Laurence Hayward makes the case for Labour to reform its education policy to tackle the educational divide.
Few things matter more to a modern state than its education system. The way politicians approach education reflects their values across the board. The fact, therefore, that this Conservative government has failed to address the endemic issues that riddle our country’s academic institutions tells us all we need to know about them. The pandemic has caused new problems, but more than that it has shone a light on the stark inequalities and shortcomings that have crippled a generation of students. This is a government made up of those from the most privileged backgrounds, who will continue to maintain the system that has allowed them to reach the peaks of political power. Labour must take this moment to radically reform its education policy, or the burning injustices will continue to blaze for years to come.
The educational divide in this country is well documented. According to the social mobility commission, “Britain’s most influential people are over 5 times more likely to have been to a fee-paying school than the general population. Just 7% of British people are privately educated, compared to 39% of those in top positions.” It is clear that the education we receive as teenagers influences our prospects for the rest of our lives. Those who are privately educated of course have access to better resources, smaller class sizes and less over-worked teachers. But perhaps more importantly, they leave higher education with two advantages over their state-educated peers in particular: Polish and connections.
Private education instils a self-confidence and charm that goes down very well with universities and employers. Students have practice public speaking, and engaging with older academics. For state school kids like myself, it’s hard to keep up. Our teachers are over-worked and underpaid, and only just have time to make it through the school syllabus. Teachers at even relatively small private schools have the time to engage with students and help them develop extra-curricular interests. On top of this, they develop a network of connections from a young age. They’re able to meet with university tutors and high-level professionals or go on work experience to top law firms. The world is truly at their fingertips. Vitally, through these experiences and due to the nature of their schools, they become used to a certain atmosphere. They are comfortable engaging in heated debates, asking clever questions, and are not intimidated by Medieval architecture or grand dinner halls. I will never forget a school visit to Oxford University a few years ago- I asked one of my schoolmates what they thought of it and they replied “Well, obviously it’s really nice. But I’d never fit in here.” Etonians do not have such doubts.
This is illustrated perfectly by our current Prime Minister. A man who confesses to dreaming of being “World King” as a child, and has always had his eyes on the top job. And why wouldn’t you? Anyone who had had the best education money can buy- Ashdown House Prepatory, Eton College, and then on to Oxford- would feel a degree of entitlement. It is worth remembering how similar Eton College’s traditions and architecture are to that of Oxford, and to the Houses of Parliament. Kids like me from a small, state comprehensive feel overwhelmed and out of place, but those like Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson feel right at home.
The matter of school connections also continues to influence government policy. Investigations by Open Democracy and Jolyon Maugham QC for the Good Law Project have found countless examples of lucrative contracts being given to companies close to the Conservative Party, and high-level appointments being given to family members or old school friends. These connections have their roots in Britain’s top private schools and universities. The blatant elitism breeds blatant cronyism. A nation which once prided itself on meritocracy has created a culture of injustice and unfairness. This will not be undone until there is a serious change in parliamentary representation. 41% of Conservative MPs went to an independent school and 21% of the whole house went to Oxbridge (compared to less than 1% of the rest of the population.) They therefore have a vested interest in maintaining this eye-wateringly un-equal system. We need a parliament that represents the real nature of this country, rather than one dominated by elites.
The Labour movement needs to stop mincing its words when it comes to the educational divide. If we are to truly have a level playing field in this country, we cannot allow a privileged few to have a much better start in life. The income of our parents should not determine the quality of our education or employment. The stark divide between state and private education has been highlighted by this pandemic: In April, just 6% of state-funded secondary schools managed to provide “live” online lessons for students, compared to 72% of private secondary schools, according to a survey by Teacher Tapp. A-level grades at sixth-form colleges were around 20 per cent more likely to be downgraded than those at independent schools after the 2020 exams fiasco. The divide that is created by the existence of private education is being made larger and larger.
If our movement truly wants to create a fairer and more equal society, we must take radical action. Keir Starmer’s popularity comes largely from being seen as a reliable and moderate politician, which is exactly what this country needs. However, leaders who merely steady the ship are rarely remembered. Attlee, the poster boy for so many of our movement, made many compromises and concessions to stay in power. However, there were certain policies that he held firm on. The NHS, our nation’s best-loved institution, comes to mind. Sir Keir is right to appeal to moderates, however we are at a point in time where there is an appetite for real social change. In 1948, people were ready for nationalised health. Now is the time for similarly radical change: Private Schools must go.
Laurence Hayward lives in Dorset, which he has represented in the UK Youth Parliament, and was a member of the Government's Youth Policy Steering Group. He is 18 and hopes there will be a place at university for him to read politics somewhere next year.
He tweets at @politics_LH.