The upgrading program means nothing without improving education

Britain is still a country where privilege matters: where you start in life is all too likely to be where you end. We still have an absurd apartheid in education. Private education was once a realistic option for middle-class parents, but rampant inflation has made it an elite sport. This defines our inability to “level” the country for decades.

The truth is that, despite all the election slogans, reforming schools well will make or break the Prime Minister’s agenda for England left behind. You cannot bring prosperity to these regions without first encouraging excellence in education.

The new Schools and Universities legislation, announced in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, would ideally be a chance to do so. Ministers will soon present plans to shake up school funding and expand the reach of the administrative bodies that oversee most UK academies. Yet we risk seeing these new-style multi-academy trusts replicate the old local education authorities they replaced.

This was never the intention of Coalition-era education reforms that saw new schools emerge, challenging state monopoly.

The prime minister says he wants to expand opportunities, so why not start by breaking up the private school cartel? It is not just a chimera; education reformers begin to create new low-cost private schools. Visionary educator James Tooley, for example, did this with his Independent Grammar School in Durham, which charges a fraction of the fees of nearby independents. A few more and the whole private school deck of cards will crumble.

It’s not just the affluent middle classes who would benefit either, as the increased choice works in everyone’s favour. As parents vote on their feet, schools around the world will have to up their game or go bust.

Ministers should also use the unused capacity of our most prestigious private schools. Last year, there were more than 9,000 places available in prestigious boarding schools. Ministers should be compelled to buy those places at a discount and give them to bright kids growing up in foster homes. Many will be refugees, what a story that would make.

Elsewhere, we need to properly address our deepest social mobility issues. This week, think tank Civitas discovered that only 50 children who grew up in institutions went to our top 50 universities in 2020: a dismal record that means you’re more likely to meet an Ecuadorian undergraduate than a child who was raised in an institution at a leading university. Low expectations for children in care are institutionally anchored within the Ministry of Education. We don’t even bother to measure the level of education of this group beyond 16 years of age.

We are waiting to see what the promised educational reforms will bring. We are told that there will be actions on school attendance, illegal schools and the suppression of diplomas with little return on investment. These are all interesting questions to occupy the time of legislators.

But in the end, it will be a simple question that defines success or failure: does a disadvantaged child in the poorest parts of the country have more or less chance of achieving educational excellence at the end of this Parliament than it was at the beginning? Only sweeping school reform, relentlessly focused on standards, will give our stagnant rates of social mobility the boost they need.

Frank Young is editorial director of the think tank Civitas

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