Educational inequality in England remains a disgrace. In few countries in the Western world does a child’s family inheritance so strongly determine what he or she achieves in life. As Michael Gove, then the education secretary, said in a fine speech at Brighton College in 2012: “More than almost any [other] developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.”
A new report published by the Social Market Foundation reminds us of the depth of educational inequality. Just 40 per cent of pupils receiving free school meals (one measure of relative poverty) achieve five GCSEs of grade C or above, compared to 70 per cent of those who do not. Meanwhile, there is a growing regional divide, which Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of Ofsted, has denounced as “unacceptable”. Sadly, where a child lives is a better predictor of what he or she will achieve at school among those born in 2000 than those born in 1970. Seventy per cent of pupils in London achieve five good GCSEs, compared with, say, 63 per cent of those in Yorkshire and the Humber.
There is no panacea at hand to reduce the gap in educational attainment. But there are many ways in which the quality of education received by the poorest in society could be improved. It is only a generation since London’s state schools were among the worst in the country. Today, they are the best. While education in the capital has benefited from immigration and its growing economic clout, almost every initiative designed to improve state education since 1997 – including the introduction of the academies programme; Teach First, which fast-tracks talented graduates into difficult or failing schools; and the London Challenge, which aspired to raise the quality of leadership – has concentrated on the capital.
Wherever possible, the methods that have been successful in London ought to be extended across the rest of England and Wales. (Education is devolved in Northern Ireland and Scotland.) Teach First should make a far greater attempt to expand outside London, where it sends 40 per cent of its teachers. As the former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg advocated this week, teachers should be paid more to teach in the worst schools, where they are needed most and can make the greatest difference to the next generation.
Indeed, improving the performance of teachers is central to greater educational attainment. In Finland, which records the best school results of any country in Europe, teacher training colleges admit only those whose examination results are in the top third.
In addition, more attention needs to be paid to the non-academic skills that children learn at school. A recent Sutton Trust report found that adults who are assertive, talkative and enthusiastic are 25 per cent more likely to earn over £40,000 a year and are more likely to come from wealthier backgrounds. It advocates improving the social skills of young people at school and university to give them the best chance of succeeding in the job market. No option should be considered too radical if there is evidence that it could help improve the attainment of disadvantaged children and improve social mobility. Extending the length of the school day and reforming university admissions, so all pupils apply after their A-level results, are reforms that should be further explored. The poorest children cannot continue to be let down. The correlation between poverty, geography and educational underachievement diminishes us all.
David Bowie: the modern shaman
In the 1970s, there was no popular creative artist more consistently innovative than David Bowie, the astoundingly gifted working-class boy from the south London suburbs whose flights of imaginative fancy beguiled the world. A modern shaman, he was an inspiration to a generation that yearned for a less conventional, more tolerant and unpredictable life. Yet, above all, he was good. No matter how outrageous he looked, if his music had been mediocre no one would have cared. In recent days, as fans mourned the ultimate pop originator’s death from cancer at the age of 69, many of us have been listening to our favourite Bowie tracks and thinking about just what made him so great.
David Bowie was not an overtly political artist – there was a brief, drug-addled flirtation with the far right in the mid-1970s and, in the 1980s, he became for a time a kind of corporate mainstream rock star and later even securitised his back catalogue. But he made the personal definitely political and, to the last, he was restlessly innovating – to the extent that he choreographed the final weeks of his life, with the release of his final album, Blackstar. As Will Self writes in this issue: we shall not see his like again.