This month, the UK’s Social Mobility Commission published the latest in a series of reports highlighting Britain’s failure to reduce inequality or advance social mobility. It found that 600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty than in 2012 and projected that this would increase further due to benefit changes and coronavirus. In schools, less than a quarter of disadvantaged students get a good pass in English and maths, the commission’s report noted, compared with around 50 per cent of all other pupils, while half of all adults from the poorest backgrounds receive no training at all after leaving school. It also reported that life expectancy is falling for women in the most deprived areas, with health inequalities linked to socio-economic background further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have successive governments failed to make progress in these areas, things have been getting worse, and, unless we do something radically different in our politics, they will get worse still, with those at the bottom paying the highest price. This is a frightening prospect – just over a year ago, the UN’s special rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, found the government to be in breach of its human rights obligations concerning poverty, predicting that 40 per cent of British children would be in poverty by 2021.
It has become a tradition for incoming Tory Prime Ministers to affect a passionate interest in these issues. After earnestly praising her predecessor’s record on social justice (Cameron, the architect of austerity, recast as a champion of the disadvantaged!), Theresa May used her first speech as Prime Minister to promise to prioritise ‘not the mighty nor the wealthy nor the privileged’ but working-class people who are ‘just managing’ but want to ‘get on in life’, correcting in the process the ‘burning injustices’ of educational disadvantage, economic exclusion and systemic racism. Similarly, current PM Boris Johnson undertook to ‘change the country for the better’ by delivering Brexit [sic], renewing ‘the ties that bind us together’ as a nation and ‘closing the opportunity gap’ by ‘levelling up’ in education, wages, housing and so on. It remains to be seen whether ‘levelling up’ will be more than the latest in the long line of glib, vacuous slogans (‘Take back control’, ‘Get Brexit done’, etc., etc.) on which Johnson has based his political career. Past experience (not to mention Johnson’s well-documented disdain for working people) encourages us to doubt it.
Such statements can (perhaps rather generously) be read as a serious attempt to reinvigorate working-class Toryism (the respectable face of the brand), with its traditional emphasis on hard work, self-reliance and a strong sense of national identity. But it also represents a party political power grab, exploiting the confused and febrile nature of our current political climate, and the Labour party’s failure to take seriously or attempt to understand the concerns of many traditional voters, to convince those who have fared worst under the Tories that in fact the party is on their side. Of course, if such rhetoric were to become a reality it would come as a surprise to the people who fund the Conservative Party, drawn, as they are, from among the ‘mighty’, ‘wealthy’ and ‘privileged’ (we should probably add ‘Russian’ to this list), but, of course, it is not aimed at them and they know better than to take it literally. While the message may sound progressive, the intention is not. Closing the education gap has tended to mean more selection and increased scrutiny (of state schools) and more centralised policy tinkering, while promises to reinvigorate neglected regions often generate grand announcements which deliver little and commitments to devolve power which come heavily qualified and are often little more than national-level blame shifting (austerity has resulted, among other things, in the hollowing out and enfeeblement of local government) or a means of sticking it to the ‘metropolitan elite’.
The failure of government to deliver on these promises is not the story of well-intentioned political will encountering intractable forces it cannot shift, despite the best efforts of our leaders. It is the well-understood, and entirely predictable, outcome of Conservative thinking and the institutions and interests the party represents and protects. Chief among these is the remarkable domination of elite professions and positions of influence, not to mention elite universities, by the 7 per cent of the British population who attend private schools. This isn’t evidence of the genetic superiority of ‘ancient families’, as some of those within and close to the current government appear, genuinely, to believe, but rather the result of social engineering intended to ensure that privilege is passed on from generation to generation. These institutions, which continue to receive public subsidy despite actively working against the life chances of the vast majority of people who live in the UK, perpetuate historic disadvantage and reinforce the social snobbery and segregation that squeeze opportunity for all but the best-off and make British society so miserably class-bound, so grubbily deferential and disunited.
One of the things that most struck me when I moved to Germany three years ago was the social mix of pupils and their parents in the German grundschule (primary school) my son attended. There is no social segregation because privilege has not been institutionalised within the system. Private schools play a marginal role in the German education system, and there is an expectation that the state will provide an excellent standard of education for every child and in every school. Things were quite different at my son’s old primary school, in a relatively prosperous suburb of Liverpool. Not only was there social segregation by property – the better-off neighbourhoods also had the best schools and there was competition among parents to buy into those areas so as to access those schools (and avoid the bad ones) – but almost all the parents at our school were from non-professional, mostly blue-collar backgrounds. Professional people sent their kids to one or other of the numerous private, fee-paying schools in the area, and there was wide appreciation of the fact that these establishments were much better resourced and much better at educating and represented the best way of giving your children a leg-up in life. If you could afford it, in other words, this is what you did. It is astonishing how normal this chronic systemic unfairness is in British life. It is hardly challenged.
While schools in the state sector in England are subject to rigorous, high-stakes inspection and near continual central political reform, usually aimed at increasing selection and providing greater ‘choice’ for parents (though I am yet to meet a parent for whom this is a priority), private schools are free to game the system in favour of their students. For example, Sevenoaks school, which charges more than £38,000 a year for boarding pupils, has a policy of exaggerating exam grade predictions for its lowest-performing students ‘to facilitate application to a more selective university’. While it is rare for a private school to put this policy in writing, as Sevenoaks did, it is, I suspect, a strategy that is widely, though perhaps less formally, deployed. Private school pupils also gain advantage from the support of well-educated parents who understand how the system works and how to game it. Unsurprisingly, once they are at university, students from state schools outperform privately education students admitted with the same A-level grades. Kids from wealthier backgrounds also benefit from the support of private tutors and the confidence that comes from attending an elite institution. With the odds so firmly stacked against kids from poor and working-class backgrounds, it is little wonder social mobility has stalled and, indeed, gone backwards, and that so many communities feel – and indeed are – ‘left behind’. Despite these very real and obvious inequities, and the anti-democratic networks of nepotism and low-level corruption they foster, the impact of private schools is not even up for meaningful policy discussion in the UK, I guess unsurprisingly given the hold their alumni they have on politics and media in the country.
Educational disadvantage for less-privileged students is further compounded in post-compulsory education. While private school pupils swell the ranks of elite universities to a disproportionate degree, state school pupils are more likely to apply to less prestigious institutions, where their degrees are likely to have a stronger vocational dimension. Further education too has seen a steady narrowing of its curriculum to focus on workplace and employability skills, while taking a huge funding hit since 2010. Adult education, the route through which working people can gain a second chance and access higher learning, has also faced devastating cuts since 2010. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, funding for adult education in FE in England was cut by 45 per cent between 2009/10 and 2017/18. At the same time, local authority adult education provision, which targets in particular the most disadvantaged and hardest-to-reach adults, has also faced swingeing cuts. The Local Government Association (LGA) estimates that the government would need at least to double the adult education budget (from £1.5 billion to £3 billion) to reverse the overall 3.8 million drop in learner numbers since 2010. The number of adults in higher education in England has also been in freefall under the Conservatives. The total number of mature undergraduate entrants fell from more than 400,000 in 2010/11 to fewer than 240,000 in 2017/18 – a drop of 40 per cent. Part-time student numbers have collapsed too, with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) reporting a 61 per cent drop since 2010, most of these being mature students aged 21 or above. HEPI estimates that the loss in part-time numbers equates to 17 per cent fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education in England.
Government plans to invest in school rebuilding and FE estate upgrades in England are welcome, of course, as is the relative funding stability of the past few years, but they come nowhere near repairing the damage done or the disadvantage deepened by cuts to schools and colleges since 2010. Still less do they address the systemic causes of disadvantage. The dismantling of adult education, besides being an appalling act of cultural vandalism, matters also because it closes off the main channel through which adults have traditionally been able to improve their lives and engage more fully in civic and social life. For adults who are not wealthy, the educational story of the past decade has been of one door shutting after another and a continual stifling of opportunity. Wherever you learn, whether at school in college, at university or in the community, there has been a steady narrowing of curricula choice and variety, with the arts and humanities under repeated attack and provision increasingly focused on work and employability and producing young people who are ‘job ready’ (as opposed to life or even work ready). It is clear from the direction of policy that while working people can expect an education that will prepare them for a job and, if they are very lucky, a life of work, the kind of liberal education that prepares people to live a full life illuminated by an appreciation of culture, political and civic engagement, and the capacity to think and argue critically and communicate ideas effectively, is to be more or less the exclusive preserve of the better-off and privileged.
I feel that we give our leaders too much credit by taking their commitments at face value. The COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on the appalling unfairness of some little-challenged aspects of national life, including the vast privileges bestowed by a private education and the dreadful poverty of opportunity they impose on the rest of us. It is right, of course, to applaud any intervention which will benefit learners and help make the country more equal, but too often in applauding the good intentions of policy we forget to hold government to account for the regressive thinking and systemic disadvantage that holds people and communities back and excludes them from opportunity. We can go back to the way things were, of course, and many would welcome it. But we have, in the midst of the current crisis, an opportunity to do things differently, to consider whether we want a system that self-consciously perpetuates social injustice and inequality, or think instead about abolishing private school education and rebalancing education spending more fairly, to the benefit both of disadvantaged children and young people, and adults, whose opportunities to access learning have been the most badly affected by the austerity politics of the past decade. Everyone deserves a decent education. We are not economic units; we are people with rich capabilities and capacities that should not be casually squandered. If we want a society that is both fair and prosperous, in which everyone is able to foster and exploit their talents to the full, we will dismantle the machinery of privilege and reassert the values of equity and equality of opportunity in and across our education system.