Ensuring that every child and young person learns the skills required to give them the greatest possible opportunity in life is undoubtedly key to social justice. In the past, far too many lives have been hobbled from the outset by insufficient education - not, as some would suggest, as an inevitable consequence of growing up in poverty but as a specific and disgraceful failure in our education system. We know that good schooling can enable remarkable social mobility, and any Government claiming to act on social justice without considering education would find its claims ringing hollow.
The recent climbdown on academies is illustrative of the problem a small majority poses for the Government. Such was the strength of opposition, from councils and Conservative MPs as well as teachers and others, that the Government abandoned its plan to legislate for fear of suffering a Commons defeat on the matter. That ministers had to back down is a reminder that any proposals for legislation at this point come with a hefty caveat regarding party management.
Nonetheless, it’s worth considering what an ideal Social Justice Queen’s Speech might include. Looking back to the ConservativeHome manifesto, there are two policies which fit the bill; one small, and one large.
In that manifesto, we proposed the creation of a Financial Literacy Fund (FLF) for schools. Much of the work in the Coalition years and since has, rightly, focused on traditional aspects of education – literacy, numeracy, history, literature and so on. However, ministers have also recognised the importance of other topics in preparing young people for success in later life. In 2013, financial education was added to the national curriculum for the first time. Equipping a young person for higher education or for the workplace is crucial, but we ought also to prepare them for the sometimes dizzying processes involved in managing their financial affairs. Doing so is beneficial for the pupil, but it is also good for wider society. As we have repeated for some years, better savings and home ownership, for example, help to fulfil a society’s potential and help to armour its members against future downturns in the economy.
The FLF would take those lessons beyond the theoretical and into the practical, endowing each school with the seed capital for an investment portfolio, to be managed by its pupils. This would allow young people to investigate the real life workings of investment and savings vehicles for themselves. Pupils who pass their financial literacy course and take part in managing their school’s fund would in turn receive a dividend from their investment, on the condition that it is paid into a savings account, opened as part of the course.
Such a scheme would not need to be huge in financial terms – we aren’t talking about outsourcing the City’s trading floors to the classroom – but it would nonetheless help to equip young people of all backgrounds with a better understanding of how to make good decisions with their personal finances.
The other relevant policy proposed in our manifesto was much larger, more controversial and therefore far more difficult to pass through the House of Commons: the replacement of the current system of tuition fees and loans for university with a simpler process of graduates paying commission directly to their university on their earnings over a certain amount for a fixed number of years. This would free up sizeable sums currently employed in underwriting the student loan system, which could be reallocated to skills-based vocational training, effectively shifting resources to those not fortunate enough to benefit from a university education. At the same time, it would give universities a direct stake in the future success of their undergraduates, providing a greater incentive to improve their employability and career potential.
The current difficulty posed by the Government’s small majority could make even the smaller of those ideas difficult to introduce to the statute book. Therefore, a Social Justice Queen’s Speech should also include some discussion of policy changes that do not require legislation.
In school policy in particular the Government has extensive powers to act on policy without needing to legislate. Gove’s most high profile policy, the creation of Free Schools, was legislative, but his impact was arguably most widely felt through non-legislative changes, such as the improved rigour of the curriculum and examinations. The current debate over SATs (to which, sadly, no light has been added by the NUT’s evident glee at someone’s attempt to wreck them yesterday) will no doubt see further such changes – a possibility John Bald mulled here on Monday.
A Queen’s Speech focused on social justice should certainly give a clear re-statement of the Government’s intention to redouble its efforts to raise standards among the worst-performing schools. On that theme, one of the academy proposals which has survived Morgan’s recent retreat is the plan to strip local authorities of control of education in areas where schools routinely fall below the expected standard.
This seems to be a good idea – while some areas, particularly in London, have seen remarkable improvements in education in recent years, others, notably including various rural and coastal authorities, have stagnated. The Government has laid a variety of imaginative options before these authorities, but some have proved unwilling or unable to acknowledge their failings and try something new. The futures of thousands of children – many of whom are already disadvantaged – are the casualties in that game of tug and war. It is right to be more forceful in insisting that they deserve – and get – a better chance in life.