Observer’s view of radical change needed to overcome elitism in education | Observer editorial

Meritocracy is one of society’s most powerful myths. It is comforting to believe that we live in a fair world where people are rewarded for a mixture of talent and effort. But Britain remains an elitist country where a socially stratified education system sends those born to privilege into the highest-status jobs, while holding back children born to parents who never benefited from such opportunities.

So Keir Starmer’s pledge to remove the charitable status of private schools, and to require them to charge VAT on fees, is a welcome move. Only 7% of children attend private schools. Nevertheless, privately educated young people make up almost one in three students at the country’s most selective universities. In the labor market, the figures are even worse: Seven out of 10 members of the judiciary were privately educated, as were six out of 10 permanent secretaries in the civil service, more than half of diplomats and more than four out of 10 senior media editors. This is not only a product of their raw ability, but also of the enormous resources that go into their education, the social connections and services it opens up and the other forms of cultural capital it provides.

Private schools create social damage. By acting as a conveyor belt to the most desirable jobs, they shut out other, more skilled, young people who lack these advantages. They pull young people from disproportionately affluent backgrounds out of the state system, which has a negative impact on achievement for everyone else. It is fundamentally wrong for these schools to earn the tax benefits of charities.

So it is right that Labor has reiterated its 2017 manifesto commitment to end their charitable status, a proposal also put forward by Michael Gove when he was Conservative education secretary. But in terms of measures to crack down on elitism in Britain’s education system, it is rather incremental. It will raise £1.7 billion, an amount smaller than the overall education budget, and do little to remove the benefits of a private school education.

To combat inequality in the education system, there are bigger fish to fry. Three- and four-year-olds from some of the most disadvantaged homes – 80% of those in the bottom third of the income distribution – are only entitled to 15 hours of free education a week if their parents do not meet the eligibility requirements for more. free hours, while those who get access to 30 free hours a week. This is a stunning social injustice given the impact high quality early education can have on children from less affluent backgrounds, compounded by the fact that cuts to funding for early years provision have had the greatest impact on the poorest areas.

In the state school system, there is still too much selection – both explicitly, in the form of grammar schools and through the back door. Where they still exist, grammar schools are disproportionately dominated by children from more advantaged backgrounds, with parents often paying for private tuition to support them through 11-plus. Children from a low-income background do worse on average in areas where there is a selection of 11. Primary schools should therefore be discontinued. Beyond that, there is too much selection by zip code; the best performing wards are least likely to accept children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Sutton Trust educational charity estimated in 2017 that living near a good comprehensive added about 20% to house prices. In order to allow fairer access to the country’s best schools, children who are entitled to the pupil premium – a good indicator of deprivation – should be prioritized for school admission in the same way as children in care. Much more effort must be channeled into obtaining education in the wake of the pandemic; Experts fear that uneven learning loss during Covid-19, with children from poorer backgrounds suffering the most, will mean there is a wider attainment gap between wealthier and less affluent children in this generation. And there needs to be far less focus on structural reforms – there is no evidence that the Government’s academy reforms have done anything to improve standards across the board – and more on how to get the best quality teachers into schools serving the most disadvantaged areas, to avoid teacher shortage affects these areas the most.

The UK university system is academically stratified to absurd levels, with a difference of one or two A-level grades pushing a young person towards a different institution altogether. This in turn creates a very socially stratified system, where the institution a young person attends is treated as shorthand for their employment potential. As a condition of funding, universities should be given much stricter targets to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds – those eligible for the pupil premium make up just 2% of admissions to the most selective universities, despite making up 13% of all young people. Oxford and Cambridge should be opened up to a much more diverse group of students – perhaps by guaranteeing places to the best performing students at each school, or by experimenting with admissions lotteries for anyone who meets a minimum grade requirement for their subject. The taxpayer subsidy channeled to the disproportionately middle-class group of young people going to university through subsidized loans, around £30,000, should be extended to cover all young people regardless of their post-18 education path.

Starmer’s promise to add value added tax to private school fees is a start. But it can only play a limited role in achieving an education system that opens up opportunities for all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

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