to have a substantial positive impact on the attainment of their children. When it comes to pupil performance, there really is no substitute for parental engagement. And when it comes to adult engagement, there really is no more compelling motive than the desire to better support our children.

Family Connections, a Belfast-based project funded by the children’s charity, Barnardo’s, provides an excellent example of how family learning works. The project takes as its premise the idea that ‘children will do better at school if their parents are involved in their education’ and aims to build ‘the capacity of parents to embed learning in the home environment’. It has four main complementary and connected strands: work with children; work with parents; work with children and parents; and work with community. Each strand reinforces the others, inspiring kids and parents alike, and supporting them in creating the sorts of rich learning environments more-privileged children can take for granted. This kind of support is critical in enabling children to do well in education. It can be as simple a matter as reading with a child. Reading for pleasure has been found to be an even more important predictor of future educational success than socio-economic background, and home environment is the critical factor in fostering this. Research also suggests that if we can get more people reading we can increase empathy, improve their relationships with others, reduce symptoms of depression and improve wellbeing. The value of family learning includes but, importantly, goes beyond improved educational achievements for children and parents, and includes well-attested benefits in terms of confidence, self-esteem, motivation, self-efficacy, health and well-being, employability and increased community involvement. Despite the well-documented benefits, funding for family learning has been in decline.

A third and, for me, absolutely critical intervention is to invest in people’s civic and political education. We need to revive spaces in which people can come together and discuss the things that matter to them and their communities and we need to revive the tradition of education for active citizenship, which has been part and parcel of the British adult education system for well over a century (though it has been in deep retreat for several decades). People need to find a way out of their algorithmic echo chambers, to find means of locating common ground with others, including, especially, those they disagree with. Rather that hurling insults across the cyber divide we should be seeking out common spaces in which to exchange ideas, persuade and discuss – spaces in which, in Hannah Arendt’s words, we can ‘think against the grain of received opinion … question and challenge [and] imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives’. Democratic governments have a responsibility to support this, as do the leaders of all educational institutions in receipt of public funding. It is, for example, a crucial, though neglected, part of the mission of our universities. We can learn here from Sweden, where adult education came to be seen as an essential part of ‘building democracy from below’ and of including and empowering excluded members of the population. As Magnus Dahlstedt puts it, ‘adult education was understood as a domain of democratic fostering’ whereby ‘adult learners learn how engage in a debate, listen to other’s arguments’ and are, by participating, ‘fostered into democratic citizens’. This tradition is still alive in Sweden though it is largely forgotten in Britain, where, not so long ago, it was the primary concern of adult educators, and from where the Swedish model took much of its early inspiration. Raymond Williams described it as the ‘central ambition’ of the adult education movement in Britain, ‘to be part of the process of social change’ rather than just a consequence of it.

Renewing this neglected part of our educational tradition is particularly challenging but I think it is of growing importance, given current threats to democracy, the polarising effects of social media and the distorting mirror our unrepresentative and unaccountable media, dominated by private interests and private money, holds up to reality. As a society, we desperately need to have an informed, open and collegial conversation about the sort of society we want to be, not more self-defeating group-think. Do we want to continue subsidising private schools to the tune of millions of pounds while funding for state education is cut? Do we want a two-tier education system in which opportunity is so unevenly and unfairly distributed, to the extent that we routinely write off the chances of half the school-leaving population? Do we really want to continue running our public services down, hollowing out local government and under-funding health services, while the already wealthy take more and more to the point where they can afford to turn a blind eye to the civic vandalism taking place all around them? What is our collective vision for the future of the country post-Brexit? These are important questions that we need to ask ourselves that concern actual choices, not facts of life or unchangeable laws of national life. At this crucial point in British history, we need an informed, national and local conversation, supported by civic and political education.

Our failure on inequality is in part a failure of the imagination – a failure to think differently or to believe things can be different. It is also a failure of values, conscience, courage, optimism and critical thinking. The statistics quoted at the start of the article have become depressingly normal, as have the excuses, the pretence that inequality is either inevitable or justified by the superior talents of the rich. We have grown accustomed to the idea that we cannot possibly have the nice things the Scandinavians, or for that matter the French or Germans, take for granted – decent state schools in every neighbourhood, a good, inexpensive transport infrastructure, pleasant, well-maintained public spaces, a well-functioning health service, an education which does not load poorer students with a lifetime of debt. But inequality is not inevitable – it is the result of political choice and it can be changed. To change things, we need real political will and vision from government, as well as a willingness to talk frankly about what the challenges are and what options are available to us, including, crucially, the option to do things differently. One reason for people’s alienation from politics is that, in most cases, this latter option simply does not seem to be on the table. We need to empower people to play their own part in shaping the country of the future. Years of ideologically driven austerity, tolerance of outrageous pay inequality, the neglect of working-class communities around the country, a profoundly cynical and undemocratic media and our continuing support for an education system that compounds privilege have brought us to crisis point. But what happens next is in our own hands. We can continue down the current road, ignoring the warning signs and allowing the poison of poverty and inequality to spread, or we can turn around and go in another direction. I very much hope we will do the latter.