Equal education: possibility or a pipe dream?

By NOAH KEATE



The importance of education in our public discussion is obvious. Even during a general election last year dominated by Brexit, differences in education policy formed a significant part of the campaign. Its public salience should be welcomed - over decades, education has allowed individuals to improve their lives by learning more about the world.


Understandably, exams form a part of the process. Introduced to ensure children could be tested on what they have (and haven’t) learned about their subject, they were a useful tool for employers, teachers, and students to see what their capabilities are. However, exams took place on the basis of fairness - everyone would sit the same paper, regardless of ability. Examiners had no idea of the name or school of any candidate. There was meant to be meritocracy with an individual’s background not affecting how they were marked.


The exam results this year were the very opposite of this, with the regulator Ofqual using an algorithm that looked at a school’s previous performance, resulting in over a third of A-level results being downgraded. While this was meant to ensure that the government avoided grade inflation, it in turn led to many bright pupils in underachieving schools or deprived areas not receiving the marks they deserved. After a public outcry, the algorithm was ditched - like in Scotland where the move was made before - for centre assessed grades instead.


The pandemic has inevitably transformed education. With many children out of school for six months, the gap between those receiving high quality and mediocre education has never been starker. The six week summer holidays normally result in children forgetting information before starting the new academic year, let alone months outside the classroom. While a mere 8 percent of state school students had fully timetabled online learning during the summer term of 2020, over a third of private school students had this opportunity. The disparity in not only access to technology but also the proactiveness of schools and teachers over the pandemic’s period of online education may have worsened inequality in education.


Before the exams fiasco, it was clear the education system wasn’t a meritocracy. An individual’s background played a part in deciding the quality of education they received. On the left, there has been a greater discussion of abolishing private schools for their entrenched privilege. This wouldn’t resolve educational disparities - rich parents would move their children into the catchment areas of brilliant comprehensives, whilst poorer families would still lose out. Instead of destroying institutions, state schools should deliver the same educational standards as the very best private schools.


This process has to start from the bottom up. The early years of a child’s life are significant in their educational future. Though I dislike deterministic views towards education, and believe children have the capacity to increase their intelligence, it is undeniable that attending a high quality primary school brilliantly helps children in their academic and professional futures.


Sure Start centres are important at helping young families from vulnerable backgrounds. Introduced by the New Labour government, they offered advice to the poorest communities and ensure that children have the necessary support. It wasn't just governments throwing money at a problem. Instead, a direct purpose of interaction that guided families was achieved. Their decline since 2010 has been stark. Spending in 2015/16 was 47 percent lower than 2010/11, with 208 Sure Start centres shutting between 2015 and 2017 alone. It is shameful that Sure Start has been neglected.


Children shouldn’t be stereotyped as suitable for a certain job from the moment they arrive in the classroom. While university isn’t and shouldn’t be for everyone, an individual’s economic backgrounds shouldn’t determine their academic achievement and future prospects. Instead, their willingness to learn, perseverance, and dedication to hard work should be the deciding factors. It is clear that the government, teachers, and parents must do more to ensure the inequalities in accessing educational excellence are reduced. Only brilliant state schools, which we can all benefit from, deliver this. As children return to school, it’s time for government ministers to also go back to the classroom.


IMAGE - Flickr (Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street)