Britain is still a country where privilege matters: where you start in life is far too likely to be where you end up. We still have an absurd apartheid in education. Private schooling was once a realistic option for middle class parents, but rampant inflation has seen it become an elite sport. This defines our failure to “level up” the country over decades.
The truth is that, for all the election slogans, getting schools reform right will make or break the Prime Minister’s agenda for left-behind England. You cannot bring prosperity to these areas without first encouraging educational excellence.
New legislation on schools and universities, announced in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, would ideally be a chance to do this. Ministers will soon put forward plans to shake up school funding and extend the reach of administrative bodies that oversee most of Britain’s academy schools. Yet we are in danger of these new style multi academy trusts replicating the old Local Education Authorities they replaced.
That was never the intention of Coalition-era education reforms which saw new schools emerge, challenging the monopoly of the state.
The Prime Minister says he wants to spread opportunity, so why don’t we start by breaking up the private school cartel? This isn’t just a pipe-dream; educational reformers are starting to set up new low cost private schools. The visionary educationist James Tooley, for instance, has done this with his Independent Grammar School in Durham, which charges a fraction of the fees of nearby independents. A few more of these and the whole private school deck of cards will collapse.
It isn’t just the monied middle class who would benefit either, for increased choice works in everyone’s favor. As parents vote on their feet, schools everywhere will have to up their game or go bust.
Ministers should also use spare capacity at our most prestigious private schools. There were upwards of 9,000 spare places at prestigious boarding schools last year. Ministers should be compelled to buy these places up at a discount and offer them to bright children growing up in care. Many will be refugees, what a story that would make.
Elsewhere, we have to properly tackle our deepest social mobility issues. This week the Civitas think tank discovered that only 50 children who grew up in care went to our top 50 universities in 2020: a dismal record which means you’re more likely to meet an undergraduate from Ecuador than a child who grew up in care at a top university. The low expectations for children in care are institutionally embedded within the Department for Education. We don’t even bother to measure educational attainment for this group beyond 16.
We wait and see what the promised educational reforms will bring. We’re told that there will be action on school attendance, illegal schools and doing away with degrees with little return on investment. These are all worthwhile issues to occupy the time of legislators.
But ultimately, it will be a simple question that defines success or failure: is a disadvantaged child in the poorest parts of the country more or less likely to achieve educational excellence at the end of this Parliament than they were at the start? Only radical schools reform, with a relentless focus on standards will give our stagnant rates of social mobility the kick start it needs.
Frank Young is editorial director at the Civitas think tank