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pupils achieved the Government benchmark of five good GCSE passes last year, perhaps the Prime Minister feels “outdated mantras” are all he has left?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

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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