The Guardian view on the school divide: Zahawi fails a test

The stark division between British private and state schools is widely recognised by many of those in the centre, as well as on the left of politics, as perpetuating a centuries-old class system. Over recent decades, evidence has piled up of the extent to which fee-paying schools function as a pipeline to elite universities. These in turn function as a pipeline to elite jobs, and the incomes and prestige that go with them. Status is handed down through the generations.

This is the reason for the Social Mobility Commission’s existence. Narrowing the gap between the outcomes of private and state-educated children has been an aim of successive governments – although many of the policies pursued since 2010 have worked against it. The pandemic made this task harder. Last year’s GCSE and A-level results in England showed the gap between private and state schools getting wider. There was also a marked disparity between grades gained by pupils in London and the south-east, and the north of England. (Elsewhere in the UK, the SNP has been criticised for lack of progress on attainment.)

Given the emphasis that Boris Johnson’s government has placed on levelling up, you might think cabinet members would support efforts at sharing out opportunities more evenly. So it was disappointing to see the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, appearing to criticise the record of top universities that have widened participation. Both Cambridge and Oxford now offer about 70% of places to state-school pupils, up from 62% (Cambridge) and 56% (Oxford) seven years ago. Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Prof Stephen Toope, said recently that the proportion of privately educated students would further decrease. But rather than signal approval, Mr Zahawi said admissions should be based on “merit and evidence”.

The irony is that merit and evidence already inform current practice. Research has shown that state-school pupils outperform private-school peers in their degrees. This means there is an empirical basis for using contextual data in determining admissions, as Mr Zahawi himself has acknowledged. Given the vastly greater resources spent on the average private-school pupil, compared with the average state-school one, it would be misleading as well as unfair to treat A-level results as the only factor. And young people from fee-paying schools continue to gain a disproportionate share of places at top institutions. Their interests are championed by academics such as the Cambridge historian who said recently that white, privately educated boys are now “disadvantaged”.

Mr Zahawi has won praise for his can-do energy since becoming education secretary. But a positive attitude is no substitute for policy. Given that council-run schools outperform academies in Ofsted rankings, the recent pledge to force all schools to join academy trusts looks reckless as well as over-familiar (having been tried before). The more urgent priorities ought to be England’s collapsing school buildings, with a budget for repairs currently being fought over with the Treasury, and further education and training, where rhetoric has still not translated into much needed investment. Cuts have led to teachers’ pay falling 9% in real terms over a decade, and contributed to worsening problems in retaining staff. Warm words about “great outcomes for every child” are all very well. When coupled with barbs at access initiatives, and lack of progress in other areas, they shrink to a soundbite.

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