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23 August 2023

Education’s inequality curse

Rishi Sunak has protected the status quo in schools and universities, as the gaps of privilege and geography grow ever wider.

By New Statesman

In 2014, the then education secretary Michael Gove wrote in the New Statesman: “We have one of the most stratified and segregated education systems in the developed world, perpetuating inequality and holding our nation back.”

A decade later, education’s inequalities are widening. In this year’s A-level results, released on 17 August, an A or A* grade was recorded in 47.4 per cent of private-school exam entries, more than double the 22 per cent rate in state schools, and significantly higher than the 25.4 per cent in academies. The A-level attainment gulf between fee-paying and state-school students, noted by Lorna Finlayson on page 11, has been increasing since 2019. GCSE results, due on 24 August, are likely to show a similar disparity.

[See also: Why the teacher strikes might not be over]

The reforms devised during Mr Gove’s tenure as education secretary (2010-14) were designed to bring state schools up to the standard of their better-funded peers in the private sector. He expanded the academy programme, begun by New Labour, which allows schools to gain autonomy from their local authority. He placed a new emphasis in the curriculum on traditional academic subjects and knowledge, and created an assessment system that reduced coursework and increased the number of written exams each student takes at 16 and 18.

The approach has improved standards in some schools, but it has so far failed to produce the social mobility that Mr Gove promised. Nor has it aided the agenda he has subsequently pursued as Secretary of State for Levelling Up. The recent A-level results revealed an increase in existing regional inequalities, with the proportion of students gaining A and above falling the most in the north-east.

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Moreover, the present system has created a profoundly stressful environment in many schools. A survey published earlier this year found that the weight placed on exams is harming young people’s mental health. There are also doubts about the effectiveness of exams: in 2022 the Tony Blair Institute argued that GCSEs and A-levels should be scrapped, as they “invite narrow teaching styles aimed at passing tests rather than building other key aptitudes”.

Meanwhile, the “7 per cent problem” – which refers to the proportion of the UK’s population who are privately educated – continues to fester. This minority accounts for 65 per cent of senior judges, 44 per cent of newspaper columnists – and 61 per cent of Rishi Sunak’s cabinet.

Mr Sunak, a former head boy of Winchester College, has so far protected the status quo, attacking already beleaguered universities with a spurious “crackdown” on “Mickey Mouse degrees”. But the education gap must not be allowed to turn into a chasm. A Labour policy statement in 1964 promised to “end the social inequalities and educational anomalies” arising from a two-tier system: since then, as the historian David Kynaston has written, the party has largely remained silent on the issue.

Although abolition of private schools remains a taboo subject, Keir Starmer has renewed the policy, earlier championed by Mr Gove, of adding VAT to fees, a move that the right-wing press has described as a “war on private schools”. In a speech on 6 July, Mr Starmer pledged to overhaul early-years education, where the attainment gap begins, and update the curriculum to foreground oracy, digital skills and creativity. His plan has been described by the New Statesman’s political editor, Andrew Marr, as Labour’s “great anti-hopelessness project”. Its focus on equality of opportunity is welcome. But shattering the “class ceiling”, as Mr Starmer, a former grammar-school pupil, has promised to do, is not a simple matter. More radical change will be needed to break the chain of entitlement that means 20 of Britain’s 57 prime ministers attended the same school, Eton (only 11 were state pupils).

The economic prospects for school leavers is bleak. Britain is the only G7 economy that has yet to return to its pre-pandemic size. Its workers have endured 15 years of stagnant or falling real wages while its businesses have largely refrained from investing during eight years of political chaos. Students today face an average debt at graduation of more than £45,000.

Mr Gove was right to argue in 2014 that by allowing the privately educated children of wealthy parents to dominate media and politics, the UK was “wasting talent on an unforgivable scale”. But his reforms have not helped. Until Britain is ready to undergo a genuine transformation of its education system, its inequalities will endure.

[See also: Why “chippy” Bridget Phillipson was right about private schools]

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect