Amid the pomp of Tuesday’s state opening of parliament, one unforgivable anachronism was on display. One third of the current House of Commons was educated at private school, compared with seven per cent of the population: fresh evidence of the inadequacy of the UK state education system. The government must maintain its resolve, reaffirmed in the Queen’s Speech, to reform English schools.
The country’s root problem is that while it has a wealth of excellent schools, they are open only to the better-off. Schools that are available to deprived children are, far too often, appalling. So, rather than offering an escape route to conscientious poor pupils, the school system entrenches and reinforces cycles of poverty.
New analysis sponsored by the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, has revealed that the children of less-educated parents find it more difficult to keep up with their luckier peers in the UK than in Australia, Germany or the US. It is unjust – and a waste both of precious human talent and national economic potential.
The main cause of the patchy school network is a lack of competition. Most schools are run by local authorities which operate them as cartels. The Labour government attacked this problem with the academies programme: new schools were set up, independent of local councils and run by private providers, with the freedom to compete against other schools. As far as the programme went, it was a success.
The new government plans to put the academies scheme into overdrive, freeing hundreds more schools from local bureaucrats. That is welcome, but ministers must make sure that they concentrate cash and political capital into helping poor children.
So the “pupil premium” – a bonus paid to schools that take deprived children – must be large. Dealing with poverty is expensive. The experience of US charter schools is that the best way to improve results in tough areas is to make the school day so long that teachers can provide structure and discipline to children who see little of either at home.
The government should also insist that places at good, oversubscribed schools be distributed by lotteries – and not by who lives nearest. Otherwise, access to education will continue to be doled out to families who can afford to buy houses near good schools. The test of the school reforms in Her Majesty’s speech will be how effectively they undermine the hereditary principle in British education.