Dear Mrs May,
Your recent uncontested appointment as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party was widely welcomed, I suspect even among those who traditionally support other, more progressive political parties. Certainly, you presented a far more credible, calmer, more moderate and thoughtful leadership option than any of the other real or putative candidates. This feeling was encouraged by comments you made during your brief leadership campaign and in your first days as PM. You promised to fight the ‘burning injustices’ which mean that people born poor die earlier and that people who attend state school are far less likely to reach the top professions. This, I must admit, was music to my ears. I believed you were reaching out beyond the liberal wing of your own party to a wider constituency, politically and geographically, and I took at face value your determination to improve the lot of ‘ordinary working class families’ who have little job security and ‘worry about the cost of living and the quality of the local school’. This is close to my heart too.
It is, I suppose, rather early to form a judgement about your leadership but I must say that your early policy interventions fall some way short of delivering on this promise. In fact, they seem to me likely to make the lives of ‘ordinary working class families’ significantly harder, if implemented. I am thinking, in particular, of your policy on grammar schools, your largely unexamined enthusiasm for faith schools, the proposed cuts to 16-18 apprenticeship funding and the scrapping of maintenance grants. Together, they suggest not a new government full of new ideas and renewed social purpose but rather a tired, short-sighted administration with little option but to brush away the cobwebs and open up the policy drawer labelled ‘rubbish old ideas which have been tried before and failed utterly’. You can probably imagine how disappointed I feel right now. Nevertheless, I believe you were in good faith in your early pronouncements and I suspect you are the sort of leader who is unafraid to change her mind or think again, where the evidence demands it. Certainly, I hope so. With that in mind, I humbly offer three policy suggestions, all quite plausible and readily achievable, which will make a genuine difference to the lives and educational hopes of those whom you fear, quite correctly, have been ‘left behind’ by recent governments hell-bent on slashing the state, squeezing education funding and introducing a market in education.
End selection and scrap private school tax breaks
The first suggestion concerns your much-discussed plan to create more grammar schools. This is a tough one, personally, for you, I know. It is a policy you have enthusiastically championed and which is close to your heart. But it is also a dangerous and stupidly divisive policy, which will see new generations of young people labelled as failures (except, of course, those from middle class families who are unwilling to send their children to a school labelled second or third rate and can afford to send them to private school instead). I understand you went to a grammar school yourself so perhaps you do not fully appreciate the stigma still carried by those who failed their 11-plus and attended secondary modern school, notwithstanding their subsequent achievements. Children, as any teacher will tell you (and you should definitely consider listening to them – they know a lot of useful stuff), develop at different rates. Not everyone’s talents, academic or technical skills, or temperament have emerged fully aged 11. My own academic ability, such as it is, did not become apparent until sometime after I had left school. I was considered a difficult, disruptive pupil but, looking back, I think the problem was that I never really found in school education anything to engage me or that I was interested in. I suspect I would have found it much harder to subsequently work my way through university to postgraduate study and teaching had I had to carry about with me (not physically, of course, it’s much more permanent than that) certificated proof of my own lack of talent and ability.
The evidence, as you must surely know, tells us that in areas where selection takes place poorer pupils fare less well. When you think about it, this stands to reason. Selective schools overwhelmingly benefit middle-class children whose parents know the system and can afford to hire someone to coach them through the entrance exam (the prevalence of such coaching is reflected in the tendency of working-class university entrants to outperform middle-class counterparts with the same A-level scores). They disproportionately harm children from poorer families for whom private schooling isn’t an option and who will have to cope with larger class sizes, and poorer, less well-qualified and less-experienced teachers. The OECD’s head of education, Andreas Schleicher, confirmed this, noting that ‘any kind of one-off test is likely to favour social background over true academic potential … academic selection becomes social selection’. Evidence gathered by the OECD suggests that grammar schools are likely to benefit wealthy families without raising overall standards. This isn’t a big surprise as grammar schools were devised as a second tier in a three-tier education system modelled on existing social distinctions, with private schools at the top and secondary modern schools at the bottom. The upshot of this was a system which routinely wrote off the educational prospects of the majority of children and sent many of them into the world with barely adequate basic literacy and numeracy skills. The system was scrapped because it became clear that it was both cruel and unfair and unequal to the new demands of modern society and the emerging knowledge economy. Do you really think it is equal to the profound social and economic challenges our country faces today?
To introduce a policy in full knowledge of the harm it will do to the majority of pupils, at the same time as cutting college funding for 16-18-year-old apprentices, is not the sort of leadership I would expect from a PM committed to making the lives and life chances of disadvantaged children better. I am equally baffled by your plans to expand faith schools – a policy, once again, out of step both with the reality of life in modern society and the nature of the challenges we face as a society, which include breaking down, rather than cementing, patterns of segregation and discrimination. Allowing faith schools to be entirely composed of children whose parents are of a particular faith is unlikely to promote community cohesion. It does little for social mobility either since, as the Sutton Trust has shown, faith schools tend to select pupils from more affluent backgrounds. The lifting of the requirement that faith schools keep at least half of their places open to local children, regardless of their parents’ religion, is an extremely retrograde step that deserves much greater public scrutiny than it has thus far received.
All of this, to me, speaks not only of a lack of ideas but also of a lack of aspiration. It does not strike me as beyond reasonable ambition that we establish a good school in every neighbourhood, offering a good education to every child. As Mr Schleicher said, what we need is not more grammars or faith schools but ‘more schools that are more demanding and more rigorous’. And that shouldn’t mean more tests – we already test, measure and monitor far too much – it should mean a more flexible, but rigorous and purposeful curriculum, shaped by real need and sensitive to the different characters and life trajectories of young people, delivered by teachers trusted to do what they are best at and funded fairly and adequately, across the board. To increase funding for state schools the government could consider removing the charitable status currently enjoyed by private schools, which grants them highly favourable tax status.
Personally, I would like to see private schools scrapped altogether. They represent an overwhelmingly malign, though rarely remarked upon, distorting factor on our education system and on society more widely; great for a minority, very bad indeed for the rest. Nevertheless, I recognise that much of your core support and many of your Conservative parliamentary colleagues have benefited from this and will be extremely resistant to vote for the ending of a system which ensures the privilege they have enjoyed is passed on to their offspring. You have already suggested that private schools must do more to keep their tax breaks. That should be welcomed. The hard question for you is why institutions designed to benefit a small, already-privileged section of society at the expense of everyone else should be subsidised out of the public purse at all. Removing tax breaks while investing in ‘more demanding and more rigorous’ state schools would be a very useful first step to improving social mobility. You should definitely consider it.
Scrap A-levels and ensure all high-achieving students, whether academic or vocational, have equally good educational and career options
This is another suggestion which has been debated before but defeated by the sort of opposition you would be likely to face within your own party if you sought to remove the charitable status of private schools. There continues to be much talk about achieving parity of esteem between vocational and academic education but not much will be achieved by talk alone. One of your predecessors, Tony Blair, had a golden opportunity to do something meaningful about this when Sir Mike Tomlinson published his review of the English examination system in 2004. Tomlinson proposed incorporating existing qualifications, including A-levels and GCSEs, into an overarching diploma which would ensure all students pass the core skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT, while also stretching the most able students. Importantly, the diploma represented a unified framework of achievement and qualifications with four levels into which all existing exams, vocational and academic, could be incorporated (with A-levels and GCSEs phased out over 10 years). One upshot of this was that all those who achieved a level 4 diploma would have gained a qualification of equal standing, irrespective of whether they were taking an academic or vocational route. Had Tomlinson’s reforms been implemented in full, A-levels and GCSEs would now be a thing of the past. In terms of achieving the long sought-after parity of esteem between academic and vocational, this, really, was the moment. Unhappily, despite almost universal approval for the proposed reforms, Mr Blair chose not to implement them in full, fearful of the backlash from those who wished the A-level ‘gold standard’ (imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail!), which had served them and their children so well, to remain. Retaining A-levels, rather sadly, was Mr Blair’s red line, supported at the time by your own party, despite the prescient warnings from teachers that the diplomas were bound to fail if A-levels and GCSEs were not scrapped. It effectively short-circuited the most promising reform of the school examination system in England in several decades.
So, we continue to wrangle endlessly with the issue of parity of esteem while defending the outmoded qualifications system that ensures it can never properly happen. The neat division between vocational and academic has not been fit for the world we live in for quite some time. Like much else in our education system, it is fit only for a world in which, to quote David Cameron, young people are divided into ‘sheep and goats’ at an early age. A single, unified qualifications system would help bridge the divide, while allowing students to mix their options and move across as well up the ladder. For the moment, we continue to commission review after review considering vocational and technical education in splendid isolation, as though the other working parts of the machine to which it belongs have no bearing on its function or operation.
The latest, led by Lord Sainsbury, also sought to address technical education’s poor-relation status and, like Tomlinson, suggested a number of routes with a common core of English, maths and digital skills, as well as specialisation leading to a skilled profession. However, as with other reforms of this sort, the binary divide between vocational and academic remains outwith its remit, as does our two-caste system of educational attainment. We need bold and radical political leaders prepared to break with the past and tackle endemic problems in the system as a whole, rather than treating issues to do with vocational education as somehow separate and disconnected. It has become fashionable to dismiss the issue of parity of esteem of vocational and academic qualifications as irrelevant or insoluble. I don’t believe it is either. A recent survey by the Association of Accounting Technicians suggested that older adults attach more value to vocational education than young people. This should be of concern to a government committed to using vocational learning as a route to better employment prospects for young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Creating clear, accessible, relevant, high-prestige vocational routes is critical both to social mobility and to promoting the development of the kinds of higher-level technical skills we can hopefully agree the UK economy needs.
Restore funding and policy support to adult education
You may know that much of the UK’s adult education system has been destroyed by funding cuts in recent decades, a process that began under New Labour but which was taken to new levels under your immediate predecessor. Mr Cameron oversaw swingeing cuts to adult further education, leading the Association of Colleges to suggest it could become a thing of the past by 2020, and a collapse in part-time higher education, precipitated by the introduction of loans and the escalation in tuition fees. The adult skills budget has been cut by 40 per cent since 2010 (including a 24 per cent cut in one year alone), with recent government figures indicating an 11 per cent drop in the number of adult learners in further education between 2013-14 and 2014-15. At the same time, the University Association for Lifelong Learning says that the number of mature and part-time students at university has fallen by 40 per cent since 2012, while most university centres for lifelong learning, which have traditionally supported adult learners in accessing higher study and provided a link between HE institutions and their communities, have been closed down. Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, at the University of Leicester, appears set to be the next to close, despite a brilliant campaign involving staff and learners which highlighted the huge value of university lifelong learning to communities such as Leicester’s (you can read about it here). The question I would put to you is whether this seems to you to be a sensible response to the challenges of declining social mobility and demographic change.
Politicians of all parties agree that we need to up-skill the working-age population, yet public investment in adult further education and skills continues to fall. They talk about social mobility, yet overlook the hugely important catalytic effect adult education can have on the lives of adults and their families, particularly those who are ‘just managing’ or ‘left behind’. It is well understood that the biggest influence on the educational attainment of children is that of their parents. Closing down opportunities for adults to access learning is not only bad for them as individuals and the wider economy, which increasingly requires people to retrain and upskill throughout their lives, it also limits the life prospects of their children. Adult education has a range of wider benefits too, including improved health and wellbeing, increased tolerance and greater civic engagement. There are also, of course, major social and economic costs to not addressing the poor literacy, numeracy and technical skills of many UK adults. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Education has called for a new national and regional strategy for adult education. I think this is overdue. The value of adult education needs to be clearly understood and defended, if it is not to be the top of the list when budgets are cut. To allow provision to dwindle away in a policy vacuum is not only short-sighted, it demonstrates callous indifference to the hopes and aspirations of thousands of families across the country.
You, as Prime Minister, have an opportunity to change all of this, and I hope you will. The early signs, however, are not particularly encouraging, to say the least. If you are serious about helping those who are ‘left behind’, you should scrap your plans to expand selection, in its various forms, and instead invest in ensuring there is a good maintained school in every neighbourhood. Your promise to prioritise those who are struggling and have been ‘left behind’ is, I must tell you, wholly incompatible with a commitment to expanding grammar schools. You should also reverse cuts to 16-18 apprenticeships – likely to prove hugely damaging to social mobility – and you should look instead to improve the standing and status of both technical and vocational education and adult education, so often the poor relations of the English education system. I do not believe that we can any more, as a society, afford to neglect and stifle the talents and abilities of so many – the vast majority – of our population. That this has been allowed to happen for so long, at such huge human cost, is cause for shame. Turning things around will require a huge, concerted effort over many years, and it will involve the wholesale transformation of our education system, not just tinkering around the edges. It will, perhaps above all, require a brave, radical Prime Minister who believes in a fair chance for everyone and is not afraid to make new enemies, even among her old friends. As Raymond Williams wrote, ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’. If you could make ‘hope possible’ for those you rightly identify as ‘left behind’ you will have achieved something truly radical and transformational. But you won’t get there by under-investing in adult and vocational education or by expanding educational selection.