David Blackburn

Long-term problems

Long-term problems
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It is fashionable to say that the nation is divided: the North and South, the haves and have nots, the politically engaged and the apathetic. Educational attainment has been added to that list, following yesterday’s apocalyptic report from the University and College Union (UCU), which found that there are more people without qualifications in one impoverished part of the East Midlands than there are in ten other affluent constituencies across the country. The report concludes that those from the poorest backgrounds have been “short-changed for generations”.

What’s so striking about this report is that it follows hot on the heels of an OECD investigation into grade inflation under the previous government. Despite the system having been manipulated and standards having fallen, a gap in attainment has still opened. There are few better examples of the systemic failure of British state education and why it must change.

This is a serious, but not insurmountable challenge for Michael Gove. Recent evidence suggests that reforms to introduce choice and competition are already having a positive effect on standards. As Fraser and Jonathan have noted:

‘The percentage of decent passes is 23 per cent lower for FSM [Free School Meals] kids than for the rest. But the ARK schools (academies) have managed to narrow that gap to three per cent. Together with Harris (who have a staggering record at school turnaround), they nail the lie that it takes a generation to transform a bad school into a good one.’

But, education and opportunity are only two parts of this debate. The deprived East Midlands constituency mentioned by UCU is Liam Byrne’s Birmingham Hodge Hill. A study of the area conducted by Birmingham University found that 41.5 per cent of respondents described themselves as being of Pakistani origin, well above the national average of less than 1 per cent at the last census. In a separate report issued last year, the irreproachable Equality and Human Rights Commission found that pupils from Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities have the lowest educational attainment of all except the progeny of Roma and travelling families. The report found that a staggering 50 per cent of Muslim men and nearly 75 per cent of Muslim women are unemployed in certain regions. This is a challenge for the government’s immigration and welfare policies, as much as it is of education policy.