Friday 29 July 2022

Maintaining privilege is what the Tories are all about


In answer to a question at the Tory hustings yesterday, Sunak seems to have committed himself to a wholescale reintroduction of selection at the age of 11 and the opening of more grammar schools. Strictly speaking, his comments only apply to England, although I’m not sure that he fully realises that and, given the increasing disregard for the boundaries set by devolution, I wouldn’t be so sure that it wouldn’t end up applying here too. His argument, though, was specious at best, and even that’s giving him considerable benefit of the doubt. He said that “… education is the most powerful way we can transform people’s lives”. It’s a point with which many us would agree, but dividing children into sheep and goats on the basis of alleged academic ability at the age of 11 means that it’s a benefit which he plans to bestow on only a proportion of the country’s children.

One thing which all the research into selective education tells us is that separating children into two categories in this way has the entirely predictable effect of also separating them by parental income. The more comfortably off the parents, the more likely it is that their children will end up in a grammar school and vice versa. It’s not a 100% match, of course – as a council house kid who went to a grammar school in the days before selection was abolished, I know that from personal experience. But there is a high degree of correlation between parental affluence and success in the selection process, and the general result of selection is that more investment is made in the education of some children than others, setting out their respective life paths at the age of 11. The lives being transformed under Sunak’s vision are overwhelmingly the lives of the better off – who just happen to be the children (or more likely grandchildren, given Tory demographics) of the Tory party members to whose prejudices he is currently seeking to appeal.

That’s not to argue that comprehensive education has been an unqualified success – it has not. There are still ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools based on academic results, although that may be as much to do with catchment areas as quality of education. Catchment areas are far from being equal in terms of socio-economic status. The solution to that, however, is not to entrench those differences in the structure of the system but to address the underlying causes. Far too much of what our politicians try to do on this is based primarily on trying to address the symptoms – how to help those from poorer backgrounds catch up with their more affluent peers. It’s a sticking plaster approach when what we really need is to address the underlying social and economic inequalities. It’s unrealistic to expect the Tories to come up with any sort of plan to do that; they are always going to be happier securing and enhancing their own privileges. What’s more depressing is the lack of clear alternatives from opposition parties on the issue. It allows the Tories to set the parameters of the debate, and, as Sunak’s comments show, they are not afraid of moving things further in the direction of privilege. One clear benefit arising from the Tory leadership debates is that they are openly demonstrating the extent to which they are the party of the better-off and the privileged, a fact which Johnson’s practiced mendacity managed to obscure in 2019.

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