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pupils achieved the Government benchmark of five good GCSE passes last year, perhaps the Prime Minister feels “outdated mantras” are all he has left?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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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