Education is not Meritocratic

Conversations around educational reform have been something of interest to me for a while.It is always interesting to see the TED Talks, twitter debates, teacher forums and other online papers and discussions about how education can be changed.

It is also interesting to observe how consecutive governments have tried to replicate the success stories from other countries, but all in all so many people miss the bigger picture.
The education system in our country was never designed to be equal.

Just yesterday I read a big discussion online about whether grammar schools should be reintroduced or not.

It got a lot of people hot under the collar.

Grammars are academically selective and only take 20% of eligible state schools students, depending on the area they live in. Whichever way you look at this, a lot of students are excluded from this process. There are parents who invest in private tuition to get their children to pass those tests, which does nothing to further promote that this about equality. Whilst in the past a strong rhetorical argument could be made about it being a social leveller, the fact remains in the light of overwhelming evidence, it is not. For many who do get their children into grammars, they are well aware it is nothing to do with equality. In fact, way too often, the schpiel around grammar schools is pushed with a number of myths about how it affects mobility.

I had the chance to meet and listen former education secretary, Kenneth Baker last year, who is a firm supporter of UTC colleges. These colleges are to help those who are not as academically focused. The vocational if you will. These colleges have been championed and have come with some firm funding policies to get them going. This seems great on paper but across the board a number of the colleges, sixth form or otherwise, I have worked with, have merged to save costs. In addition to this there have seen shortfalls in funding of some 30% in the last few years with another swathe of cuts across FE expected over the course of this government. This in spite of many sixth form colleges doing better than state and independent schools. At the same time, the funding for many sixth forms in schools remains robust in comparison. Primarily because they are more academic than vocational. It’s not rocket science.

I have written before that my wife and I chose to send my eldest to a private school. She did very well in her SATS at primary, in a year where many of our local schools, especially the grammars, were oversubscribed. We were not happy with the state schools that we were offered for a number of reasons, including bullying, appalling Ofsted reports, high teacher turnover and the amount of students who left school without the basic GCSEs. So we decided to work our arse off to put her in a private school. It caused consternation within our social circle but for me I have no regrets. It opened up a whole new world to us on how public school students approach leadership, further education and that cornerstone of public schools, the alumni. It also showed how much easier it is to get into a top university when you have attended a private school. For my youngest, who currently is in a state school, we have left open the option to do her A Levels at private if she so wishes.

Having watched how many large companies recruit from top universities and the kudos such names bring internationally, I want my kids to at least have the option to attend them. It might be unpopular in some quarters to state that I boldly do this because it’s tough for many young black women without such a background or support network, but for us, it is a clear and present truth. If my girls don’t take that route, that’s OK, but I want them to have that choice and competitive advantage. They are both academically bright and I realise that the school they currently attend and the fact the possible universities they attend will help them economically in the future.

Social mobility through education in the main is a myth. There are plenty of studies to show that this is the case. Whilst in principle education can be a leveller across the board, it really isn’t. It’s not in any measure equal and has never been designed to be so regardless of well-intentioned educators, politicians and social commentators that wish it would be so.

As an educator, I get to travel to all forms of secondary schools up and down the UK. From private to grammar. Free school to Academy. Comprehensive to Pupil referral unit. Whilst the content of our programmes do not change, it is very evident that the approach to say, our study skills, prefects  and even our career/work experience programmes, is different depending on what school we go to. It’s obvious that if you are from a school where top universities are always visiting to share their experiences (mostly alumni) as part of a robust careers programme, that will differ from one where the expectations of students going on to a university is very low.

It is time to be honest about the fact our education system from its infancy and its current incarnation was never designed to be equal. It is a reflection of a selective class-based narrative that runs through all sectors of our society and not just education. This does not mean that voices should not be raised to challenge this inequality. This does not mean that many of the robust programmes and initiatives to tackle this should not be encouraged, but that whilst such work is being done, it is good to be aware of how the land lies.

I am fortunate enough that my work allows me to both be aware of this and to also be able to have the economic and geographical awareness of how to make sure the system works in my favour. In the meantime, I will keep working to ensure that young people, other than my own, are aware that there are rules to this game; and that can you never win a game if you don’t know what the rules are.


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