As another report from the Sutton Trust exposes the impact of socioeconomic disadvantage on children's educational attainment, is it any wonder that young people today are struggling?
The situation is frightening for staff, pupils and parents. While education staff fight for fair pay and better working conditions, the privatisation of schools is creating a system modelled on an examination factory, stifling creativity and failing to meet the individual needs of pupils. As disadvantaged children slip through cracks in the secondary school system, the safety nets of extra-curricular support and Further Education are being dismantled, while adult learning is almost obliterated.
For those who aspire to higher education, the prospect of mounting debt is creating a social barrier that will make university the preserve of those with the financial privilege to avoid loans.
The end game for all of this is a barren jobs market, as more than half of 18-24-year-olds earn less than the living wage, and the soaring cost of living threatens to price low earners out of having a secure and stable home.
In schools, competition has become the name of the game, with a primary and secondary school system increasingly infiltrated by the private market interests of the Academies and Free Schools programme. An increasingly pressurised examination system attempts to drive up standards by pitting schools against one another, while overworked and exhausted teaching staff battle bureaucracy at the expense of time spent teaching pupils. As teachers increasingly 'teach to the test', they also tell us that more pupils than ever arrive at school visibly suffering the effects of poverty, with a quarter of teachers bringing food to the classroom to feed hungry children.
Schools should not be the A&E for a crumbling society; teachers are not social workers. In a country that boasts the sixth-largest economy in the world, it is scandalous that the educational prospects of thousands of children are suffering because of endemic poverty.
To compound things even further, advisory services for young people such as Connexions, youth centres, and provision for youth mental health have all been cut to barely more than skeletal services, and further cuts are still on the table. Vulnerable young people who have relied on these services are left without access to support, and teachers are left to pick up the pieces.
Extra-curricular activities enrich children's learning experience and improve their educational outcomes, but the government has failed target investment to give poorer families access to them. Instead, the war on the poor has continued to the extent that even some Conservatives are growing critical of widening inequality.
There can be no doubt that austerity cuts have hit the poorest families hardest, and that children are bearing the brunt of this. Without the support from youth centres and advisory services, appropriate mental health provision and teachers free to meet their learning needs, how can we expect vulnerable children to meet the demands of the examination factory?
With almost 40% of pupils leaving secondary school with fewer than five GCSEs, colleges and sixth forms have historically been a lifeline. But in the latest wave of education cuts, further education stands to lose £1.6bn of funding, despite warnings that this could force four in 10 colleges to close. Existing cuts have caused 68% of sixth-form colleges to cut courses, with 22% cutting science, technology, engineering and maths courses, while 190,000 adult learning places could be lost in the next year alone.
For the fortunate students who do secure GCSE and A Level grades to meet university requirements, astronomical tuition fees have created an effective 'aspiration tax'. Graduating students face spending the rest of their working lives paying back around £45,000 of student debt via a 9% tax on earnings over £21,000. Yet still, 45% of graduates never earn enough to pay off the loan in full. For any young person just beginning their journey, we should not be surprised that there is a crisis of aspiration, and that working class pupils from poor neighbourhoods feel particularly disenfranchised.
The government has the power to relieve this by listening to the abundance of evidence and calls from education campaigners to relax standardised testing, relieve excessive teacher workloads and bring all schools under local authority control. We must invest in education at all levels, target funding to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, reinstate the Education Maintenance Allowance, scrap university tuition fees, and bring back student maintenance grants. But crucially, the welfare reforms which have plunged families into poverty must be reversed, and the inequality gap reduced immediately.
Sam Parcheri is Policy Development Coordinator for the Green PartySuggest a correction