Woodhill Primary School, Greenwich. (Photo: Getty)
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Britain's top institutions are still dominated by the privileged. That has to change

 8,000 children on free school meals make the top grades at primary school but just 900 will end up at Britain's top universities. That has to change.

“On Margate sands. I can connect nothing with nothing.” After watching Ukip’s Spring Conference at Margate this week-end, many of us would agree with TS Eliot’s bleak words from The Waste Land.  Nowhere more so than in the field of education.  Their vision for Britain is premised on undermining aspiration and enlightenment.  And the tragedy is that on schools policy, David Cameron has been reduced to chasing Ukip’s tail. 

Banning sex and relationship education in primary schools - just as parents realise its importance for protecting children in the internet age. Strangling the creative subjects - just as the digital economy places rocket-boosters on their value. Capping the number of young people going to university when the graduate premium remains as entrenched as ever. As a vision for capping working class improvement you would be hard-pressed to top this lot. 

However, Ukip’s gravest threat to social mobility comes from the policy they most cherish. For what the Faragists desire more than anything else is to shatter the fifty year hiatus on the extension of selective schooling. Rather than addressing the fundamentals of educational inequality in Kent and the Medway – the poor state of primary education – Ukip and the Tories are obsessing over more grammars. 

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s high priest of education evidence, could not be clearer in his critique of selection as a policy for raising standards or high achievement. And grammar schools were, lest we forget, a “key test” in proving whether a modernised Conservative Party was fit for power in the 21st century. In 2007 David Cameron said the issue would show whether his party was “an aspiring party of government or whether they were to be a right-wing debating society”. The 2010 manifesto promise, remember, was to “close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest”. But with that gap now rising for the second year in a row (reversing a seven year trend under Labour) and new figures today showing 5,000 fewer disadvantaged pupils achieved the Government benchmark of five good GCSE passes last year, perhaps the Prime Minister feels “outdated mantras” are all he has left?  

But we on the Left have our own shibboleths to confront.  Above all, a full-throttled support for supporting the success of gifted and talented children in mainstream state schooling.  Because the truth is that we are currently throwing away far too much talent. 

Let’s wince at the statistics. Private school pupils are 55 times more likely to end up at Oxbridge that those on free school meals. Just five elite schools account for the same number of undergraduate places at Oxford and Cambridge as 2,000 state schools and colleges combined.  And the top professions, from politicians, to doctors, judges, even Oscar winning actors, are all dominated by privilege. 

Far too underappreciated a component of this inequity is English education’s lacklustre support for gifted state school pupils.  Research from the Sutton Trust suggests that England performs poorly in stretching high achievers when compared to countries like Switzerland or Belgium. Meanwhile, the 2014 Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report showed that this failure is particularly acute when it comes to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some 8,000 kids on free school meals achieve the top grades at primary school every year and yet only 900 make it through to the elite universities. 

There can be no doubt that this waste of talent is holding Britain back. To succeed as a nation we need to harness the potential of all our children. We think that every child has the right to learn something new and exciting every day. And to back teachers to use skilful differentiation - one of the most basic principles of 21st century learning - to tailor lessons to pupils of different needs and abilities. 

We on the Left need to shelve any misplaced scruples about stretching the most able, trust in teachers and support plans for a new Gifted and Talented fund. For we should be under no illusions that failure to boost working-class access to the top universities, profession and apprenticeships will only increase agitation from the kind of backward-looking right we saw on display at Margate. 

The long and the short of it is this: if we could help talented, disadvantaged children to achieve at the same trajectory as their better off peers it would almost double the number of children from poor backgrounds attending the top universities. And there are few more noble left wing causes than that. 

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Peter Mandelson slams Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer for “not acting in the national interest”

The Labour peer and former cabinet minister accuses his party leader and the shadow Brexit secretary of having “torpedoed Labour’s ability to oppose”.

The government has chosen to interpret last year’s sea-change referendum in an extreme way and embraced a set of positions and values on Brexit and migration that risk making the UK an illiberal, fractured and smaller nation, literally and economically.

How can the government get away with this? The referendum was not a landslide victory.  Millions of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem supporters voted on the other side. Only a proportion of the winners voted as they did for xenophobic reasons – and they certainly did not vote to make themselves poorer.

Despite this, the government has chosen a course of action – a hard Brexit – that reflects the views of vocal and influential hardliners, not the majority of the public. Minority opinion has never been more powerful.

Theresa May is putting her own interest ahead of the country’s. She does not want to be the fourth Tory prime minister to be politically crucified by her party on the cross of Europe. She is desperate for the support of the right-wing press and the nationalist wing of her party.  Where Cameron placated, she has actively empowered, regardless of cost. And she hopes the costs of a hard Brexit will only emerge the other side of the next general election.

But this does not explain Labour’s position. The party’s frontbench has effectively brushed aside the views and interests of the bulk of its own supporters who wanted to stay in the EU and now don’t want to jeopardise their jobs by leaving the single market and the customs union as well. They value migration and want to see it managed, not virtually ended.

By going along with hard Brexit now, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer have torpedoed Labour’s ability to oppose the government’s approach when it fails later on. This is not acting in the national interest.

Nobody would claim that Brexit is easy to navigate politically, but Labour has rendered itself impotent on the most important set of issues facing Britain in most peoples’ lifetime. Setting a series of belated “tests” for the government will hardly reverse the damage.

The response to all this has to go beyond party politics. A national, pro-European effort should seek to unite opinion in civic society and mainstream politics, based on three Rs:

  • Resist. We have vocally to oppose what we don't agree with – we have to challenge and controversialise decisions so ‘new norms’ don't materialise. That is why pro-refugee, anti-Trump demos, the Gina Miller case, new newspapers or campaigns against hard Brexit are so important.
     
  • Renew. People with liberal, social democratic views have been losing  arguments on issues such as security, spending, globalisation, identity, migration, integration. We need to renew our policy offer in these areas – we need real alternatives not just raw anger. There is a lot that unites some Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs and activists across all these issues – but the networks to do new thinking have to be created.
     
  • Reorganise. We need a new generation of leaders who can inspire, locally and nationally, from both non-metropolitan and metropolitan neighbourhoods and parts of the country. Campaigns and parties have to put much more effort in to looking for new talent beyond their own organisations and boundaries. We need to hear fresh, authentic voices and end the idea that mainstream politics cannot speak for the majority.

If the centre left does not provide the leadership of this fightback, with Labour at its core, it will not have a future.

Peter Mandelson is a Labour peer, former business secretary and an architect of New Labour.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition