Ah, the difficult decision of what to talk about in my second ever blog. A very interesting week for me. Some obvious ones to discuss – obviously tax credits and the impact it may have on our longer terms governance arrangements through the house of lords? Perhaps responding to a challenge from a very good (and too smart for my own good) friend of mine – why do we need Momentum and the Labour Party to both exist? The parlous state of the economy based on the latest growth figures?
I have decided to go for one of the stories which has as far as I am concerned been massively under-reported this week. I don’t know whether this is because it has been pushed off the front pages by the Commons/Lords/Tax Credits debacle or whether because it has become so accepted that we have forgotten we need to do something about it. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC – remember them?) today posted the results of research into the question of “Is Britain Fairer?”
This is a really important question for all of us. Fairness and equality of opportunity affects everybody. There is no-one this should not matter to. This has always felt like something that has been at the heart of Labour politics, has been explicitly included in Liberal Democrat policies for a while, and is now even (if you can believe anything from their last conference) central to the Conservative parties plans for the future.
The report paints a balanced picture of where we have improved as a country and where we still need to improve. But the stand out point for me is that the single biggest factor that impacts whether you do well at school or not is if your parents are poor. 130 years after school became compulsory in the UK. 70 years after the introduction of the Tripartite System and 50 years after Labour started dismantling it in favour of comprehensive education. We have had implementation of the market system (because as we know that fixes everything), grant-maintained, academies and free schools. And yet, still the biggest determinant of whether you will achieve through education is which social class your parents belong to. We have not moved on since the Newcastle Commission of the 19thCentury.
Now it may be that I feel this acutely for personal reasons – maybe this didn’t hit the news because genuinely nobody gives a shit any more. But we really should. To use the report’s own figures – if you receive Free School Meals (which are taken as a proxy of poverty in the report) then your chances of success at GCSE level are 38%. If you don’t receive free school meals – your success rate is 65%. That is not quite, but not far away from double the chance of success. Why are there not riots in the street over this? This was a report produced by the EHRC because they have a statutory duty to report on it. What was the government response? An unelected official at the Department for Education spouted some kindly sounding drivel. Wonderful.
150 years of making no progress in addressing the underlying unfairness in our society. 150 years of failing to address the fact that if you are born into a poor family you are more likely to die in poverty. What was the big idea of the last Labour government when it came to education? Academies and stuffing universities with slightly less able middle class kids. Brilliant – because what is holding us back is having Local Government involvement in setting educational priorities and standards and a lack of people with Media Studies degrees. The biggest change in this area recently has come from the Liberal Democrats (wait, is this somebody DARING to say something positive about the Lib Dems in the area of Education?). Their introduction of the pupil premium, and the focus of OFSTED on how this is spent is a real challenge to this ingrained lack of attainment. Money alone is not and will not be enough to fix this - but at least it is a start.
As a country we should be embarrassed about this – we really should. As a socialist organisation we should be apoplectic with rage. I really hope that Lucy Powell MP, in Education is able to understand how important this is and that we have a plan for how the next government will do this differently. Certainly, it appears today that this certainly wouldn't have been a key focus of Tristram "We are the 1%" Hunt. I am avoiding putting down my feelings on his comments, and leave it to somebody else who is much better at being angry than I am.
There is a real tragedy here. In my view, the quality of our education and the changes we can make to a child's level of aspiration and self-confidence are the best way to upset the status quo. 150 years ago we knew that. 50 years ago we knew that. It is bitterly disappointing that the party who seem to have had the biggest focus on this over the last 20 years is the Liberal Democrats whilst we let jokers like Hunt be shadow education secretary. Perhaps we really are destined to fight the same battles over and over for the rest of time. I have the greatest hope that Lucy Powell can prove me wrong.