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pupils achieved the Government benchmark of five good GCSE passes last year, perhaps the Prime Minister feels “outdated mantras” are all he has left?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. 

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.