This week, the GCSE results envelope landed on doormats across the country. The results ought, on any rational basis, to shame the nation. Never mind how well or badly pupils may have done individually, taken as a whole the results point to a chillingly predictable trend for anyone in a comprehensive school. A pupil can look at their postcode, and see where it ranks in the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation. If they live in a relatively prosperous area, they can be expected to have done fairly well. If they live on a sink estate, the odds are that they will have done badly.
Parents have long known about this link, which is why so many go to such lengths to rent property in more affluent catchment areas a year before their child is enrolled in school. But the full extent of England’s horribly unfair system was demonstrated recently in a study by the Financial Times. It plotted pupils’ wealth against their exam results, and found a near-perfect correlation. The richest can expect, on average, straight Bs in their GCSEs, while the poorest can expect straight Ds. Proof, if any were needed, that the comprehensive education system has become the greatest enemy of social mobility.
The shocking failure of the education system to give poor children the same opportunities as wealthier ones ought to cause national outrage. But what has political debate focused on this week? Sports fields. It is as if politics is now scripted by satirists. The Labour party has been trying to make political capital out of the Olympics and has taken to attacking the government over the fundamentally trivial issue of the sale of school playing grounds. As the head of the Harris Federation chain of schools points out in his letter on page 26, what matters is not the size of a school’s outside space but its access to sports facilities. And as Melissa Kite observes on page 14, being a school sports star is not a guaranteed path to an athletic adulthood.
If the Labour party were genuinely committed to the poor rather than being a mouthpiece for a handful of trade unions, it would be shouting full blast against educational apartheid. But under Ed Miliband, it is less focused than ever on what is actually blighting the lives of the least fortunate. This is a pity because Labour was, just a few years ago, close to a potentially transformative solution. Andrew Adonis, first as an adviser to Mr Blair and then as schools minister, introduced academies (independently run state schools) and the promotion of specialist schools. The success has been astonishing. There are now enough academies to look at their GCSE results and draw conclusions. The new chains, like Harris, are achieving miracles. The social background of the pupils has not changed but the results have improved dramatically. The old link between wealth and results has not vanished, but the correlation is far weaker. This is because the academies’ head teachers have the freedom to spend money where they think it necessary: including the freedom to sell sports fields and put the money into better teaching.
It is odd that, having instituted these academies, the Labour party now attacks them for undermining the comprehensive system. Indeed they do, and thank heavens for that. By handing power over to schools themselves, and scaling back the disastrous influence of politicians, both local and national, Michael Gove can claim to be the most progressive politician for two decades — because no other reform has done more to improve the life chances of the worst-off.
The caricature of politics as the Labour party looking out for the many and the Conservative party looking out for the few is wrong. It is Mr Gove who has relentlessly focused on improving opportunities for the less well-off. Labour is concerned with ensuring that bad teachers can never be sacked, and that bad schools never have to compete for pupils. At a time when the two parties are often hard to tell apart, here is a clear divide.
The history of British education — and thus social mobility — shows steady progress towards equality of opportunity for the first two thirds of the 20th century, then a dramatic reverse on the back of the egalitarian changes forced through by the left. The post-war mix of grammar and direct-grant schools was far from perfect; secondary moderns and technical schools ought never to have become the poor relation. But even a pupil who failed the 11-plus and went to a secondary modern stood more chance of gaining a decent education than his contemporary equivalent.
England is still suffering from the legacy of Anthony Crosland and other educational ideologues. Under Mr Blair, Labour did champion the rights of the less privileged to a decent education, and under Mr Gove the policy has been expanded. But this progress may be snuffed out at the next election, which David Cameron is more than capable of losing. Now is the time to build consensus around what was arguably New Labour’s best idea. When the 2012 GCSE results are published in full, they should be mapped against poverty and the results sent to the shadow cabinet, who must ask themselves: isn’t it time to end the conspiracy against the poor?