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Political Parties Have Been Too Timid On Educational Inequality

11/09/2017 15:13
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During the election we were presented with a stark contrast, the Tories placed a new generation of grammar schools and further academisation at the centre of their education policy. Labour, instead, offered real-terms increases in funding for schools, the end of tax exemptions for private schools and universal free school meals in primary schools. Yet, neither party, nor the Liberal Democrats, offered a serious challenge to the way in which both grammars and academies undermine the comprehensive school system.

Selective systems of education tend to reduce social mobility and widen the attainment gap between rich and poor. (This is far from May's claims of a 'meritocratic Britain.') There is clear evidence that while children who attend grammar schools tend to do better than if they'd attended a comprehensive school, most children who don't make it into the grammar perform worse than they would under a comprehensive system.

The result of this is a larger degree of educational inequality than under a comprehensive system, with the chances of pupils from low-income backgrounds taking the biggest hit (in their current form). This isn't new thinking either, in the late 1950s the Crowther report acknowledged that the children of skilled and semi-skilled workers and manual labourers were seriously under-represented in selective schools. Exclusivity and selective education didn't work then and the evidence is clear that it still doesn't work now.

Despite the evidence against grammar schools as a whole, Labour's Manifesto only committed the party to opposing Theresa May's new grammar schools, a position identical to the ban on new grammars introduced by New Labour. Neither the manifesto or the annual report on policy released last month explored the option of abolishing or phasing out the 11+ or explored options such as obliging grammars to take on students from a broader range of class backgrounds.

In fact, the report written by Labour's NPF (National Policy Forum) makes no mention of altering the status quo on grammars - while academies and free schools go unmentioned in the report. Given the role grammars have played in increasing inequality in education, and the role academies play in taking schools out of local control this is pretty concerning. Bolder thinking is needed, alongside a more accountable policy-making process which addresses the fact that grassroots members elect too few of the reps on the NPF.

Labour isn't bereft from big thinking on education, we've seen some great and substantial ideas from the proposed National Education Service to scrapping tuition fees and challenging the special privileges of fee-paying schools - but clearly there is still work to be done.

Theresa May, on the other hand, has been championing a new generation of 'inclusive' grammars, though since the election these plans have understandably been shelved temporarily. And no wonder, because much of the Tory Party opposes the plans and the benefits of attending a grammar school disproportionately go to children from higher income households. So, it is might be good news that the Conservatives agenda on education has rapidly lost steam and that the party is losing political direction.

Given the evidence is already clear that low income pupils don't do better under a system with the 11+, it makes little sense to retain grammar schools. It's worth remembering this position was once considered mainstream and centre-left. In the 1960s it looked like this would soon become the reality, with people increasingly seeing the 11+ as outdated and unfair. In 1992 the prospect of a Conservative defeat and a Labour victory carried with it the prospect of an end to grammar schools.

Even a halfway-house position of phasing out the 11+ or turning those grammars which entrench inequality the most into comprehensive schools would do a lot to fight educational inequality. After all, if MPs and commentators can repeatedly condemn the division and harm to social mobility the 11+ causes, why have so few called for its end?

Similarly, on academies Theresa May and her party broadly want more, whilst Labour have been far more critical. Academies are given an extra cash boost, giving them an unjustified edge against other schools, numerous have no limits on teacher's working hours, they are outside of local or democratic control, while research from Durham University found that academies increase segregation by economic background.

Yet, promises to stop schools being forcibly converted into academies is likely not enough given we've just had seven years of government gradually unwinding our system of public education. Scrapping academies and free schools, or introducing a mechanism to return them to comprehensive school status and back under local control could be a big step toward fixing our fractured education system. Combining this with the extra funding schools desperately need would be an impressive way forward

Labour's growing lead in the polls and the election upset this June, means that the party's approach to fixing education in Britain is of vital importance - given the Tories could be out of power within 12 months. Because of this it is essential that people are demanding an approach to education that is bold, reforming and goes beyond just addressing the funding crisis in British schools.

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