The rain falls hard on a humdrum town

Thirty years ago I left school aged 16, thoroughly alienated and without a qualification to my name. I don’t think I was a bad student but school didn’t really suit me. Somehow, I never found out what it was I was great at or liked doing. The teachers weren’t particularly good and could be brutal. I recall my PE teacher, Mr Perkins, finding me alone in a corridor of the sports hall, picking me up by my neck and flinging me hard against a wall (I don’t recall why). Not that the school was entirely to blame. I could be disruptive and difficult, particularly when I couldn’t see the value of what I was doing. The continuous ego-bashing bullying I experienced throughout the last two years of compulsory education didn’t help much either. The thought of going into school made me physically sick. I stopped going out after school and after a while I stopped going into school altogether. If my parents were at work I would stay at home. If they were at home I would roam around the park adjacent to the school. I couldn’t face my final exams either, though I told my parents I’d sat them, delaying the inevitable fallout by a few weeks. By the time school finished, formally that is (it had finished for me some time before), I was scared, friendless and utterly lost. After a dismal summer spent dreading the day the exam results came out, I began signing on.

This wasn’t anything unusual at the time. I grew up in a mining town in a period when the industry was being systematically dismantled by the government and most of our fathers were unemployed. After a while, I was told to attend an interview, for a job with British Gas, I think. When I didn’t turn up (my busy schedule of not looking for work, listening to The Smiths and writing terrible poetry didn’t allow it), I was summoned to a meeting where I was told that my unemployment benefit would be stopped if I didn’t go on a Youth Training Scheme at a local glassmaking firm. A year of making tea and running errands ensued (with a bit of mild sexual harassment thrown in). The poetry got a bit better, I read most of the books in Penguin’s Modern Classics series and I started to think about further education and, maybe, doing journalism for a living.

I enrolled at the local technical college, taking the A-levels and GCSEs I needed to get onto an NCTJ ‘pre-entry’ journalism course. It was at the college that I encountered great teaching for the first time, and a brilliant English teacher who made me see myself in a new light. She was smart, funny, interesting and different. She dressed differently and she spoke differently, all of which was pretty inspiring to a lad who was desperate to find a way to be different. Most of all, she was interested and encouraging, quick to see the value in the work her students did and to support them in doing what they did well, better. And she made it plain that we were her equals, jointly negotiating the terms of our learning. That was such an importance difference for me.

This was a time when it was still possible for a working-class kid to get a foothold in a profession like journalism without contacts, parents with cash to splurge on an internship or even a university degree. I had no idea, though, that I was part of one of the last waves of working-class, non-university educated entrants to the industry. The lecturers who interviewed me for a place on my chosen course, at Preston Polytechnic, were both sharp-witted, working-class newspapermen who had got into journalism through local papers and gone on to work for the nationals with some distinction. This was still a well-worn and very common path in the eighties and it wasn’t unusual for people like Harold Evans (who edited the Sunday Times up until 1981) to have emerged in the industry from working-class backgrounds, progressing through regional newspapers, to edit national newspapers, often very brilliantly (as in Evans’s case). And the newspaper industry was all the better for it, reflecting society and its concerns much more roundly than does the present cohort of senior journalists and commentators, most of whom share very similar backgrounds (many also being friends and university contemporaries of the politicians they are charged with holding to account). My course was full of working-class teenagers, school leavers, with a few older adults who were looking to retrain. Within a year, pretty much all of us were employed in regional papers around the country, learning on the job, which is where most journalistic educations really begin. I served my ‘apprenticeship’, gaining an incredibly wide array of really useful skills, including important ‘soft skills’ such as tenacity, the ability to listen and a respect for deadlines – which have been incredibly useful to me since, both academically and professionally – as well as the knowledge, technical skills and general storytelling know-how necessary to become a senior journalist. I was lucky enough to have a few hugely enjoyable years as part of a terrific team of reporters and editors at the Shropshire Star, most, if not all, of them with social backgrounds similar to mine.

Since then, however, journalism has, increasingly, become a profession for middle-class university graduates. Alan Milburn, in his 2009 report, Unleashing Aspiration, described it as ‘one of the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century’ – quite an astonishing shift in such a relatively short period of time. This trend was confirmed in this week’s Sutton Trust report, which found that more than half (51 per cent) of leading print journalists attended fee-paying schools, while 54 per cent attended either Oxford or Cambridge. The private school sector, it is worth remembering, educates just seven per cent of the total population, and Oxbridge less than one per cent. I fear that many working-class children would now think of a career in journalism as something beyond them, socially and economically. And I suspect that, given the longstanding recruitment profile of both the BBC and the Guardian, senior positions in both of which are dominated by the privately educated, many working-class journalists would now not even consider applying for posts with either of these supposed bastions of liberal, democratic values.

I sometimes wonder if I would have made it into the profession at all if I were starting from the same place today. I think it’s pretty unlikely. It might have been conceivable, in the eighties, that I would find a way to university (as I eventually did) and onto a graduate journalism course. Higher education was free at the time, and that was a crucial factor in my decision to give up work to take a first degree. But I think it pretty unlikely, given where I started from and what my expectations were (i.e. not high), that I would have been prepared to take out a loan for my studies, and incur huge debts that would take years and years to pay off. People from working-class backgrounds, with no safety net to fall back on, tend to find it difficult to see the spectre of mounting debt as an investment in their future. Nor, fairly obviously, would I have been in a position to work for free for a period to get a foot on the ladder, as so many new entrants from wealthier backgrounds do; and certainly not in a city as expensive to live in as London.

Does this matter? I think it does. First, it matters because it diminishes journalism and undermines democracy and the civic life of the country. An industry in which high-level new entrants have usually graduated from an elite university, know someone or have parents who know someone, or be wealthy enough to work unpaid for a time, is clearly not going to be very reflective of the concerns of the general population. And, indeed, it is not. What you might expect to result is precisely what we have ended up with: an out-of-touch commentariat of senior journalists who largely share the backgrounds and core beliefs of the political elite and are deeply hostile to or pointedly amused by anyone who doesn’t. Little wonder so many ‘ordinary’ people feel under-represented by the media, angry that their views and the views of those they voted for are routinely derided, under-reported or ignored altogether. But, of course, if you never meet any ‘ordinary’ people, you wouldn’t know that, would you? If your children go to different schools than theirs, you’re probably not going to feel as outraged as I do when I see how the state school testing regime distorts children’s education and alienates young people. If you’ve never been inside an FE college and don’t know anyone who did, you’re probably not going to be overly exercised when government policy pushes the sector to the brink of extinction and all but destroys what must surely be a key part of the mission of any institution offering further education: lifelong learning.

It matters also because it reflects the more general attenuation in opportunity for people from working-class backgrounds, captured, again, very starkly, in the Sutton Trust’s report. It found that the UK’s top professions remain disproportionately populated by alumni of private schools and Oxbridge. In medicine, for example, nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of senior doctors were educated at independent schools, while 40 per cent were educated at Oxbridge. Only 16 per cent attended comprehensive schools. In politics, nearly a third (32 per cent) of MPs were privately education while over a quarter (26 per cent) went to Oxbridge. Almost half (47 per cent) of the current cabinet attended Oxbridge. In law, 74 per cent of the top judiciary were privately educated and the same proportion attended Oxbridge. And in the senior civil service, almost half (48 per cent) attended independent schools and more than half (51 per cent) Oxbridge. The same trend is also increasingly evident in sport, entertainment and the arts, where it is difficult these days to swing a Bafta without striking an old Etonian. It is hardly surprising that applications to private school remain high big despite increases in fees, when the simple fact of which school your children attend can make such a huge, life-defining difference to their future prospects.

Despite decades of ministerial hot air about improving social mobility, rungs in the social ladder are being hacked away with increasing frenzy, not least by the present government, which appears set on consigning many of this country’s greatest social achievements to history. The education system, which ought to be at the vanguard of challenging unearned privilege and increasing social mobility is, in fact, reproducing privilege and reinforcing social inequality. As Danny Dorling put it in a recent article, education in England ‘is expanding into new extremes of elitism’. Its covert message, ‘that a small elite, made up of superior individuals, should lead us’, gains greater popular assent the more inevitable and immutable privilege appears to be (as does the belief that those at the bottom are there by dint of their own failings). We end up with a self-reproducing ‘meritocracy’, with privilege passed on from generation to generation, all by awfully nice people who are just doing what anyone would do in their position to secure the best for their children. I don’t blame them. The extent of inequality in this country means the stakes are incredibly high, too high to be healthy. But we need, and deserve, an education system which challenges rather than facilitates this. Our schools continue to fail the poorest children while subjecting them and the schools in which they learn to an extraordinary regime of continuous testing, fake ‘rigour’ and accountability, all of which is extremely harmful to our kids, our teachers and our communities. State-maintained schools are subject to constant reform, with policy – criminally, in my view – written to secure headlines rather than to serve our children. It is here we see, more clearly than anywhere else, the truth of Dorling’s charge that the people running state education think of it as ‘education for other people’s children’. The same is true of further education, so often treated with contempt and ignorance by ministers, despite the hugely important role FE colleges have played in our communities for decades. At the same time, in higher education, government policy has engineered a two-tier system, with elite universities, which remain dominated by the privately educated, offering the kind of rounded liberal education wealthy parents expect for their kids, and the others offering, increasingly, vocational education of one sort or another, to meet the more rudimentary needs of the rest. The ‘complex and intimidating’ Oxbridge admissions system seems almost designed to deter working-class applicants. Education for them, training for us. Calcifying patterns of privilege are not the sign of a healthy society. They are like those spots you see on the leaves of dying trees. They are the warning signs that something is not right, something rotten that, left untreated, will bring down the whole tree.


Family learning and educational inequality

The Public Accounts Committee, a cross-party committee of MPs, this month raised serious concerns about the quality and consistency of support for disadvantaged school children in England. Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee, called for a ‘step change’ in efforts to close the ‘attainment gap’ and prevent pupils from less advantaged backgrounds performing poorly at school, thus perpetuating disadvantage across generations.

The MPs’ report followed hard on the heels of the publication of some of the key messages emerging from a 10-year study of how background influences Scottish children’s development. Growing up in Scotland, a longitudinal research programme tracking the lives of 10,000 children and their families from the early years onwards, found that socio-economic inequalities have a clear and substantial impact on children’s development and that these differences are apparent from an early age. By age five, it found, children whose parents have no qualifications are about 12 months behind the average child on vocabulary and 10 months behind on problem-solving abilities. These differences – important indicators of subsequent educational success and employment and life chances – are apparent in children as young as three, the study found.

With social inequality seemingly a major concern of government, these findings should set alarm bells ringing. They show that, as a society, we are failing to do anything like enough to prevent the hardening of social differences and ensure that the circumstances of a child’s birth do not, to a very large extent, determine their subsequent life trajectory. And while the Public Accounts Committee observed that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had narrowed slightly since the introduction of the pupil premium (which aims to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children), it also noted that the results were uneven, and that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds risked losing out if its success was not spread more widely. The roll-out of universal credit would ‘make it harder to identify children eligible to benefit from the pupil premium,’ Ms Hillier said.

It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of a society such as ours to devise an education system which, rather than calcifying patterns of disadvantage across generations, challenges them, giving children the opportunity to achieve their full potential, whatever their background. The strength and seeming permanence of the relationship between parental background and children’s educational attainment is a serious indictment of education policy in the UK over the past few decades. It suggests, sadly, a society which is prepared to tolerate the writing-off of large numbers of its citizens, almost from birth, and permit the life chances and potential of so many working-class children to be brutally stunted. The end result of this is not only entrenched poverty, but a less prosperous, resilient, democratic and cohesive society.

The government’s ideological obsession with free schools and academies, and its efforts to introduce a market into other areas of education, are making matters worse. The idea that grammar schools constitute a part of the answer to this problem reflects not only a bankruptcy of ideas but an impressive imperviousness to evidence. Grammar schools, like other forms of selection, benefit the middle classes, those who understand the system and can bring in private help to get their kids through the entrance exam, and further disadvantage poorer children. As the son of two bright secondary-modern kids, both conscious of being dubbed failures at the age of 11, I know very well the damage the 11-plus system could cause, dividing not just communities but families (my Dad’s older brother was the only one of four kids to pass). I fear we are again seeing the development of a two-tier education system, in which parents with the double advantage of money and an education get a double benefit from a system rigged to suit those who know how to work it and have the resources to pay for it. Increasingly, the benefits of a rounded, liberal education are, like the universities that offer them, largely the preserve of the better-off. The best the rest of us can hope for is the basic education and training we need to do a job. I don’t mean to disparage vocational training, which is of critical importance, but an education system which prepares people only to be employees is, frankly, not an education system worthy of the name.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even within the narrow envelope of possibilities envisaged by our austerian leaders, change is possible. It should begin with evidence and not ideology. The Growing up in Scotland report makes a number of straightforward recommendations that could make a difference to educational outcomes and help ‘build resilience in the face of disadvantage’, including the encouragement of ‘rich home learning environments’ (even simple home learning activities such as reading a book at bedtime can have a significant impact on cognitive development and reduce some of the effects of socio-economic disadvantage, the report says) and increased investment in good early learning and childcare, which can reduce inequality by the start of primary school (by which point most kids from poorer backgrounds are already playing catch-up).

There are no silver bullets, of course, but one important but often neglected intervention – family learning – has the potential to make a huge difference here, if adequately resourced and offered on a sufficiently wide and even basis across the country. Research suggests that children stand a much better chance of doing well at school, and in life more generally, if their parents are learners themselves. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study found that parental involvement in a child’s education has a direct causal influence on the child’s school readiness and subsequent attainment. As the Growing up in Scotland study suggests, home learning activities make a huge difference. Yet very many children still grow up in homes without books, and, as any teacher will tell you, there is only so much a school can do. A child learns best when learning is a process in which the whole family is involved and interested.

Family learning is also hugely effective hook for parents who had a poor experience of compulsory education themselves, appealing to their desire to support their children to do better than they did at school and encouraging them to overcome their own practical and dispositional barriers to learning. Many parents want to do more to support their children in school but often lack the time, resources or wherewithal to do so. Just as important, they frequently lack the confidence too, and family learning is a powerful way of building up an adult’s learning confidence and aptitude in a safe and non-threatening environment, while at the same time also improving children’s confidence, self-belief and attainment. A 2012 analysis of foundation-stage pupil data by Sheffield City Council found that the overall level of development among children who had taken part in family learning programmes could be as much as 15 percentage points higher than for those who had not.

When I drafted the 2013 NIACE Inquiry into Family Learning report, Family Learning Works, I emphasised not only the remarkable impact family learning programmes have on children and their families, but also their huge potential in addressing a range of other agendas and in achieving key cross-departmental outcomes. As well as being relatively low-cost, family learning interventions make vulnerable families more resilient, and encourage parents to become more involved in their communities, whether as citizens, volunteers or employees. One school-based project I visited in Ely, the most deprived area of Cardiff and one of the most deprived in the UK, in 2012 brought this home to me. The group of mums I met there, some of whom had previously been afraid even to speak to their children’s teachers in the playground, were now organising regular adult education classes, campaigning on local issues and even publishing their own newspaper, the Grand Avenue Times (named after the main road on which the school is located). What got them engaged, they told me, was, first, their desire to help their kids do better at school, and, second, the fact that the learning environment was ‘nothing like school’. In some cases, their engagement in learning had completely transformed their children’s attitude to education too.

Most adult educators won’t need convincing of the huge positive impact learning can have on adults and their families. But with participation in family learning declining, it is obvious that this understanding is not widely enough shared. As the Inquiry into Family Learning argued, family learning should be ‘integral to school strategies to raise children’s attainment’ and ‘narrow the gap between the lowest and highest achievers’, and ought to form a key element of adult learning and skills strategies ‘to engage those further from the labour market and improve employability’. National family learning policies should be part of an integrated approach to addressing educational inequality and social inequality more widely.

A government serious about reducing social inequality would be investing more in family learning (alongside other initiatives to promote learning within families) as part of a rounded, strategic approach that would see further education spending increase, alongside UK education spending overall, which continues to lag behind the levels of other developed countries. If the post-16 area review process, which includes only FE and sixth-form colleges, is anything to go by, we are as far as ever from a genuinely coherent, holistic approach to education policy and the challenges of social and educational inequality. We need a government fired up to address these real and deeply entrenched problems head on, and that means thinking about education not through the limiting lens of ideology but in an evidence-based and seriously joined-up way.

Thanks to John Field for sharing the link to a Scotsman report on the Growing up in Scotland findings and making the link with family learning