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

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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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