SARAH VINE: The GCSE gap between state and private schools is a new class divide that shames Britain

People talk a lot these days about social mobility and ‘levelling up’. 

Barely an hour passes without some government minister popping up to wax lyrical about the vital importance of one or the other and there seem to be endless shiny initiatives dedicated to the cause.

But if you want long-term, sustainable results; if you want to make sure you provide everyone, regardless of creed, colour or social background, with access to the best chances in life, the real priority has to be education.

Education is a child’s ladder to the stars. Education is what takes bright kids off the streets and offers them an alternative.

The sad truth is that over the past 18 months in Britain — almost two whole academic years — our education system has stalled. [Stock image]

The sad truth is that over the past 18 months in Britain — almost two whole academic years — our education system has stalled. [Stock image]

The sad truth is that over the past 18 months in Britain — almost two whole academic years — our education system has stalled. [Stock image]

Education is what allows people to write their own story, regardless of the hand they have been dealt. It is the ultimate social mobility tool, the principal and most effective engine of social and personal growth.

Clever politicians have always understood this. Tony Blair made it the central plank of his election strategy and it worked, up to a point.

David Cameron also understood the importance of improving the state school system — and with the help of my husband Michael Gove and (somewhat ironically, with hindsight) Dominic Cummings, took up where Blair left off and managed to make serious inroads, before the combined might of the teaching unions and the pollsters put a stop to their reforms. 

That is all ancient history, of course; in many ways the Government faces a far bigger problem now. 

Because the sad truth is that over the past 18 months in Britain — almost two whole academic years — our education system has stalled.

Thanks to Covid, the gap between the haves and have-nots in schools has become a black hole, into which thousands of young people are disappearing.

This year’s A-level results were a stark indicator of just how bad the situation is. True, we have seen unprecedented grade inflation — more As and A*s than ever before, 45 per cent of the overall results.

But drill down into those higher grade figures and you’ll see the ratio soars to an astonishing 70 per cent at fee-paying independent schools; compared with 42 per cent at state academies, 39 per cent at comprehensives and 35 per cent at sixth form colleges.

The same is true for GCSEs. In independent schools, 61 per cent achieved grade 7 or above, compared with 23 per cent in comprehensives.

It is a clear and depressing picture: the pupils who have suffered most from the lockdowns, school closures and exclusions during the pandemic are those who can least afford to do so — that is to say, state school students.

The ones who have done best are those who, in terms of life chances, probably have a much broader raft of options available to them: namely private school pupils, whose parents can not only afford the fees but are also, for the most part, better placed to give their kids a leg up in life.

That is not to denigrate the achievements of students in the private sector. Or, for that matter, the desire of independent school parents to want the best for their children.

As a parent, I understand that compulsion completely. But personally, I have always held a very strong belief that a good education should not be limited to the elite.

Thanks to the response to Covid, though, that is more the case now than ever before. 

This year, private schools radically improved on the proportion of As and A*s their pupils achieved before the pandemic, from 44 per cent of overall grades to 70, while state sixth- form colleges saw a far smaller increase, with higher grades rising from 22 to 35 per cent.

That is a huge discrepancy which will have a knock-on effect when it comes to university admissions.

Thanks to Covid, the gap between the haves and have-nots in schools has become a black hole, into which thousands of young people are disappearing. [Stock image]

Thanks to Covid, the gap between the haves and have-nots in schools has become a black hole, into which thousands of young people are disappearing. [Stock image]

Thanks to Covid, the gap between the haves and have-nots in schools has become a black hole, into which thousands of young people are disappearing. [Stock image]

Covid has exposed the cracks in the system and reminded us that, for all the fine words and rhetoric, social class and wealth remain the principal determiners of success.

If ‘levelling up’ really is the aim, our education system is clearly not up to the task.

Anecdotally, this has certainly been the case among my children’s friends. My daughter has just finished A-levels, my son GCSEs.

Like everyone in these two year groups, they have had the worst of the pandemic, educationally speaking.

Both are (or were) at state schools in London. But they have a mixed bag of friends from both sectors.

The difference has been stark. Almost without exception, their mates in the private sector have aced their results. 

Sadly, the same is not true of friends — equally bright, committed and clearly capable — in the state system.

Some of them have effectively had to teach themselves their A-level courses, at times receiving only one Zoom session a week per topic.

Some teachers have been absent, overwhelmed or simply incapable of engaging. Others, by contrast, have gone the extra mile. For these pupils, it really has been the luck of the draw.

And it’s not just at secondary level. 

According to the Department for Education’s own figures, published in June, during this year’s lockdown alone, primary school children lost an average of two months’ learning in the spring term (with disadvantaged children losing more than double that). 

By the time they returned in March, they had regressed to where they were in September.

Thanks to the ‘pingdemic’, numbers rocketed to a record 1.13 million absent pupils in mid-July — of whom, maddeningly, only 48,000 had a confirmed Covid case.

I have one friend whose son was pinged three times, each ping necessitating a ten-day quarantine. 

Quite apart from the loss of school time, she then had to stay at home to look after him. Had she been on a zero-hours contract or freelance, she would have been in serious trouble.

Luckily for her boy, she is not — and she is also a brilliant parent, so did everything she could to make sure he spent his time in quarantine productively. As a family, they had the tools to make this happen. But many did not.

That was why this newspaper launched our Laptops for Kids campaign in January: at the peak of the pandemic, an estimated one million children did not have appropriate access to technology and so were effectively shut out — not just physically from school but intellectually, too.

 

 

The regional breakdown shows the best performing area for GCSEs of 4/C and above is London, followed by the South East

The regional breakdown shows the best performing area for GCSEs of 4/C and above is London, followed by the South East

The regional breakdown shows the best performing area for GCSEs of 4/C and above is London, followed by the South East

Thanks to our campaign and the customary civic-minded generosity of Mail readers who donated so generously, many of those children were able to re-engage with their learning.

But too many have not. Some — especially older pupils aged 16 to 18 — have simply vanished off the educational map.

According to the Centre for Social Justice think-tank, during the first term back after the pandemic (autumn 2020), 93,514 pupils were ‘severely absent’. 

This compares with 60,244 pupils in the same term in 2019. That is an increase of more than 50 per cent: an additional 33,270 pupils.

Worse, some figures speak of problems even darker than simple absenteeism. The number of referrals for child abuse made by the NSPCC between April and November last year rose by 80 per cent. 

For some children, school is not just a place of learning, it is a refuge — somewhere they can escape from the troubles of a dysfunctional family. Take that away and they are at the mercy of their circumstances.

The situation many young people now face is pretty stark. 

After the fiasco of last year when the Department for Education’s infamous algorithm downgraded pupils in droves, causing widespread anguish and forcing thousands of grades to be reassessed (but not before pupils had lost their places at university and college), this year’s methodology has not been much better.

Yes, the Government’s decision to go with teacher-assessed grades has made it a much less bumpy ride politically, since the teaching unions are — surprise, surprise — all in favour of giving more power to their members. 

But the idea that teachers are infallible or, for that matter, above bias, is flawed.

In fact, a 2009 study by Bristol University showed that teacher assessment is highly subjective, often resulting in an inherent bias against certain types of pupil.

In particular, black Caribbean and black African pupils are under-assessed relative to white pupils, while Indian, Chinese and mixed white-Asian pupils tend to be over-assessed.

In his fascinating book The Aristocracy Of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, Adrian Wooldridge makes a similar point: children who excel in certain teacher-pleasing activities — ‘captain of the sailing team, president of the robotics club’ — are consistently assessed more favourably than those who lack the resources to take part in similar activities — which is to say, those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.

In other words, teacher assessments favour well-behaved middle and upper-class kids who toe the line and tick the boxes; and disadvantage those who come from less stable or affluent backgrounds and are therefore more challenging in terms of attitude and commitment.

That is why the decision to cancel exams for the second year running was, to my mind, a huge mistake. Exams are the ultimate level playing field.

In an exam, it doesn’t matter whether you are teacher’s pet or the most irritating, disruptive pupil in school. What matters is what you know, then and there, in that exam hall.

Whatever happens, you own it. If you pass, no one can question it or take away from your achievement. 

Yet that opportunity has been denied to this and last year’s students. Because the quality of online learning was so uneven, it was felt that assessing them under exam conditions would be unfair, as some would have had better teaching resources than others.

That may have been the case (although really it should not have been) but even so, some children will always have advantages over others simply because some schools are better than others. 

And disadvantages related to lockdown could easily have been mitigated by allowing certain exam aids, such as being able to bring in textbooks or notes.

That might not have been a perfect solution but it would at least have been fair, unlike the one we have ended up with: a highly subjective system that actively penalises certain students.

In case you were in any doubt about teachers’ capacity for making mistakes, let me tell you a little story.

Like thousands of other A-level students, my 18-year-old got her results this Tuesday. To her delight (and slight astonishment), she achieved the grades she wanted for her first choice of university.

Or she would have done so, had her school not sent the wrong results to the exam board. 

That’s right: they awarded her one set of results but sent another, lower, set to the exam board. A simple case of ‘human’ error, we were told, a slip of the keyboard.

We discovered this only when we went to collect her results — so by the time we found out, it was too late to save her university place.

The school notified the exam board as soon as they realised the mistake, but not before the marks had been communicated to UCAS — and her university withdrew the offer on the grounds that she hadn’t made the grade.

We must now wait for the correct grades to be confirmed by the board (they have until September 8 to do so), at which point we will see what can be salvaged. 

But what ought to have been a happy day for her, the culmination of months of hard work under very difficult circumstances, has instead turned into an administrative nightmare.

Of course, my daughter is by no means a disadvantaged pupil and I’m sure we will work something out for her. 

She’s a tough girl and pretty resourceful. And besides, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Luckily it didn’t happen to anyone else at her school, either. But there are plenty of pupils for whom such a setback would have presented a real barrier.

What her experience shows is that teachers are not infallible. They can and indeed do make mistakes; and being human, they can also display bias for or against certain pupils.

And whatever measures the Government puts in place to restore confidence in the education system, the sad truth is that for so many of this year’s A-level students, especially those in the state system, their window of opportunity has closed.

It’s on to the next lot now. And this year’s 16 and 18-year-olds, who had barely a term and a half of uninterrupted teaching before the world shut down, are left picking up the pieces. They had one shot — and it was blown, through no fault of their own.

Some will never return to education at all. Others will manage somehow. But that lingering sense of ‘what if’ will stay with them — and with parents like me — for years to come.

The truth is, they deserved better. Let’s make sure it never happens again.

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