The unlevel playing fields of England

The most oversubscribed primary school in our area (let’s call it school X) is in the loveliest, leafiest area of town. By some strange coincidence, it’s the same area where house prices and average incomes are highest too. It’s an unspoken assumption that it is the school to send your children too, and yet it doesn’t do all that brilliantly, sailing along at fair-to-middling, even while its waiting lists and estate agent cachet grow. Curiously, there’s no noticeable slump into delinquency and unemployability among its former pupils when they reach adulthood. It’s almost as if school alone doesn’t determine a child’s outcome in life.

Had we made the connection between having a baby and ultimately having a schoolchild which other, better-adjusted, adults do when making decisions about where to live, it’s probably fair to say that we’d now be among the cohort of parents who grumble at the standards while simultaneously reassuring ourselves we are doing the best by our children. Instead, we stumbled quite by chance into an unfashionable primary, which isn’t perfect, but which external bodies seem to think is pretty good. Most importantly, our children (who are still only 6 and 8) are happy, feel secure and enjoy going there. And yet, the chances of friends moving their children from school X to ours are next to zero. The thought of those who educate privately doing so is laughable.

I didn’t, until recently, twig quite how much of a social impact schools have. I failed to appreciate fully that choosing a school would not necessarily involve prioritising educational achievement over the connections children will form, the interpersonal skillsets they will develop. I can smugly congratulate myself that my children (through no real planning of my own) interact with others from a wide variety of backgrounds, but it doesn’t stop me blinking when they come out with things they’d not have met elsewhere yet. It is, objectively A Good Thing. – but I’m enough of a hypocrite that it sometimes makes me wonder whether I’m doing absolutely the best thing by them.

The next educational hurdle for my group of friends is secondary school. Locally, post-11 education is undergoing upheaval, making decisions and planning difficult. My inadvertent smugness is evaporating in front of the realistic possibilities: will a dreamy, academic boy who doesn’t speak football thrive in a failing new academy which doesn’t get many of its youngsters, largely from challenging backgrounds, through GCSE? If we could afford it, I’m forced to admit to myself, I’d send him to one of the excellent fee-paying schools nearby. Perhaps fortunately for my principles, perhaps unfortunately for him, finances forbid it.

But wait! My heartache might be in vain! Michael Gove has spoken today at the London Academy of Excellence. One of his points, surely intentionally, has attracted immediate attention – but might be the answer to my prayers:

My ambition for our education system is simple – when you visit a school in England standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee paying independent.

Hurray for Michael Gove. I don’t need to worry any more on behalf of my own children, and those in our town, that the new academy, unable in a few years’ time in a more competitive world, to raise extra funds from parents in its deprived local area, will be forced to recruit unqualified, untrained teachers with no real specialist knowledge in the subjects they teach. I don’t need to fret that the funding structure down the line will mean they will only be able to afford cheaper exam entrances, or be forced to focus their attention on getting the majority through vocational training at the expense of the academic few who could have gone on to Uni. Home influences will cease to drag on young people’s ambition, drive and ability to capitalise on the education they receive. The magical emphasis on ‘standards’ will knock out any discrepancy in class sizes, in calibre of teaching, in quantity and quality of resource, amenity and extra-curricular activity. My children, and their peers, will somehow, miraculously, get for free the education which would cost £15k per annum down the road.

It is rubbish, and it is an insult. People who are able to exercise choice in their children’s education (and I am, of course, among them) do so for reason and for benefit. Whether it’s opting for the leafy, lovely primary where no-one betrays a local accent, or the stellar-performing public school which promises a brace of results and a bulging address book, education in this country is both a market and a commodity. And it almost always involves cash.

Fee-paying schools capitalise on the natural desire of parents to further their children’s chances in life. Whether you approve of this or not, they generally achieve their aim very well – but to suggest that this success has nothing at all to do with money, both at school and at home, is disingenuous. Gove’s announcement today, along with much of the thrust of his education policy, seems to insist that schools operate in a vacuum; that the difference in results and output is entirely down to method. Saying that this approach is wrong is not to consign those who start without home advantages to failure. It’s to demand that they be given the equivalent resources to compete. That will never be accomplished by insisting on ‘standards’ alone, but rather by being honest about what we consider success – and honest about what it costs.

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5 thoughts on “The unlevel playing fields of England

  1. Gove is an arse who wishes he had attended private school, and would also like to return schooling to the 1950s, no doubt with compulsory Latin and corporal punishment. Another great post from you!

  2. Ha! ” It’s almost as if school alone doesn’t determine a child’s outcome in life.” <- I laughed out loud! Thanks for the entertaining post. I can't believe that no-one is picking up on the utter unattainability of what Gove is bleating on about.

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