This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
There are certain decisions in politics that, whether our leaders like it or not, are out of their control. Boris Johnson’s decision to plunge the country into successive lockdowns certainly wasn’t driven by political will. Nor was Liz Truss’s decision to sack her chancellor after just 38 days and then follow him out of the door a mere 11 days later. But there’s another kind of decision they make not because they feel compelled to or circumstances dictate, but because they want to.
On Wednesday 27th October 2021, Rishi Sunak made a choice. Having been advised by the government’s education recovery tsar Sir Kevan Collins to make funds available for a school catch-up scheme aimed at helping pupils recover ground lost during Covid, he announced that less than a third of the funds would actually be provided because, and I quote, “I can’t say yes to everybody”. The decision was described as profoundly disappointing by Sir Kevan, who warned that it would be a “step towards a less equal society” and have a long-term “scarring effect” on children who already have the cards stacked against them.
His counsel has proved to be profoundly prophetic. A-level results out last week showed that pupils in private schools are now more than twice as likely to achieve A or A* grades as those in the state sector. While 47.4 per cent of pupils in private schools achieved at least one A or A* grade, only 22 per cent did so in secondary comprehensives, 25.4 per cent in academies and just 14.2 per cent in state further education institutions. Lee Elliot Major, social mobility professor at the University of Exeter, said the stark academic gap between private and state schools is now wider than it was before the pandemic after the results were revealed, adding that “for education’s have-nots, the dials are all pointing in the wrong direction”.
Education is somewhat of a sore point for me. Not long after Sunak had completed his schooling at the £33,990 per annum Winchester College (£45,936 if they board) I entered the local comprehensive in south Leeds where I was put through a system creaking under the strain of swollen class sizes and a chronic lack of resources. Unlike Winchester, where students are taught to excel and handed the resources to do so, the comprehensives teach their pupils to pass, if they can, and turn up, at the very least, which can also be a stretch too far. At GCSEs, I was put on an English language paper (like most pupils) that allowed me to achieve a C at best. The fact that I am now the editor of a newspaper and a published author proves what meagre levels of expectation were put upon us.
And that’s the important bit, because for school-aged kids nine-tenths of the outcome will be dictated by what message we’re sending them. Pupils at Winchester, Eton and Harrow are told they are going to be the next chancellor of the exchequer or the next prime minister and in a disproportionately high number of cases they are the ones who fill those positions. They get told they are going to be the next CEOs, the next newspaper editors and the next top surgeons and time and time again that’s usually what they become. When Sunak snubbed the school catch-up scheme in ‘21 he wasn’t withholding money, he was sending a message, a message that this is a country of the educational haves and the educational have-nots, and for most people that is a decision that is out of their control.
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