Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, UK Prime Minster Theresa May gave her Easter message, describing the inspiration she took from her faith and the praising ‘the triumph of the human spirit’ in overcoming serious adversity such as that presented by the Grenfell Tower fire. The short address was replayed throughout the day by the BBC with a soft-spoken reverence usually reserved for occasions of state, juxtaposed with in-depth coverage of the Sunday Times fishing trip to identify supporters of Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn who have made anti-Semitic comments online.
Mrs May’s message ticked many of the usual boxes. Acknowledgement of the country’s ‘dark moments’? Check. Praise for the emergency services? Check. Admiration for ordinary people working to make their communities better? Check. But for those working at the front line of our emergency services, struggling to meet increased demands with reduced funding, or those working hard in their communities to ameliorate the harm done by years of political neglect and austerity, I suspect these sentiments will have provoked derisive laughter rather than delight at having their work recognised. The association of these sentiments with a belief system founded by a man who dedicated his short life to helping the poor and vulnerable and to encouraging the rich to do the same was just another pointed irony in an Easter message that was as hollow as an Easter egg.
The mismatch between the Prime Minister’s supposed core beliefs and the policies of the governments in which she has been a senior figure was thrown into still sharper relief today. A report from school leaders painted a shocking picture of destitute school children in poor parts of England and Wales and ‘filling their pockets’ with food from the school canteen. Headteachers told how they were having to provide basic services such as washing school uniforms and paying for budget advice for parents to fill the gaps left by budget cuts to councils and social services. They also described how they had provided sanitary products for pupils and bought them coats and shoes in winter.
At the same time, a new survey from the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Education Union found that, of 900 teachers, 60 per cent said that child poverty in their schools had worsened since 2015, with one in three saying it had got significantly worse. All this at a moment when school costs are increasing and the government has reduced school funding in real terms.
Theresa May’s launched her premiership in 2016 by pledging to help the ‘left behind’ and ‘just managing’ and build a fairer Britain. A little over a year in, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission resigned en masse in protest at her government’s failure to address Britain’s ‘burning injustices’. May’s failure to appoint a replacement has, reportedly, had little to do with the availability of appropriate candidates and everything to do with an inability to find anyone who would consent to do the job while refraining from criticism of the government’s policies.
This is not particularly surprising. May’s flagship policy for improving the life chances of the poor was to increase selection in schools through the introduction of more grammar schools. Few, other than a handful of Tory ideologues, were convinced by this intervention, perhaps because of the complete lack of supporting evidence for it. The evidential gap was further highlighted last month through research by Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui which showed that grammar schools worsen social stratification but do not increase pupil achievement. Dividing pupils into the most able and the rest from an early age, the researchers concluded, ‘does not appear to lead to better results for either group, even for the most disadvantaged. This means that the kind of social segregation experienced by children and young people in selective areas of the United Kingdom, and in selective schools and countries around the world, is for no clear gain … the findings mean that grammar schools endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results. The policy is a bad one and, far from increasing selection, the evidence-informed way forwards would be to phase out the current 163 grammar schools in England.’
Given the weight of evidence against it, any further expansion of selection in education, as envisaged by current education secretary Damian Hinds, could only be explained by ideological motives or by a desire to further reduce social mobility and increase segregation. Any government serious about addressing inequality and social mobility would look closely at how to reduce the stratification in the education system, from private schools to our increasingly two-tier higher education system. Around the world, successful economies are opening up their education systems and creating opportunities that are genuinely lifelong and lifewide. Britain, meanwhile, appears in thrall to a vision of selection grounded in class and social snobbery. The weight of our illusions keeps us from rising higher.
The low priority successive governments have attached to social mobility is reflected in the comparative neglect of further education, where state investment is likely to have the most social impact. The low status of the sector is evident from the number of ministers and secretaries of state who have been responsible for it over the years, and the really remarkable policy churn FE has been subject to over several decades. No service could reach its full potential under conditions of near-constant reform and ever shifting expectations and priorities. There is also a major funding gap between FE and HE which will need to be closed by some means if the UK is to deliver the higher-level technical skills it will require to compete on equal terms with comparable countries.
Justine Greening, the only recent education secretary who has taken social mobility seriously, was sacked shortly after producing her ‘plan for improving social mobility through education’. Her ambition was admirable though the proposals themselves, while positive, were not nearly radical enough to ‘transform equality of opportunity in this country’. The problem needs to be approached in a more comprehensive and joined-up way, with the place of further education considered in the context of the wider education system and significant resource put into spreading opportunity more evenly and creating routes for people at every stage of life. Ms Greening’s ‘social mobility pledge’, intended to encourage employers to engage more with schools and colleges, is a good idea, but it needs to be part of a much wider, longer-term strategy that is not afraid to challenge the sacred cows of selection, the private school system, A-levels and mass higher education.
Education is not a silver bullet when it comes to social mobility and inequality. Real change would require strong political will in every department of government. To be lasting and fundamental it would also need public support which, I fear, will require a shift in our political scene as yet undreamt of. But, for all that, it is not a bad place to start. If we can challenge the perpetuation of inequality of opportunity in education we can certainly change it elsewhere. For that, though, we will need real leadership and commitment at the top of government, and a genuine willingness to challenge beliefs and cultural norms that hold working people back and allow the privileged to horde opportunity for themselves and their children. That would be an Easter message worth sharing.