“It is the job of the Labour Party to fight for equality in education and oppose the government’s policies & call out the Tories on the levelling up lie.”Jon Trickett MP
For many working class kids, education used to be the only route out of a life of low pay and poverty. The general principle was that if you worked hard and played by the rules you would do alright in life, and your children and grandchildren would do even better.
This is no longer the case. Indeed, as I have written before, social mobility has been exposed for the myth it is, particularly under the Tories.
For example, children in my constituency in West Yorkshire are born into an area with one of the lowest (329 out of 332) levels of social mobility. In nearly every respect the odds are stacked against them simply because they are poorer, live in the North and inhabit an area of the country where deindustrialisation destroyed communities.
These children will likely live and die poor. Not because they “deserve” to; not because they aren’t as talented; but because the economic, social, cultural and political system they were born into is rigged against them.
Let’s be clear, children from working class backgrounds are being actively held back. The government has cut funding to education for over a decade; has failed to act adequately to protect students against the impact of the pandemic; and continues to use the rhetoric of “levelling up” whilst simultaneously entrenching regional and class inequalities.
The latest exam results for A-Levels and GCSEs exemplifies this.
Although it was another successful year for exam results with 45% of A-Level students obtaining top grades and 77% of GCSE students gaining A*- C grades, the reality behind the headline figures shows an insidious pattern becoming clearer.
70% of students at Independent Schools (i.e fee-paying schools) received a grade A or above in their A-level results. For comprehensive schools the figure is 39%. And for Further Education and Sixth Form Colleges it is 35%. And those students eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) have seen the attainment gap widen for the third year running.
For GCSE results, 2.4% of FE college students obtained a 7 (A) or above. For comprehensive school students it was 26.1% and for Independent School students it was 61.2%.
The inequality of these outcomes will, justifiably, rankle many parents, students and communities. If we are truly a country which values fairness, how can it be that the more you pay or the more affluent you are, the better an education you receive.
As well as class, there is also a regional dimension to the results. 24.4% of Yorkshire and Humber GCSE students obtained a 7 (A) or above, in London 34.1% did. For A-levels, the North East was nearly 10% behind London and the South East.
So, why is the education system holding young people from working class communities outside the South East and London back?
Firstly, the obvious factor: Covid. The Sutton Trust has said: “Since March 2020, our research has consistently shown how much harder state schools – particularly those in less affluent areas – have been hit by the pandemic. The pandemic has compounded existing inequalities and today’s results are a reflection of that.”
One in five of those eligible for free school meals had no access to a computer at home, according to a UCL study. The Sutton Trust found that 15% of teachers in the most deprived schools said that more than a third of their students would not have adequate access to an electronic device for home learning, compared with 2% of teachers in the most affluent schools.
The House of Commons Library showed that “60% of private schools and 37% of state schools in the most affluent areas already had an online platform in place to receive students’ work, compared with 23% of the most deprived schools.”
Of course, this is partly down to the fact that the government has failed to provide adequate funding for schools to recover from the impact of Covid. A clear indictment on this inaction was when the government’s education recovery Tsar resigned earlier this year after his “Covid catch up plan” was allocated just £1.4 billion in funding, £13.6 billion short of what is needed.
As we know, covid is not the cause of the vast inequalities, but is a central factor in compounding the underlying problem. It is over a decade of Tory austerity which has left schools, communities and services in tatters. If schools, colleges, local services and communities had not suffered over a decade of cuts our education system would have been much more resilient and in a better position to be able to handle the impact of the pandemic.
According to the IFS, secondary schools in the areas with the 20% lowest incomes had their spending cut by nearly £1,000 per pupil, from £7,914 in 2009-10 to £6,926 in 2019-20. Spending in sixth forms has dropped the most, with per pupil falling by 32% since 2010.
It is not just schools that are impacted, local authorities have seen some of the biggest austerity cuts as well. This is reflected in the fact that there has been a real terms cut of about £700 per pupil since 2010 in education services.
Between 2010 and 2019, funding to FE colleges and Sixth Forms was cut by 12% and adult education was cut by 47%. The Education Select Committee has estimated that across 16–19 education funding per student fell by a full 16% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2018–19.
Also, the government’s new National Funding Formula will “deliver funding increases of 3–4 percentage points less to schools in poorer areas than to those in more affluent areas up to 2021.”
Lastly, we have a centralised economic system which has resulted in great regional imbalances. According to IPPR North, for example, northern secondary schools receive £1,300 less per pupil than in London.
In research which makes a mockery of “levelling up”, 59% of children on FSM in London
achieve a ‘good level of development’ when they complete reception class at age five. Only 49% of children in the North do so. By the time these children get to their GCSE years, this gap widens even further, to 15%.
The Tories have kicked away the social mobility ladder for young people and shown their true colours. They have cut services, held back working class communities and have failed to even ameliorate the impact of the pandemic on students in many areas.
Let’s be clear, the government has no interest in levelling up education. No wonder, seeing as 65% of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet attended an independent school.
I imagine students, teachers and parents are as angry as I am about this unacceptable situation. It is the job of the Labour Party to fight for equality in education and oppose the government’s policies and call out the Tories on the levelling up lie. But it is also the job of the Party to put forward an alternative.
The National Education Service, developed under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, would invest in education from cradle to grave, pay teachers a proper wage for the work they do and cut classroom sizes so that every child gets the support they need.
- The Jon Trickett MP ‘No Holding Back’ column is one of 10 Socialist Campaign Group MPs who have monthly columns in Labour Outlook.