How can we reduce educational inequality?

Meeting organised by “working towards a national campaign for education” at the Mechanics Institute, Manchester on 23rd September 2014 during the Labour Party conference. Many thanks to Sarah Williams for her work in organising and promoting this meeting.


David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham,

Catherine West, Labour prospective parliamentary candidate for Hornsey & Wood Green

Professor Diane Reay, Cambridge university

Eddie Playfair, principal Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) and SEA

My contribution:

I want to approach this question by turning it around and asking: ‘how can we promote educational equality?’ Equality is the fundamental socialist value; based on the belief that all human beings are of equal worth. Other core values flow from our commitment to equality; solidarity which is about considering others as equals and looking out for them as we would want them to look out for us, and democracy which is about each of us having an equal say in shaping our society. It sometimes seems like everyone loves equality as even conservatives use egalitarian vocabulary and will claim that their policies will reduce inequality. We should see it as a good sign that so many people choose to make their case on egalitarian grounds even if it is the mutant elitist egalitarianism of ‘social mobility’.

Education is the wonderful, lifelong, life-affirming, life changing, transformational process by which we learn to climb onto the shoulders of those who came before us, acquire knowledge and insights about what it is to be human and learn to create new knowledge and insights. Not all this learning happens in formal education but in our complex and interdependent society we need to plan and organise this process in the best possible way, preferably a way which promotes greater equality.

Hannah Arendt said that:

‘education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it’

and that is what a society should be considering when it sets about planning and organizing an education system.

If we are to promote equality in education we should acknowledge that:

  • Everyone is educable whatever their starting point or their disadvantages. Age, previous achievement, disability, sex, race or class should not be barriers to accessing the best of what society has to teach.
  • Education should challenge inequalities rather than reproduce them. Schools, colleges and universities should be comprehensive. The common school, where everyone’s educational needs are met, is the crucible of a more equal society, it is a place where equality is lived on a daily basis. Basil Bernstein may have said ‘education cannot compensate for society’ but this is not an argument for giving up on universal public services which challenge segregation and the domination of the market elsewhere in our lives.
  • The curriculum should value truth, knowledge and skill. Both the ‘powerful knowledges’ of elites and the ‘radical knowledges’ of their critics should have an equal place in our education system free of any kind of snobbery. We should aim to develop well grounded, reflective, skilled and knowledgeable thinkers and doers.

The reality is that education reflects and reproduces the wider inequalities in society. It is increasingly being treated as a market commodity with individuals being encouraged to seek advantage in a ‘race to the top’. So in post-16 education, students feel that in order to get on they will need to run faster and faster up an accelerating down escalator.

Selection is rampant, with a proliferation of highly selective new sixth forms. Some secondary schools which are quite happy to be comprehensive from 11 to 16 discover the joys of selection at 16 and run sixth forms designed for less that half their cohort – effectively telling them they are no longer interested in the majority.

Just getting into college is no longer good enough, you have to get into a ‘top’ selective college if possible. Choosing 3 or 4 A level subjects you’re interested in is no longer good enough, you have to pick ‘facilitating’ subjects. Passing your A levels is no longer good enough, you need to be aiming for A* grades. Progressing to university is no longer good enough, you need to aim for a Russell group institution. As each new hierarchy becomes more entrenched, you can almost hear the sound of doors slamming shut and the anxiety of a majority of young people turns to a sense of failure, despite being one of the most academically successful generations we have ever seen.

At a time when the labour market has so little to offer young people, politicians blame the qualification system for the lack of jobs and claim that yet another reform of vocational courses will address economic failure and reduce unemployment.

Labour has some good policies, but some of the best, like the ‘one-nation’ National Bacc, are buried away and get little exposure, while others, like the Tech Bacc, sound like two-nation ideas and are indistinguishable from coalition policy in practice.

The concept of ‘one nation’  is a good starting point for Labour and we need to hear more about how Labour would move towards one-nation schools, a one-nation curriculum and a one-nation education system.

When we start to take equality in education really seriously we will then truly be loving the world enough and taking responsibility for it.

David Lammy M.P. reminded us that tackling educational inequality starts in the early years and that Sure Start, under threat across the country, played a vital role. He also spoke about the need for the most selective British universities to take their responsibilities seriously as publicly funded institutions and take more positive steps to representative recruitment from across the population, not just the elite. There is no shortage of well qualified working class and BME students. The great American public university systems show what can be achieved in both research and teaching by comprehensive state-funded, accountable and community based higher education.

Diane Reay attacked the ‘stealth privatisation’ we are witnessing and expanded on the idea that ‘social mobility’ is a flawed solution which offers a few people some crumbs off the top table while doing nothing to challenge social inequalities. On the whole, parents don’t want parent-led academies but want the same for all children that they want for their own children.

Catherine West spoke about the importance of structures and the need to get any new ‘middle tier’ right so that we can get some semblance of collaboration between schools and coherence in the system.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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