Levelling education

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  • Picture of Guy William Benjamin Inchbald
    Guy William Benjamin Inchbald
  • Education
  • Social mobility

Every young person deserves the best education, and our society’s social mobility, wealth and wellbeing depend on it. Guy Inchbald argues that, in an increasingly divided, two-tier UK, the left and centre need to dump their resistance to fee-paying secondary schools

Education and social mobility are two themes dear to the heart of the RSA, and for good reason. In recent decades we have increasingly become a two-tier society. The rich and powerful grow ever more so, while the working classes are relentlessly levelled down by the rising costs of living and the failure of wages to keep up. Meanwhile, the squeezed middle are being inexorably levelled down, ‘middle class’ increasingly being merely a cultural description rather than a financial one. And all despite much political effort expended since the 1950s, and early successes, in narrowing the gap and creation of the short-lived affluent worker class.

Education too is becoming increasingly divided into a shrinking handful of elite public boarding schools on the one hand, state secondary day schools on the other. The old ecology of grammar schools and minor public schools has been subject to a relentless winnowing-down, with schools either merging into one camp or the other, or closing down. Nowadays, our children grow up with a glass ceiling/floor between the two worlds at both home and school. It can be no surprise that this mentality lasts into adulthood and the imagination to challenge it is fading.

There have been attempts to reverse the trend: revitalising grammar schools, the assisted places scheme, technology colleges. But social and political opposition from the left and centre dog any such attempt and they have been outweighed by the relentless closures in the middle ground. The result has been the closing down of what little social mobility our children used to have as they entered adult life. The only phenomenon to have gained ground is the middle class parent’s tactic of moving into your preferred school's catchment area.

Nowadays, a good school attracts the richer families and may be identified as much by the house prices in the local estate agent's window as anything else. So even in state schools, social mobility is blocked by family income levels. We all know that life is unfair – no two children are equal in ability, every child in the class knows who is top and who is the loser. Unfairness can never be hidden and it can never be eradicated.

But we shouldn’t be allowing it to become locked-in down the generations. We have the tools to give EVERY child an even break.

I suggest here that we have for too long been suckered by the politics of envy into tearing down without rebuilding better. Unfairness cannot be obliterated, but it can be managed. The Tories have actually had a point over the years. Education should be as much a driver for the opening up of social mobility as any, perhaps even our top priority.

For example, the assisted places scheme took brighter children who the state was letting down (and who, frustrated, might channel their energies into truancy, drug abuse and crime), and gave them places in private schools. It worked well when handled properly: their new schoolfellows by and large accepted them as equals who deserved a break, and they themselves appreciated the opportunity. The cost to the state was no different from any other child, the extra funds came from the private sector, and the forging of a wayward criminal might be averted. The cost-benefit to both individual and society was incalculable. Yet too many on the centre-left focused on the occasional failures, wielding the politics of envy against the ‘unfairness’ of the scheme.

We need to wake up and revisit such initiatives. Breaking the glass ceiling in education will weaken it in adult society, and we badly need to do that.

How can we achieve this? First and foremost, we need to lift the legislative barriers put in place to enforce that misguided ‘fairness’. There is greater fairness in allowing state schools to charge parents if they wish and in channeling funds to good yet struggling private schools with the standard state allowance per child if they are prepared to toe the state line. And there is greater fairness in supporting the mobility of children so that they can attend the school that is best for them. We must stop treating private funding as unfair and instead treat it as a goose that lays golden eggs, a resource to be encouraged and targeted where it will do the most good. After all, many other walks of life survive on charitable and other private funding, why should state schools be hamstrung in their ability to do so? What is good enough for our lifeboats, air ambulances, animal hospitals and universities is surely also good enough for our children's education.

What can RSA members do to help? It’s pretty obvious really. Move the discussion on via the RSA’s wider education debate, which is already under way. More widely, there is the social, political and legislative message to get across wherever you can, that children’s education is way behind in the war against the divided society and desperately needs to change its approach.

Once the law is relaxed to allow innovation in educational funding and delivery, then it should be up to the educational establishment to make the most of the opportunity. Here, there are many bright ideas which go beyond the scope of this comment, so this is a good place to stop and reflect on fairness and glass ceilings in our children's education.

Guy Inchbald studied architecture and philosophy at university, before switching course to study electronics and industrial design, and became an electronics engineer. He set up Holdfast Computing to design, manufacture and sell computer input devices for young children and those with special needs. He has also been a freelance technical consultant and author, and in retirement has turned to more general historical writing

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