Britain won’t level up until it confronts endemic educational inequality

August 13, 2021

Boris Johnson was elected on a promise to get Brexit done and level up the country. In some ways, the two issues are interrelated. The so-called former ‘Red Wall’ seats fell to the Conservatives at the last election, not only because they voted in large majorities to leave the EU, but because they were fed up of a Westminster elite forgetting about the needs of communities outside of the M25.

Fast forward a couple of years and we’re still no closer to fully nailing down what levelling-up actually means. A white paper on the subject, led by the PM’s adviser, John O’Brian MP, is due in the autumn. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, attempted to put some red meat on the bone with a speech inside a Coventry factory. In seventeen paragraphs of hard hitting analysis about regional disparities, only two paragraphs spelt out any practical policy recommendations. This included £50 million to ensure good quality local football pitches. If the speech was underwhelming on prescription, it had some memorable soundbites:

‘It’s an outrage that a man in Glasgow or Blackpool has an average of ten years less on this planet than someone growing up in Hart in Hampshire or in Rutland,’ the Prime Minister said.

Educational inequalities are also uneven across the country. The city of Bath has 78 per cent of its population qualified to Level 3; the corresponding attainment rate in Bradford is 42 per cent. We know that children from lower income households are up to 22 months behind their more affluent peers by the time they start primary school; and researchers have consistently shown how this ‘attainment gap’ carries on right up until the end of key stage four. By the time young people are making post-16 progression choices, only 16 per cent of white British students on free school meals make it to university, compared to 59 per cent of Black African pupils. All this data shows that Britain is not only uneven regionally and economically, but that postcode, household income and ethnicity are still massive determinates of future life chances, regardless of where people live.

Until the government publishes its white paper on the issue, commentators will continue to speculate on what levelling up means and what the government should do about it. Whatever policy prescriptions ministers decide on, the levelling-up agenda will have to seriously come up with a long-term plan to boost social inclusion and mobility. For example, a study by the London School of Economics looking at who gains access to elite and high-paid occupations found that someone born before 1975 had a significantly higher chance of ending up in these occupations, than a person born since 1980.

We can see the impact of privilege all around us in the education sector. Nearly 60 per cent of permanent secretaries, including the incumbent at the Department for Education, were privately educated. What signal are we sending to ambitious working-class people in FE, when three of the most powerful unelected chief executive jobs in public service (Ofqual, Ofsted and Office for Students) are all occupied by individuals who went to private schools and Oxbridge? Are we seriously saying that only 7 per cent of the education talent pool is equipped to perform these roles?

It seems to me that we won’t make any real progress in levelling the life chances playing field until we confront the endemic inequalities that our education system helps to perpetuate. In short, we have what economists call the Mathew effect: where privilege begets more privilege. Until we fundamentally break the link between Oxbridge and our elite jobs in government and the public services, I cannot see how any real progress will be made.

The Skills World Live Radio Show, which I host, was invited last month, by the Academy of Ideas to record a live session at Church House in London. It was one of the first events, post lockdown restrictions, to include an audience of over 400 people, with many more tuning into the livestream.

The panel included the award winning author, David Goodhart; the educationalist and former physics teacher, Gareth Sturdy; and the author and actuary, Hilary Salt.

The panel discussed many of the issues raised by this article and speakers gave their own perspective on what should happen next. The audience also actively participated, in a way that marks out these Battle of Ideas Festival events, as real powerhouses of stimulating and democratic debate. 

Tom Bewick, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB)

You can view the session, From Levelling Up to the Skills Bill: how do we achieve inclusive economic growth? on the Skills World Live website, here.