The vast majority of children in the UK have one thing in common: they attended a state school. Whatever unfair privileges are bestowed upon the privately educated (and there are many), this commonality should mean a levelling of the playing field for rest of us.
So why, in reality, do educational outcomes still depend so much on where in the country you’re born?
There is surprisingly little discussion about this: our debates on educational privilege tend to categorise those who went to private school as a rarefied elite, while lumping the remaining 93.5 per cent of the population together. Last month, when Jeremy Corbyn proposed measures to increase transparency around journalists’ backgrounds, a parade of politicians and media personalities – many from wealthy areas of the country – trumpeted their state school education as if it were a working class badge of honour. This lack of nuance prevents us from having a serious and much-needed conversation about inequality in the UK’s education system.
Department for Education figures offer a striking demonstration of the large regional variations in education prospects, especially for disadvantaged children. The most recent data shows that 20 per cent of disadvantaged 18 year olds from London get in to Universities ranked in the top third (including the Russell Group and Oxbridge), compared to only 6 per cent in the worst performing regions of the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the South West. This 6 per cent for the disadvantaged is a lower success rate than that any race (the lowest is white, with 8 per cent) or type of school (comprehensive schools in areas with lots of with grammars, with 9 per cent).
Generational disadvantage and funding
The regional divide is so pronounced that a higher proportion of disadvantaged children from London end up at top third Universities than even children who aren’t disadvantaged from every other part of the country except the South East: just 15 per cent of 18 year olds in the North East who fall outside the disadvantaged category end up at these institutions.
According to new research by Professor Stephen Gorard, an education policy expert at Durham University, this is not due to differences in schools or teachers; he analysed data on 1.8m pupils and found no evidence that schools in the north are inherently worse. Instead, he found schools around the country deal with very different cohorts of students. “The education system is distorted, because it doesn’t take into account the long term poverty that exists in certain areas.”
Disadvantage is judged on the basis of Free School Meals (FSM), Gorard explained: an 18 year old is considered disadvantaged if they have spent any one of their previous six school years on FSM. This means no distinction is made between a child who has spent all their life in poverty and one who has been “artificially poor”, as Gorard puts it – on FSM for a year because of a divorce or a parent’s career change, say.
Since the Pupil Premium – money given to schools to support disadvantaged children – is allocated on this basis, this has implications for funding. Schools in Kensington & Chelsea, for example, receive the same amount of Pupil Premium, pro rata, as those in Middlesbrough; but Gorard's research found a substantially higher proportion of children in Middlesborough have lived in poverty for large chunks of their time at school.
Close to success
Poverty certainly exists all over the country. But schools in the capital’s poorest boroughs are embedded within one of the wealthiest cities on earth: home to world class institutions and a culture of dynamism and aspiration that can seem cut off from the rest of the country.
Talking to teachers working in poorer parts of the North and London shows they face quite different challenges. Rachel Costoya, head of careers at Garforth Academy – a non selective Yorkshire school with a good track record of sending disadvantaged children to university – said part of her job is to build awareness of how higher education works among parents, as well as students.
“For a lot of parents, if they haven’t been to university, they might not know you can access finance or that there are deadlines to apply. At our information evenings, you’ll see parents scribbling stuff down because it’s the first time they’ve heard it.”
Costoya has forged links with the universities of Newcastle, Leeds and Northumbria. But it can be difficult to make connections with institutions further south, so students simply aren’t aware of how many options there are. The school now includes a map in its UCAS brochure to help illustrate this.
Meanwhile, Michael Ghany, a TeachFirst teacher at a school in the Elephant & Castle district of south London says that – despite poverty in the surrounding area and high numbers of pupils who don’t speak English as a first language, the culture of aspiration encourages teenagers at his school to achieve.
“Across the borough, expectations are really high. We’re not expecting kids to slip through the net, we expect them to do well.
“For inner city London kids, education may not be perfect, but they are getting a good deal.”
Education in the UK will only get better, according to Professor Gorard’s manifesto, by refocusing attention on the most disadvantaged children. This may be politically difficult to implement – but at least we know where they are.