Starmer warns of “baked-in unfairness” as Labour demands action on education

Elliot Chappell

Keir Starmer has warned that the attainment gap between less privileged children and their counterparts is widening as his party demands that the Conservatives “match Labour’s ambition for our children’s learning and their futures”.

Reacting to the release of A-Level and BTEC grades on Tuesday, the Labour leader said in a BBC interview this afternoon that there is “baked-in unfairness” in education and told viewers that “you can see that in the results”.

A record 44.8% of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received A* or A grades through the teacher-assessed system this week. 6.9% of students in England were awarded three A*s, compared with 4.3% in 2020 and 1.6% in 2019.

But the increase in A grades was 50% higher among private schools than comprehensives, and more than double the increase seen among students at sixth form colleges and Ofqual analysis found that the attainment gap for an A grade or higher between pupils on free school meals, Black students or those with a “very high level of deprivation” and their peers has widened since 2019.

“The attainment gap was too big before we went into the pandemic and it’s even bigger now,” he said. “The gap now is getting bigger and bigger and there’s baked-in unfairness. And, yet again, it’s the who most need the support of the government who aren’t getting that support and, frankly, the way the government has run education in the last few years is utterly chaotic.”

Ofqual equalities data shows that the gap in A grade attainment for pupils on free school meals and their peers has grown by 26% since 2018, and by 21% over the last four years between Black students and their white counterparts.

Kate Green has today called on ministers to adopt the ‘children’s recovery plan‘ put forward by Labour, with the opposition party describing the support unveiled by the government to compensate for Covid disruption as “pathetic”.

“Under the Conservatives we’ve seen inequality, unfairness and chaos baked into our education system with pupils in state schools, on free school meals or in disadvantaged areas being neglected by this government,” the Shadow Education Secretary said.

“Inequalities in A-level grades have soared over the last four years and this is simply unacceptable. Labour’s bold recovery plan would invest in our children’s futures, compensating for the Conservatives’ failures over the last year, to ensure all children can learn, play and develop after the pandemic.”

The comments from Starmer and his education lead followed calls this week from the party for a ‘next step guarantee’ to ensure students who have been “disrupted so profoundly” by Covid and government policy do not “fall between the cracks”.

Exams were cancelled for the second consecutive year as a result of Covid. Last year, students had their results downgraded from school estimates with a controversial algorithm before the government U-turned and scrapped the mechanism.

Teachers in England this year submitted their decisions on pupils’ grades after drawing on a range of evidence including mock exams, coursework and in-class assessments using questions put forward by the exam boards.

395,770 students have been accepted on their first choice full-time undergraduate course in the UK, up 8% from 365,500 in 2020, and 6.9% of students in England were awarded three A*s this year compared with 4.3% in 2020 and 1.6% in 2019.

But reports emerged last month that a number of private schools had been “playing the system” and taking advantage of Covid to lobby prestigious universities to accept pupils who have not met the required grades.

Those who missed out on the grades they needed to meet a university offer this year are likely to face greater competition, as a result of fewer selective courses being on offer through the clearing process.

Concerns have also been raised that a trend of inflated grades becoming the new normal will make it difficult for universities to select students accurately and fairly, with more deprived students likely to be worse affected.

Formal exams for the Highers were also cancelled in Scotland due to the pandemic. The percentage of pupils achieving A to C grades fell from 89.3% in 2020 to 87.3% this year, although it remains above the 75% pass rate achieved in 2019.

The Labour leader warned the Conservatives ahead of results day that a second year of results chaos was “not an option”. He called on the government to meet three tests by August 31st, ahead of schools returning:

  • A next step guarantee for pupils – the government must work with universities, colleges, training providers and employers to ensure that all young people can move on to the next stage of their lives. With private schools reportedly already lobbying for their students, Universities must give additional consideration to state school pupils without these advantages.
  • An appeals system that works – the government must ensure all schools and exams boards are equipped to swiftly process appeals so no young person misses out on their place at university, college, in an apprenticeship, or in work, because of a slow appeals system. Students who meet the conditions of an offer on appeal should be accepted to start this year.
  • Support for education professionals – All results being awarded in the same week will put huge pressure on stretched school and college leaders and teachers, who have worked tirelessly this year. The Government must set out the support which will be available to staff so they are equipped to advise and support pupils need urgent clarity on the support available to them throughout results week.”

Labour’s children’s recovery plan includes supporting small groups for tutoring for “all those who need it”, breakfast clubs and activities, mental health support, professional development for teachers and greater education investment.

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