The Observer’s take on the step change needed to overcome elitism in education | Observer Editorial

Meritocracy is one of society’s most powerful myths. It is comforting to believe that we live in a fair world where people are rewarded for a mix of talent and effort. But Britain remains an elitist country in which a socially stratified education system channels those born to be privileged into the most prestigious jobs, while retaining children born to parents who never had such opportunities.

So Keir Starmer’s pledge to remove the charitable status of private schools and require them to charge VAT on fees is a welcome move. Only 7% of children attend private schools. Yet privately educated young people make up nearly one in three undergraduate students at the country’s most selective universities. On the labor market, the figures are even worse: 7 out of 10 magistrates have private training, as do 6 out of 10 permanent civil service secretaries, more than half of diplomats and more than 4 out of 10 media editors. It is not simply a product of their raw ability, but also of the vast resources that go into their upbringing, the social bonds and favors it opens up, and the other forms of cultural capital it endows.

Private schools create social harm. By acting as a conveyor belt to the most desirable jobs, they exclude other, more capable young people who do not have these advantages. They push young people from disproportionately affluent backgrounds out of the state system, which negatively impacts the success of everyone else. It is wrong in principle for these schools to accrue charitable tax benefits.

It is therefore right that Labor has reaffirmed its overt 2017 pledge to end its charitable status, a proposal also floated by Michael Gove when he was Tory education secretary. But as far as the measures aimed at breaking the elitism of the British education system are concerned, they are quite progressive. It would raise £1.7billion, an amount dwarfed by the overall education budget, and would do little to eliminate the benefits of being taught in a private school.

To tackle inequality in the education system, there are bigger fish to fry. Three- and four-year-olds in some of the most disadvantaged households – 80% of those in the bottom third of the income distribution – are only entitled to 15 hours of free schooling a week if their parents do not meet the eligibility requirements for more free hours, while those who do have access to 30 free hours per week. This is a startling social injustice given the impact that high quality early childhood education can have on children from less affluent backgrounds, amplified by the fact that cuts in funding for early childhood services childhood have had the greatest impact on the poorest areas.

In the public school system, there remains too much selection – both explicit, in the form of high schools, and through the back door. Where they still exist, high schools are disproportionately dominated by children from more advantaged backgrounds, with parents often paying for tutoring to support them through 11+. Children from modest backgrounds do less well on average in areas where there is selection at age 11. High schools should therefore be abolished. Beyond that, there is too much selection by postal code; the most successful comprehensive schools are the least likely to accept children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The educational charity Sutton Trust estimated in 2017 that living near good accommodation added around 20% to house prices. To provide more equitable access to the best schools in the country, children eligible for the school bonus – a good indicator of precariousness – should be given priority in school admissions in the same way as children in care. Much more effort needs to be channeled into catch-up tuition in the wake of the pandemic; experts fear that uneven learning loss during Covid-19, with children from the poorest backgrounds suffering the most, means there is a bigger achievement gap between the wealthiest and less well-off children in this generation. And much less emphasis needs to be placed on structural reform – there is no evidence that government academy reforms have done anything to improve standards across the board – and more on how to recruit the best teachers in schools serving the most disadvantaged areas, avoid teacher shortage affecting these areas the most.

The university system in the UK is academically stratified to absurd levels, with a difference of one or two A-level grades pushing a youngster to a completely different institution. This in turn creates a very socially stratified system, in which the institution a young person attends is seen as a shortcut to their employment potential. As a condition of funding, universities should be set much stricter targets for recruiting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds – those eligible for the student bonus make up just 2% of admissions to the most selective universities, while ‘they make up 13% of all young people. Oxford and Cambridge should be open to a much more diverse group of students – perhaps by guaranteeing a place for the highest-performing students at each school, or experimenting with admission lotteries for everyone who meets a grade requirement minimum for their subject. The taxpayer subsidy which is funneled to the disproportionate group of middle-class young people going to university through subsidized loans, around £30,000, should be extended to cover all young people regardless of the educational background they they choose after 18 years.

Starmer’s commitment to impose VAT on private tuition fees is a start. But it can only ever play a limited role in achieving an education system that opens up opportunities for all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

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