Education is at the root of the UK’s social immobility and inequality


I had the pleasure of attending Anthropy 23 at the Eden Project recently, a gathering of some 1,800 delegates from public, private and third sector discussing the Anthropy agenda to make Britain a better place.

One very impressive panellist, the CEO of the EY Foundation, was asked for her vision of Britain in 2050: a country in which everyone had equal opportunity and the issue of social mobility had ceased to be an issue. Another panellist, the very impressive former CEO of Teach First and Business in the Community hit the nail on the head: in the UK “talent is spread equally, opportunity is not”.

I reflected on these statements, and asked myself again why the UK has one of the least egalitarian societies in Western Europe and one of the lowest indices of social mobility. Why is social mobility such a stubbornly unresolvable issue in the country?

I keep reverting to the same answer, because of my background as a German. Tony Blair was right in 1997 – education, education, education – and then largely failed to do much about the problem. In Germany, the best education is provided by the state sector, which is selective, and therefore specifically by the Gymnasium (the Grammar School in Germany), backed up by the Realschule for those less gifted academically.

Teachers are well paid, secure, and respected, with a status one might describe as semi-civil servants. Whilst not nearly as lucrative as the business world, it remains an attractive career opportunity for those who want to teach their subject. Crucially, children are generally only sent to private schools if they need extra help and more dedicated tuition, because they will not do well without this in the state system.

The reverse is clearly true in the UK. About 7 per cent of the population enjoys a world-class education, with rich academic, cultural and sporting opportunities. They enjoy an excellent start in life, not because they are particularly capable, but because their parents / grandparents / godparents can afford to pay for it.

This 7 per cent will subsequently be disproportionately represented in areas such as medicine, the law and politics, because they have received an excellent education and the self-confidence that goes with it.

The other 91-93 per cent may also enjoy a good education, if they are lucky enough to live near a good school with good teachers, or a selective school with high standards. But it is rather hit and miss.

Dominic Cummings, amongst his four-letter wisdoms, did identify the problem of a lack of diversity and understanding of the common people among a political elite mostly composed of private school educated politicians, who in turn send their children to private schools. This will improve, somewhat, with a new administration.

So how to move forward, to provide more egalitarian access to good education? There is a question of supply and demand. Labour may push through policies that make private education significantly more expensive, and private education is a business with an assumed RoI.

So, pushing up the costs for a very good return (generally speaking) will incentivise some parents to send their children to state schools, but only if they are confident of the educational standards on offer. Most will bite the bullet and pay more to guarantee a good education.

Throttling the private school supply is less effective than the alternative: reverting back to Germany, the trick is of course to ensure such a standard of state education that it does not become worth it, in terms of a return on investment, to send one’s child to private school.

That needs a number of things to occur in the UK that are not currently on the table: a more attractive teaching profession, with better hours or at least better pay for the hours worked; a higher standing in society for state schoolteachers – above all, significant investment in school buildings and equipment.

Unfortunately, the country is broke, there are many other claims on the country’s finances, not least the health service, and the Department of Education has hardly been blessed with the most brilliant politicians at the helm in recent years.

So, for the foreseeable future, a more egalitarian, socially mobile Britain powered by equal access to educational opportunities is a pipe dream. A meritocracy ensures that talent is not wasted where it can be found, and that the talented can flourish.

The UK is still far from a meritocracy.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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