Tough at the top and getting tougher for all
Months before sweeping Labour to power in the 1997 General Election, Tony Blair stood at the party conference and said: “Ask me for my three main priorities for government and I tell you: education, education and education.” To be fair to Blair and Labour, or New Labour, as it restyled itself then, they gave it a go. But a quarter of a century on, education systems across Britain are “failing on every measure” according to The Times Education Commission. This year-long investigation was chaired by Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester, supported by 22 commissioners, as well as two former prime ministers and thirteen former education secretaries.
Their findings make dismal reading, stating that while the pandemic was a “disaster” for young people, both in terms of their mental health and the widening of the disadvantage gap, the “flaws” in the system predate Covid. “Shocking” regional disparities were also revealed, with one primary school in Nottinghamshire reporting that some children arrived unable to say their own names and that 50% of their pupils in Reception classes were not toilet trained. The commission recommended that every child should have access to a laptop or tablet, that counsellors should be employed in every school and that teachers should receive more training on identifying pupils with special needs. One headteacher in Greater Manchester agreed with most of the commission’s recommendations and said it was time for parity of resources between state and private school students.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said in a recent interview with The Times that Britain should be very proud of its private schools and not “tilt the system” to ensure more pupils from state schools are admitted to Oxford and Cambridge universities. He said admissions should be based on merit alone and urged people to put aside “tribalism” over high-performing independent schools. He praised schools like Eton and Westminster for the support they had offered the state sector and said he wanted them to do more. And he added that the government needed to reduce the “attainment gap” between state and private sectors, by increasing the quality of state schools. Meanwhile, it was revealed that Zahawi’s millionaire cabinet colleague, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, together with his wife Akshata Murthy, have donated more than £100,000 to his old private school, Winchester College.
Labour subsequently highlighted Sunak’s previous claim that he had “maxed out” on how much support he could give state schools while continuing to give subsidies to “elitist private schools” through tax breaks. Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said that “after twelve years of Tory neglect, four in ten of our children leave school without the qualifications they need.” A Department of Education spokesperson commented that its own Schools White Paper sets out a “clear roadmap” for levelling up education in England, including “targeted support for both individual pupils who fall behind, and whole areas of the country where standards are weakest. Education, education, education – but the Times Commission indicates that for now it’s unlikely to be the same education for every child.
Post-pandemic much of the education system, from primary school through to university, appears to be in a state of flux and growing confusion. The dearth of teachers and support staff in schools has been well documented, but universities, too, are facing challenges and uncertainties. Last year, nearly 25,000 British eighteen-year-olds postponed starting their course until this autumn, a 15% increase on the previous year.
This came as the proportion of A-level entries awarded the top grades surged to a record high, after results were determined by teachers amid cancelled exams due to Covid. At that time, as applicants were sending off their UCAS forms, the effects of coronavirus on student life were apparent, and a major influence on the dramatic rise in the subsequent number of deferrals. Now those deferral students are ready to begin their courses in September, as are the majority of this year’s crop of sixth formers, who are currently unwinding into the summer holidays and awaiting their A-level results. With an increased number of applications this time around, the competition for places, particularly at top universities, is intense. And indications are that it’s getting tougher still, with offer rates for higher-tariff universities falling significantly. According to UCAS, the proportion of applications leading to an offer at leading universities has fallen from 60.5% in 2021 to 55.1% this year. This is in line with the upward trend in the number of eighteen-year-olds within the UK population, coupled with the continuing, accelerated post-pandemic demand for places. Nearly 50% of teachers have told UCAS they are less confident their students will get their first choice of university compared with previous years, while two in five teachers expect their students to use the clearing process.
Increasing numbers of students failing to reach their first-choice university will mean a knock-on effect throughout the higher education system. And this follows government proposals to set minimum entry requirements and limit the number of university places available in England. Under plans currently being considered, students lacking English and maths GCSEs, or two A-levels at grade E, would not qualify for a student loan. And no student loan is likely to mean no university, especially for poorer students. The number of eighteen-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas applying for university has risen from 18% in 2013 to 28% of the total applications last year. But the government’s intention is to restrict entry onto courses it believes don’t offer a good route into graduate jobs, with the Department of Education concerned that “not all students receive the same high-quality teaching” and that many become saddled with debt for courses with poor job prospects.
Objection to these proposals has been voiced by Sir Peter Lampl, founder and executive chair of the Sutton Trust charity, who says: “The introduction of a minimum grade requirement is always going to have the biggest impact on the poorest young people, as they are more likely to have lower grades because of the disadvantages they have faced in their schooling.”