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PH Opinion

PH Opinion


Views and comment from Westminster

David Davis: Coalition schools policy will make social mobility worse

David Davis, writing for Politics Home, says the Coalition's social mobility policies will help little and their Free Schools policy will 'make social mobility even worse'.

Today’s initiative on Social Mobility by the Coalition government is, on one level, entirely admirable.  Britain is probably now the most stratified society in the Western world.  Equality of opportunity has been declining for at least four decades, and the post war “golden era” of social mobility is a rapidly dimming memory.  So the intention of the government to improve social mobility should be applauded.

The question is , will what is proposed do the job?  Will internships, “blind” application forms, and the various other initiatives make up for the abject failure of our education system to give decent opportunities to our poorer kids?  Will even the deeply un-conservative (and, incidentally, illiberal) ideas of state-school quotas for universities dent this apparently intractable problem?  One only has to ask the question to recognise that the answer is, probably not.

The hard data shows that the post-war improvement in social mobility, and its subsequent decline, coincided exactly with the arrival, and then the destruction, of the grammar school system.  This is the clearest example of the unintended consequence of a purportedly egalitarian policy we have seen in modern times.

The problem today is not just that the policies announced by the coalition will fail to improve opportunity by much.  The problem is that the Coalition’s education policies will actually make social mobility even worse.

I have little doubt that the free school policy will improve the average level of attainment in our education system.  The liberation of our teachers from the dead hand of state bureaucracy can only be a good thing.

However, the mechanism for creating new schools is designed to reinforce the advantage of the “sharp-elbowed” middle classes, not to reduce it.  Consider who is most likely to have the time and energy to organise for a new school – a well educated middle class “yummy mummy” who can afford a child minder and a cleaner, or a single mum with three children living on the 14th floor of a run-down block of flats?  Or indeed a young mother whose first language is not English?  Now ask yourself who is likely to need a better school more?

The hard fact is that our policy will almost certainly lead to better standards in schools in affluent or middle class areas.  It is unlikely to lead to any improvement in the poorer areas.

Even the pupil premium will not help much.  It is likely to repeat our experience down the years with pouring money into poor schools.  All it has done in the past is turn cheap bad schooling into expensive bad schooling.

So many of our children from poorer areas will continue to get second class schooling.  That has meant that they had tended to get poorer exam grades than they used to, which is why Oxbridge colleges are even more dominated by the products of public schools than they were forty years ago.  The new, astonishingly expensive, tuition fees are going to make that situation even worse.  This, and the unchecked expansion of higher education means that for many poorer families the prospects for their offspring are second rate schooling, followed by third rate university education, followed by employment prospects that are doubtful at best.

So what should the intelligent, dedicated, and wholly admirable Michael Gove do if he really wants to make a difference?

Well, firstly he should liberalise schooling even further.  He should allow private companies to set up schools without the need for some parental or charitable cloak.  Those companies would be attracted to where they could make the biggest difference and earn the most money – namely in the poor areas with the weakest schools and where they would earn the pupil premium.

Ideally, and even more controversially, he should allow academic selection.  It has never been a kindness to teach the weakest pupils alongside the brightest.  It is unfair on both, diminishing the self esteem of the weaker pupil and holding back the stronger.

If we did these two simple things, we would release and exploit the talents of hundreds of thousands of young people who today get a raw deal from the state.  This is clearly in their interest, but it is also in the interest of the whole nation.  In the coming decades the country will need all the talent it has to compete in the new global economy, and to do this we cannot under utilise half our potential workforce in the way we have these last four decades.

© PoliticsHome 2011

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