The National Equality Panel report, published in January, showed how the gap between rich and poor in the UK has continued to grow. However, the statistics understate the way that being positioned at either end of this spectrum is constantly reinforced by events.
It is a generalisation but, typically, the wealthy family is more stable, healthier, owns property, takes holidays abroad and possesses more technology. And, as if that was not enough, its children go to better Schools and the parents are employed in more rewarding jobs and live longer. Simply having more money is only part of the story. The state of being wealthy engenders a whole range of other advantages.
At the other end of the spectrum, any inequality in wealth becomes an inequality of opportunity which limits the capacity of people to progress. The occasional media spotlight on some rags to riches story is a clear indicator that, in wider practice, the poor know their place and stay there.
Education is trumpeted as the place to make changes and to offer the same opportunity to all, but it does not do as well as it should. We still retain a comprehensive ideal in theory but a multi-layered system in practice.
So, as a nation, we tolerate an independent sector which uses state trained teachers, tax breaks and endowments to create schools for a wealthy class who are willing and able to pay. It is no longer the case that the independent sector invests more in education and most democrats would accept the right of parents to choose their children’s schools but it is increasingly obvious that what they’re buying is exclusivity and access. This is not related to academic achievement, but to wealth.
The remaining grammar schools in the maintained system pretend to do something different. They operate on a spurious form of academic exclusion. However, one of the other things we know from the National Equality Panel is that early disadvantage relates closely to later educational failure. By the age of five, boys from poor white backgrounds are a long way behind their peers and if they come from disadvantaged communities they face a double whammy in having no chance of a grammar school education: even if they could qualify there is unlikely to be a school nearby.
So grammar schools serve prosperous areas and wealthy advantaged children. Since the 1990s when they were a political battlefield, society has come to realise the inherent unfairness of the grammar schools. But, while their support has waned, it is clear today how many schools – academies, specialist schools, faith schools and technology colleges – continue to be exclusive and the people they really exclude are the poor white boys who drag down their performance data. In an era of parental choice, poor white children have the fewest choices.
The outcomes are not surprising. At GCSE level, poor white boys do worse than other children: a little worse than black Caribbean boys and a good deal worse than poor white girls and Asian boys. Around 20% of pupils leave school without any useful qualification and these same boys are heavily overrepresented in this group. They go on to be overrepresented in terms of criminal records, drug taking, unemployment and debt as they reproduce the same problems and a similar wealth gap for the next generation.
To be fair, Labour has made a significant effort in terms of Children’s Centres and the Sure Start programme and it has made a very slight inroad in the direction of improving the performances of white boys. However, more is needed.
There has to be a blunt recognition that, currently, education is not a level playing field. Ofsted’s analysis that the same measures of quality should be applied to all schools is simply wrong-headed, as is the idea of a common curriculum loosely based on what happened in grammar schools in the 1950s.
There needs to be a disproportionate investment in areas where there is most disadvantage providing cradle to career and educational support. And, there needs to be a curriculum for the 21st-century that develops relevant and applicable skills, sets realistic goals and creates opportunities for all students to succeed.