Georgia L. Gilholy is a Young Voices UK Associate Contributor.
Last weekend Eton College announced its “unprecedented” partnership deal with “Star Academies”, the Blackburn-based educational trust responsible for the running of 30 free schools and academies in some of the most deprived areas of England.
The trust, whose schools have gained accolades for their high rates of “pupil progress”, was the brainchild of recently-knighted Sir Hamid Patel who originally kickstarted it as a small chain of Muslim schools.
The Eton-Star deal pact will involve the centuries-old public school funnelling hundreds of thousands of pounds into three spanking new sixth forms, across several currently unspecified locations in Northern England.
The Times has revealed that the schools will all be “highly selective” in terms of academic requirements, and will focus on recruiting pupils who live in particularly deprived areas or are on free school meals. They have promised to blend “Eton’s educational philosophy and rigorous curriculum”, namely intimate seminar-style classes, with the “ethos and approach” that has already served Star Academies well.
No doubt these schools will transform the lives of many of those lucky enough to gain a place. Unfortunately, many of the critics of private schooling have long been blind to the tremendous good that the altruism of many fusty old institutions such as Eton routinely spread via generous scholarships, bursaries, and partnerships with comprehensive schools.
More importantly, many well-meaning advocates of the comprehensive ethos, such as the late Baroness Shirley Williams, who consistently demonstrated a genuine concern for the disadvantaged and oppressed, have clung to it like dogma precisely because it is just that, and not because it has demonstrably improved social mobility as grammar schools once did.
This one-size-fits-all system has abandoned working-class children to an anti-talent culture and severely diminished curriculum, while as per usual, the elites responsible for these decisions (including Williams herself) ensure that their own offspring are well-catered for.
Yet given that the selection for these schools, and indeed other such colleges across the country, takes place at 16, the wider impact is negligible. Those selected for these schools will be those who have already managed to achieve decent grades in less than desirable circumstances. Many are not able to do so, and therefore never fully realise their potential.
At age 16 children have already sat their GCSE exams, the only grades (aside from predicted ones) now taken into account in university applications since AS levels were scrapped in 2015. In other words, the overwhelming chunk of the children seeking to gain admission to these and other such prestigious sixth forms will have already largely sealed their educational fate.
Moreover, this framework unveils the outright hypocrisy of our laws. Why is it illegal or even immoral to select by academic ability from 16 and above, but not from 11 or 13, ages when it is still early enough to turn things around for most kids?
Of course, this is not to say that GCSEs or in fact any exams are the be-all and end-all of life. Many people’s skillsets lie outside of academics. Plenty, though an increasingly small number, of us, prefer to move straight into employment, and may return to education later in life or not at all. Neither of these options signifies failure.
But this is far from just a personal issue, it is one with national and even global implications. If we expect children from deprived backgrounds to achieve the same level of academic success, within the same timeframe, as their middle and upper-middle-class peers, namely through admission to the best universities, it is simply not good enough to expect the private sector to “top up” the education of a handful once they have already sat their most critical set of exams.
At a time in the international power balance when democratic societies such as Britain urgently need to harness their talent and expertise, our education system has been degraded into a shell of what it ought to represent, leaving one in 20 of us functionally illiterate, and in which most opportunities are decided by our postcodes or the “bank of Mum & Dad” rather than our talent.
This is not to blame our woeful education system for all cultural and socioeconomic ills. The instability wrought by widespread family breakdown, in particular, is at the heart of the damaging cycle of deprivation in many traditionally working-class communities across the country. However, if we are not even willing to offer the next generation a stable, rigorous education system that affords as many as possible the chance to break the cycle, they will not.