School marks, city lessons

Youth unemployment is up and GCSE grades are down.

Youth unemployment is up and GCSE grades are down. The odds are that it is the most disadvantaged young people and the most deprived parts of the county that are affected most by both.

As pupils go back to school, the debate over this year's GCSE results continues. It is the impact that GCSE grading can have on a young person’s future prospects that causes so much concern. GCSE results determine whether a young person can go on to study A-levels en route to university. They also matter to employers.

The map of GCSE attainment looks remarkably similar to the map of youth unemployment. We published research today that shows that the lower GCSE attainment is in a city, the higher youth unemployment is. GCSE results, especially Maths and English, matter to job prospects.

Official national figures with more detail on this year's results aren't due out till early next year. But if previous results and the experiences of individual schools are anything to go by, it is the most disadvantaged that are hardest hit in the apparent move to halt grade inflation. Pupils eligible for Free School Meals are far more likely to get scores around the C-D border.

Year-on-year, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to get five good GCSEs. Social background remains the strongest predictor of educational attainment in this country; more so than many other developed countries.

Unsurprisingly, cities with higher proportions of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have lower attainment rates overall. Over 59 per cent of pupils from all schools in the most economically successful cities achieve at least five GCSEs including Maths and English but excluding vocational  equivalents. The attainment rate drops to 47 per cent in weaker cities creating a gap of over 12 percentage points.

These pupils face multiple disadvantages. They are more likely to go to an underperforming school: 40 per cent of schools in weaker economies  are judged "inadequate" or "satisfactory"  compared to 26 per cent in economically successful cities. They are less likely to leave school with the qualifications education providers and employers require. And local employment options are likely to be more limited.

All of this serves to reinforce the socio-economic divides that have long existed across the country. 

What is also striking is that schools in many of our weaker cities are better at improving the performance of  pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than economically strong cities. While there are fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in buoyant cities, they are less likely to achieve good GCSEs than disadvantaged pupils in struggling cities.

It is clear that policies to address educational inequalities cannot start and end with schools; there are many reasons why some pupils fall behind. But the experience of schools in some of the most deprived parts of London demonstrates that a child's background does not always pre-determine how well they do in their exams. Nearly 58 per cent of disadvantaged pupils in Tower Hamlets achieve five good GCSEs including Maths and English compared to a third nationally.

The fact that Tower Hamlets is located in one of the most economically buoyant cities in the country can't be ignored. It may affect pupil aspiration and schools may have access to a larger pool of teachers. Cities should, seek to understand what be learned from initiatives such as the London Challenge that led to marked improvements in attainment rates. One thing is clear. Without intervention to improve the education levels of our young people, the cycles of disadvantage will not be broken.

Naomi Clayton is a Senior Analyst for Centre for Cities.

Students getting their GCSE results. Photograph: Getty Images

Naomi Clayton is a senior analyst at Centre for Cities

Getty Images.
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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.