The Stakes: Education
Where are we at?
The UK has never had a fair education system. Despite the rhetoric of equality, fairness and freedom intensifying since the start of this century, it has done so against a backdrop of continuing educational inequalities. In the aspirational society Britain has become, there is intense competition for ‘fair chances’ as upper and middle class parents strategize and invest to ensure their children have more of a ‘fair chance’ than other people’s. Education in the UK operates as an enormous academic sieve, sorting the educational winners from the losers in a crude and often brutal process that prioritises and rewards upper and middle class qualities and resources. The most recent statistics from the Department for Education present a bleak contrast between the poorest children on free school meals and those from families with incomes of £78,000 and above – an attainment gap of 47%.
Introducing market forces into education has exacerbated inequalities between children, but it has also created a hyper-competitive ethos that generates stress and anxieties among many children regardless of social background. There is plenty of contemporary evidence of the damage wrought by competitive individualism, constant assessment and testing, and practices of setting and streaming. UNICEF found that the UK languished near the bottom of a survey on how well children are served by their national educational systems. Only 40% found their peers kind and helpful in contrast to most other European countries, including Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, where over 70% found their peers kind and helpful. Less than 20% of UK pupils like school a lot, and just as concerning, the UK sits at the bottom of rankings on self-harming and risk behaviours. We're seeing the lowest levels of children’s wellbeing in the UK in decades. As Ipsos/Mori concluded, children are less happy and satisfied with their lives than children in the majority of other countries because of the far higher levels of materialism, intense competitiveness and individualism found in contemporary British society.
Over the last 30 years, UK politicians and policy makers have seemed intent on moving away from educational approaches that work towards those that don’t. We’ve been bombarded with a plethora of educational policies such as standards, testing regimes, league tables, school choice, academies and free schools, performance and managerialism, academic and vocational streaming, punitive naming and shaming strategies, and a preoccupation with ‘school improvement’ and ‘school effectiveness’, all of which have had little or no impact on educational inequalities, and many of which have increased children’s stress and reduced their levels of wellbeing. The Labour government under Blair and Brown, the Coalition government and now the Conservatives have all, to varying degrees, committed themselves to these policies despite their negligible effect on educational achievement or educational inequalities, and their negative impact on children’s mental health.
There are two key questions to ask in relation to the current election and future policy. Firstly, how are we going to change our educational system so that it is both fairer and better equipped to prepare all its students for the many complex challenges of the 21st century? Secondly, how can we embed care, collaboration and empathy within education?
What’s at stake in the General Election?
The re-introduction of grammar schools has been a major talking point over the last few months. The current election will decide whether we have an entrenchment of the current elitist education system with the Conservatives set to introduce a new generation of hyper-selective grammar schools, or a system rooted in universalism and a commitment to fairness as pledged in the Labour party’s plans for a National Education Service. It also will either lead to more of the same in terms of a narrow traditional curriculum that is governed by assessment and teaching to the test, or an opportunity to widen and democratise the curriculum as promised in the Labour party’s commitment to an Arts Pupil Premium to enable all primary school children to learn to play instruments, learn drama and dance and have “regular access” to theatres, galleries or museums in their local areas.
What’s also at stake is the extent to which education continues to be a money making exercise for the private sector. Teacher supply agencies, for example, were paid £1.26bn in 2016, a 38% increase in three years. Encouraged by the Conservative government’s commitment to privatising the state sector, teacher supply agencies are making huge profits from state funding for schools, yet a 2015 NUT survey showed that many supply teachers were paid less by agencies than they were in 2012 and were not entitled to sick pay, maternity pay or teachers' pensions. That privatisation is driven by ideology rather than concerns with improving efficiency is highlighted in the latest statistics which show that free school places are considerably more expensive to provide than local authority school places. A place in a secondary free school opening in 2013–14 or 2014-15 cost £19,000 on average, 51% more than places created in the same years by local authorities. Instead of this stealth creep towards ‘education for profit’, we need both a rolling back of the privatisation of the public sector, and an end to the downward pressure on teachers’ pay and work conditions. Neither of these trends will decrease if a Conservative government is re-elected.
What can be done?
One of the many important insights to come from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’ is that we cannot divorce educational from wider social and economic inequalities. We can introduce policies that reduce the pressure on children, widen their curriculum, and improve their educational experiences. But in order to tackle educational inequalities we need broader systemic changes that narrow the inequality gap in wider society. A more redistributive tax system will also reduce educational inequalities, and that should be the central plank in any future government’s manifesto if it is seriously committed to improving the educational opportunities of all children in the UK.