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Thursday 8th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Idealising the private sector and begging it for help won’t level the playing field for state-school pupils, argues BERNIE EVANS

WITH state education having improved exponentially since I started teaching in the 1970s, it is sad to see it being still treated like a political football, and even sadder to witness Labour doing much of the kicking. 

Michael Gove, with his bigoted and ideological ideas on the subject, was expected to ignore the empirical evidence and he didn’t disappoint. The existence of more hard-working and committed teachers than ever before, better-trained and qualified to deal with the youth of modern Britain and with improved results at GCSE and A-level, could not prevent the Tories and their unprincipled and blinkered Lib Dem allies from attempting to undo the good work of the last 20 years. 

Gove’s assessment reforms, aimed at undermining achievement in the state sector, removed the creation by experienced educationalists of a more level examination playing field. He attempted to decrease social mobility even further by extolling the virtues of private education through superior examination results.

The initial response from Labour was muted, and more was expected following the promotion of Tristram Hunt to the shadow education post. Instead there has been a deterioration, with Hunt’s ludicrous ideas on implementing a teachers’ oath and periodic relicensing of teachers, plus his support for performance-related pay. 

Not content with his recent speech which, while intending to criticise private schools for failing to improve their relationships with state schools, actually ended up implying that private-sector teaching was superior, Hunt and other think-tank “experts” now ascribe the decrease in social mobility to state school pupils lacking “character and resilience.”

Anyone with knowledge and experience in a state school knows that state pupils constantly display the ability to bounce back from setbacks. How often have they had to show resilience in the face of assessment “goalposts” being frequently moved, and their excellent examination results being criticised and challenged by politicians from all parties? 

Then there’s the education maintenance allowance being removed, sixth form courses being dropped because of a lack of government funding, university fees being tripled and the ever-present preference shown by the so-called top universities for students from the private sector — despite empirical evidence showing how state-educated undergraduates do better at university than students with similar grades educated at Hunt’s “schools of character.” 

State school pupils do not lack the “courage to continue” after being knocked back, and politicians who think otherwise need to pander less to their prejudices and spend more time in state school classrooms, rather than in heads’ studies or government meetings. 

It is nonsense to think that social mobility will increase and more top jobs will go to state-educated graduates just as soon as state school teachers learn from their “betters” in private schools, and teach “character and resilience.” The pre-Gove level playing field on assessment needs to be returned for a start, if any politician in the next government is serious about increasing social mobility. 

Hunt believes that Oxbridge colleges give priority to private sector applicants because they perform better in the interview situation, so regards advice on this issue from teachers in the private schools as being essential. Yet more nonsense. 

With 7 per cent of pupils in this country attending private schools, the solution is simple — legislation is needed to prevent any university having more than 7 per cent of its undergraduates from the private sector. 

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when equality of opportunity mattered in the Labour Party. Proving that it still does now would not be electorally disastrous. 

Of course, remedies like the Sure Start centres of Tony Blair’s government, and the ending of unpaid internships, will help too, but as long as the universities are allowed to pander to their prejudices, social mobility will continue to decrease.