In 1983 I was training to be a teacher in a comprehensive system. I was committed to education as the most powerful force with which social inequality could be tackled. I viewed Grammar schools as an anachronism. Had I been shipwrecked then, and lived for the last 33 years on a desert island, I would be traumatised on my return to see the mess that higher education is in. I would be depressed that education, aimed at enhancing individuals’ lives and invigorating society’s capacity to thrive, is in such a poor state.
First, I would be angry and shocked at the fees students have to pay for their higher education – in a marketised system which appears ill-suited to transforming lives, but seems designed instead to be searching for a role as a self-perpetuating parody of a massive finishing school. I remain grateful that the London Borough of Havering provided me with a full grant to study my undergraduate degree, and that because I was living in Stoke while working and taking my MA part-time, the county of Staffordshire provided a grant for my PGCE. Fast forward a third of a century, and I know my parents would have been terrified of me incurring massive debt to fund my studies, and seen the threat of not getting a well-paid job (I am inordinately proud of my Polytechnic degree in English – but it was not likely to get me a well-paid job in an early 80s recession) as too great a risk. The financing of HE, especially the almost-invisible part-time sector, is unfit for purpose and damages opportunity.
Second, my ears would prick with interest to hear Prime Ministers talk of social mobility through higher education (that was my driver, although I could not have articulated the term at the time), but my hope would quickly be extinguished when realising the current PM clings to an outdated notion of meritocracy. Teresa May is about the same age as me. She went to a Grammar School (as did I, although mine had the decent manners to change to a comprehensive in my third year). She makes statements, non-ironically, asserting ‘This government is putting the interests of ordinary working class people first…’. But she then proposes universities will contribute to widening access (and incidentally by doing so, being able to increase their fees) by opening or sponsoring academies or free schools to drive up educational standards. It is as if she has never seen the overwhelming evidence that the ideological infatuation with academies has contributed nothing to social mobility. The academy programme has failed to drive up standards, and has resulted only in resource being sucked from local authorities, who can no longer, for example, manage local school systems to provide support for SEN that should be the hallmark of a civilised society. It is as if she has never seen the evidence that so-called ‘free’ schools damage educational standards and damage social cohesion. Of course universities should do more in their local communities, should commit to meaningful outreach and sustain opportunities for lifelong learning, should work on supporting teachers and trainees to raise educational aspiration. But ill-thought through notions of opening schools to disrupt the system even more should be dismissed as the joke they are.
Third, and I would need the smelling salts for this one, is the risible assertion that encouraging the expansion of Grammar schools, or allowing academies to change their status to selective, or gently prodding private schools to help state schools (and in doing so, preserving their charitable tax status) will make England a more socially mobile country. Evidence is there for the government to see, that Grammar schools have a notoriously tiny intake of pupils from poorer backgrounds, and that they do nothing to raise aspirations for the majority of young people. On the contrary, their very existence contributes to social exclusion. I must have missed the campaign promising ‘more secondary moderns in your area’. And just when I was reeling from that, a ridiculously unnecessary proposal to remove the cap on children admitted on religious grounds to faith schools would leave me wondering which decade (what century?) I had wandered into, when surely schools (and universities) should bring individuals together in a shared enterprise, to learn together, and to learn from one another.
Returning to a country which had just voted for Brexit would leave me utterly confused, especially when educational policy in England seems to be diverging increasingly from Scotland and Wales: the SNP is opposed to Grammars and tuition fees, and the Diamond Review in Wales advocates generous student support measures, including for part-time students.
Where has it all gone wrong? Why would any government, with the best interests of the whole population at heart, propose policies designed to increase educational inequality? Universities should learn the lessons of the Brexit decision – indulging in ostrich head-in-the sand silence, or speaking only from self-interest is not going to result in policies supporting the transformation of lives through education.