What hope does a child from an inner city comprehensive have of becoming a British Sonia Sotomayor – the first Hispanic justice recently appointed to the US supreme court? Less than when Labour first came to power is the answer. Sotomayor was born and raised by her mother in the Bronx. Yet she went onto to Princeton and Yale, two of the finest academic establishments in the US which set her on the path to the highest court in the land.
A recent report entitled “Unleashing Aspiration”, from a panel chaired by Alan Milburn, concluded that the chances of a child entering the professions is strongly correlated to the financial circumstances of its parents. What a surprise. A study by the LSE in 2005 found that children of parents in unskilled work have a 20% chance of achieving five or more GCSEs compared to 69% for children with professional parents.
But no amount of back-door social engineering, tinkering with university admissions policies or dumbing-down of exam standards will redress the fundamental failure of the present one-size-fits-all, education system. Politicians from all parties are too afraid to properly debate the merits of selection. This lack of courage is failing many potential stars who will simply languish in an environment that coalesces around mediocrity rather than trying to get the best out of all children based on their respective strengths. Not everyone is academic, just as not every child has the potential and motivation to become a budding entrepreneur. The current system fails both. So here is something for Lord Mandelson to ponder as his summer tan fades.
Students should get into the top universities on merit. It does nothing for Britain’s competitiveness in the world if entry requirements are deliberately lowered to enable those from poorer backgrounds to gain admission. Rather, the key is to give those children with the ability, the opportunity and environment to thrive so that they get into the top institutions fair and square. City academies – a typically inadequate New Labour response to the problem – are not the answer as their results have shown.
The plan is as follows. First, initially open twenty schools in the poorest areas in the UK. They will be called Grammar Schools and entry will be based purely on academic ability. Potential entrants will sit an entrance exam at age 11. There will be two further opportunities to gain admission at age 13 based on an exam and at 16 based on performance at GCSE. Both students and their parents will be interviewed as part of the process. This will enable the school to make an assessment of the commitment of both parties to the attainment of academic excellence. In cases where a potential student lacks parents with sharp elbows, the school will work closely with appropriate charities to provide pastoral care. Families must have lived within the catchment area of the school for at least three years to be eligible to apply to send their children there.
Second, funding will be provided as follows. The government target of 50% of students in secondary schools going to university will be scrapped. As there will no longer be a need to artificially boost admissions levels for children from poorer backgrounds, The Office for Fair Access which polices university admissions policies will be disbanded saving half a million pounds a year. 70% of children will attend the new Grammar schools for free. The parents of 30% who can afford it, will pay half of the average cost of a private school in the area. The remainder will be funded out of the existing education budget by shelving further plans for City Academies.
Third, teachers will be paid what they would get on average at private schools in the top quartile in the area. They will achieve performance related bonuses of up to 50% of their base salary based on how many students get into the Russell Group – top 20 universities in the country – as well as parental feedback on the holistic development of their children. They will be the crème-de-la-crème of the teaching profession. To be eligible to teach at these schools applicants will have to have a first-rate academic record and must have taught for at least two years in an inner city comprehensive prior to joining the school. This requirement will not apply to those coming directly from private schools with over 5 years' experience who will be paid golden hellos of up to £5,000.
No doubt, some will argue that the best teachers will be creamed off from the comprehensive sector further pushing those children into the mire. Nonsense. We are talking about the most deprived areas in the country. The kind of teachers that the new grammar schools would seek to attract would have probably never opted to teach in a tough inner city comp. The fact that they have to pass through one to be able to apply will increase the quality of teaching in those schools.
Fourth, streaming within the comprehensive system is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. There is a difference between being in the top set in maths in a school where children have variety of motivations and interest levels and being in an environment where the ethos of the institution is clearly founded on the pursuit of academic excellence. The idea is to stretch children to the maximum level of their capabilities.
So let this be the opening salvo in a serious debate about how to provide education that best serves future generations in this country. Many both in the present government and the self-styled government in waiting, who have benefited from a quality education, be it in the public or private sector, should be the first to recognise that this right should not be denied to others. The failure to do so on grounds of political expediency is an abject abdication of responsibility.