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pupils achieved the Government benchmark of five good GCSE passes last year, perhaps the Prime Minister feels “outdated mantras” are all he has left?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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution