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It’s not fair

Matt Western says Labour would restore educational opportunities blighted by Conservative government policy

Is it any surprise that successive Conservative cabinets assembled by Etonian Bullingdon boy Boris Johnson have had a woeful record on social mobility—especially when more than 60 per cent of the ministers in each of his past three cabinets attended private schools?

Over the past two years,the proportion of A-level grades marked A or A* at private schools has risen from 44 to 70 per cent, vastly outstripping the comparative rise for state school students. One focus of the events I will be attending at the Labour Party conference will be how the government’s chaotic last-minute decision-making and callous cuts have opened the door to unfairness and helped widen the attainment gap between rich and poor.

Although wealth is often considered the primary dividing line in educational attainment, it does not tell the full story. Your chances of getting the best education outcomes are also dependent on geography, race, class and gender.

Participation stagnation

It was a Labour government that committed to sending half of young people to university. That pledge was premised on reducing the divides in educational attainment across class and region.

The proportion of pupils on free school meals reaching higher education increased by more than 10 percentage points between 2005 and 2015. Yet rates have stalled in the years since, increasing by less than 1 percentage point.

This stagnation is linked to the government stripping away opportunities for students to enjoy their education and explore their academic interests at schools and colleges. Funding cuts have seen enriching parts of the curriculum, from music or design to maths clubs and school trips, cut back; pupil premium funding to support children most at risk of falling behind slashed; and schools serving the most deprived communities facing the greatest funding cuts.

More recently, in cutting the budget for Uni Connect, a scheme designed to widen access to higher education, the government has made it harder for students from communities with traditionally low university attendance to explore routes into higher education.

Unequal entries

Recent admissions figures show that just 4 per cent of all 18-year-olds eligible for free school meals in England got into one of the more competitive, higher-tariff universities, compared with 12 per cent for their peers.

Only 13 per cent of white working-class boys who qualified for free school meals got into university, compared with 45 per cent of state school students who weren’t eligible. Black pupils are still the least likely to progress to elite universities; and participation among other groups, such as care leavers, remains shockingly low.

This year’s exam results also capture continuing regional disparities, with top grades at A-level for students in London rising at twice the rate of those in the north-east.

This inequality goes on to inform students’ next steps after university. The OECD warned in a recent report that the proportion of graduates in the working-age population of London was nearly 80 per cent higher than in the north-east.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that for graduates, geography also perpetuates inequality, with coastal towns and rural areas losing more than a third of their graduates to cities, particularly London, as people pursue greater opportunity and higher salaries.

What Labour would do

Labour’s ambitious Children’s Recovery Plan would create opportunities for every child to learn, play and develop after the pandemic. We would extend the school day for new, enriching activities, and we would deliver small group tutoring to all who need it and additional learning support for the young people who have lost out most.

By increasing the pupil premium, and extending it into post-16 education, we would give schools and colleges the resources to improve the learning experience of young people who have struggled throughout Covid, and ensure the Conservative government’s failure to manage the impacts of the pandemic does not hold them back.

For students who advance to university, the Conservative government’s fees model, combined with abolition of the maintenance grant, means it is often the poorest students who face graduating with the most debt. Last week’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested that the chancellor’s plans to save on tuition fees would only favour well-off students further.

Let it be remembered that after the recently sanctioned increase in national insurance contributions, the average graduate on £27,295 would face a marginal tax rate of 42.25 per cent. This is enough to disincentivise a generation.

Now more than ever, we must view higher education as an essential vehicle for social mobilisation. The education system in general must prioritise those areas and those young people who have too long been left behind, while ensuring that all children have what they need to flourish.

Matt Western is shadow universities minister.