Our education system isn’t perfect. Far from it. But, in recent years, it has become fashionable to deride the performance of the schools and teachers in this country; in opposition, the Tories, aided by their cheerleaders in the right-wing media, spouted context-free statistics about the numbers of “functionally illiterate” children and talked down the educational achievements of primary and secondary school pupils. Nowadays, the conventional wisdom is that Labour failed on education, despite Tony Blair’s famous pledge (“Education, education, education”).
The conventional wisdom, as is so often the case, is wrong. In today’s Financial Times, Chris Cook reports:
Poorer children closed the educational achievement gap on children from wealthier backgrounds during Labour’s last term of office, according to a comprehensive Financial Times analysis of exam results achieved by three million 16-year-olds over five years.
When looking at a basket of core GCSE qualifications — sciences, modern languages, maths, English, history and geography — the FT found a sustained improvement in the results achieved by children from the poorest neighbourhoods. Between 2006 and 2010, after stripping out the effects of grade inflation, the bottom of the distribution shifted upwards: the gap closed by one-sixth of a grade in every one of these GCSE subjects. There was no significant change in the number of these subjects sat by these pupils.
The pink paper quotes Simon Burgess, professor of economics at the University of Bristol and director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation, as saying:
We may have here the first evidence of a turning of the tide.
According to Burgess, the results suggest that
. . . declining social mobility is not an immutable force, but can be changed. Indeed, it seems that it was changed by the education policies of the previous government.
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has said his mission in life is to improve social mobility. Perhaps, then, he could learn some lessons from those “backroom boys”, Miliband and Balls, who he is so keen to deride and denounce.