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30 August 2023

The Eton sixth form scheme misunderstands poverty

The problems in education are too deep-rooted to be solved by headline-grabbing innovations.

By Nadeine Asbali

Costing almost £50,000 a year, an Eton education is the pinnacle of privilege. Not only will an Eton-educated child probably achieve the highest grades and a place at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, but they’ll have spent their formative years doing algebra with future politicians and playing polo with heirs to thrones around the globe. Given that 20 British prime ministers were educated in Eton’s hallowed halls, attending puts you on a pretty firm trajectory to the loftiest seats of power.

It was announced on 22 August that Eton will open three selective sixth forms in the north of England and the West Midlands, in partnership with the high-performing chain of state schools Star Academies. On the surface, exporting an Eton education to deprived northern regions (Dudley, Middlesbrough and Oldham) seems positive for social mobility and easing the north-south divide.

But if my seven years as a state school teacher have taught me anything, it is to be sceptical of headline-grabbing schemes that promise to solve with a single innovation the deeply rooted problems in education. The Eton scheme may sound revolutionary, but it misses the point entirely.

It’s worth asking whether elite schools such as Eton truly are academically superior. Has it cracked the code for excellent teaching, or does it simply benefit from having students who aren’t so worried about being evicted that they can’t turn in their physics homework?

It’s hard to judge the quality of teaching offered in the average Eton classroom compared to, for example, an inner London comprehensive, because judging teaching methods is so subjective – regardless of what Ofsted says. But what we can measure is that while state schools across the country have cut their provision of German or food tech because they can’t afford to fund a non-compulsory subject, Eton offers 28 subjects, multiple societies and a whole array of cultural pursuits. The impact of external factors on educational outcomes is well-recorded, too. Children who have been referred to social services at any point in their lives are more likely to fail maths and English GCSEs than those who haven’t, for example, while the chasm between results for richer and poorer students is growing wider

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Eton does not have the monopoly on educational excellence. Many state schools secure genuinely transformational outcomes for their students – such as those run by the very trust behind this initiative, Star Academies, which already produces some of the country’s best results. I would posit that any school that can lead students battling the effects of poverty to academic success has more merit than an institution that gets good results from some of this country’s most privileged children. It seems disingenuous to promise the benefits of an Eton education to impoverished children in the north because what Eton actually offers, and what its parents pay for, is prestige, exclusivity and proximity to power.

Proponents of such schemes suggest that they are about levelling up so that all schools can reach Eton’s standard. But this ignores the root causes of disadvantage for poor state school students, for whom there are many barriers to learning outside the classroom. If we are serious about levelling up, these must be addressed. If we want all children to achieve their potential, that starts with making sure they all eat three nutritious meals a day and have a stable home to return to, which means more robust and expansive state benefits, better housing, investment in childcare and support for families. If all my students had this as a basic standard of living, their outcomes would immediately improve, because none of them would be coming to my classroom hungry or without a coat in winter.

In truth, the Eton sixth form scheme will simply create a new divide, between the academically gifted poor and the mediocre poor. It asks: who is brilliant enough to deserve to escape poverty, and who should languish in it for the crime of being ordinary? The scheme will no doubt be transformational for the select few who get to put Eton Star on their CVs, but it will not change the reality of poverty for the many, nor will it unseat those who benefit most from such social divides.

[See also: Education’s inequality curse]

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