Education – the great leveller?

Wednesday 15 May 2019

In the week when Prom-dress daughter starts her GCSEs, and half the teenage world shudders with stress and probably more than half of their parent do too, I wonder about the fairness of it all.

Education, as the ‘great leveller’ has been my lifelong passion. I’ve loved the fact that a set of top exam grades from your local comprehensive is every bit as good as the same grades from Eton or Harrow. I’ve been intoxicated by the concept of GCSE results day as the one day of true equality on the calendar, when any 16 year old who’s worked hard and aimed high is assessed on the same scale as, and can get better grades than …. even the future King of England.

Education undoubtedly was my liberator, and took me to places and opportunities, that I’d never dreamed possible. I recall on my journey to University, back in the 1980s, being too frightened to open my mouth, as the train headed south of Birmingham, for fear of my Northern accent inviting ridicule. Three years later, I was ready to take on the world! And I was grateful: for the boost of confidence and self esteem; for the privilege of 3 years with like-minded friends; for 3 years of being allowed to be myself and still fit in… and I wanted to give back. I moved into a career in Education.

But how much of a leveller is our Education system in 2019? Here’s the data; and I am, not surprised. but deeply saddened that, in 21st Century England, a well developed country, the progress of disadvantaged pupils falls so far behind that of their non-disadvantaged peers. A Progress 8 score of -0.44 suggests that across this substantial cohort of vulnerable pupils, almost half their results were one grade lower than you should expect for a pupil of the same starting point. If that was your child, and 4 of their 9 grades were lower than other children who arrived at high school with the same results, what you you think? And the actual picture is even starker than that. Research is emphatic that by the time a disadvantaged pupil reaches high school, they are already significantly behind…the gap just continues to widen throughout their school life.

So GCSE results day, “the one day of true equality on the calendar?” We could not be further from the truth! The data dispels my naive utopia and just leaves, as a bad wine on a long awaited night out, a very sour after taste. ‘Disadvantage’ predominantly indicates parental poverty, with the vast majority of the cohort drawn from the population who qualify for free school meals. The data screams out, that despite the same schooling, your family background will still be the key determinant your educational success. It’s a devastatingly far cry from the ‘cultural capital’ and social mobility we aspired to in Butler’s 1944 Education Act.

Does the over- involvement of parental affluence in education exacerbate the gap? Affluence can mean money for private tuition, money to keep your child away from a time consuming part time job, money for technology and a wealth of online revision resources, lack of financial worries so more time for home support. I don’t know if this is the reason. It’s a highly complex issue and one thing is for sure, it’s ridiculous to expect any parent not to do all they can to support their child’s education. I will certainly continue to make Prom-dress daughter ‘porridge and berry’ breakfasts until these GCSEs are over, and to head out for emergency chocolate after any tricky and tearful exam.

No, it remains the job of educators to relentlessly drive this cohort with more ambition and higher expectations. Where needed, and it clearly is needed, I’d advocate positive discrimination of time and resources too. But it’s not just a challenge for schools. Think Grenfell, media attitudes to asylum seekers, the Jeremy Kyle show, the refusal of all but a few commentators to listen to the 51% of the population who did vote for Brexit, the 51% who do not recognise Britain as a fair and prosperous land at the moment. Does our nation really care about and respect the most disadvantaged in our society? I think we could strive to do so a lot better….

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