Both major parties want to pour cash into public services indiscriminately, particularly schools – but will this method actually work to improve opportunities for young people? And will this ensure investment into the U.K for years to come? As it stands, the answer to these questions is a resounding no!
OECD figures suggest that the U.K is one of the nations at the top of the tables when it comes to public spending – yet on a pound for pound basis, Britain is not getting value for money.
Britain is sliding downwards in the rankings for reading, writing, science and maths. In mathematics in particular, pupil outcomes are in a sorry state. The U.K barely scrapes its way into the top 30 nations. To reiterate, the return on investment for education is quite frankly appalling.
Clearly the policy proposals for dumping more cash into schools and state funded industry generally are not working. And this is a trend also applicable to other nations who tend to spend large percentages of their GDP on education. It seems to me that after a certain point increasing spending bares little return.
Historically the blame for poor outcomes of students in the U.K, has been pinned on the class system and the lack of investment into state schools. But when considering the fact that we do actually spend a large proportion of our GDP on education, the only reasonable avenue of blame is the class system or “social apartheid” as the Labour M.P, David Lammy puts it.
Rather than lamenting or penalising the rich for being able to fund their children, as a nation we should be thinking of ways to best enrich children from disadvantaged backgrounds, bringing them up to the attainment levels of children from middle and upper class backgrounds.
We need a radical rethink about the focus on education policy, looking at social issues which surround the development of children. Some studies suggest that attainment can almost be predetermined before a child reaches school age. Education of the mother for example is often a key factor. During the early years, having a well-educated mother is shown to have a strong correlation with better exam results and higher attainment in subjects such as English and Mathematics.
Early-years education and intervention schemes are proven to positively influence attainment for children. Investing in human capital, before the age of 5, appears to have long lasting effects. By age 7 there was a significant improvement in both mathematics, cognition and reading tests on children who had received early intervention/ education.
Currently when health visitors come out to families in the pre-school years they are only looking for signs of severe disadvantage e.g. making sure that kids are reaching general development targets and checking for signs of autism etc. The average family, after post-partum visits, will only receive an annual visit from a health visitor until school age. Making these visits more frequent and detailed will enable parents to optimise the potential of their child i.e. by suggesting parenting strategies, educational games and puzzles to help their child flourish. Let us be frank about this, if you grow of up in a stable environment with parents who are intellectually curious, of course you are going to be more likely to pick this up.
Combining early education schemes with the popular policy of free nursery school hours, can and will ensure that every child, regardless of background, gets a decent start in life. This method will help working-class children attain better standards and in my view will be more effective than simply pouring more money into ‘per pupil’ education. Identifying individual children who may need more help than others and investing in them and their families, is a far more personal and cost-effective method of raising attainment.
Although the effects of early intervention are hugely powerful, they diminish slightly once a child reaches 16+. Children need to be in an environment conducive to encouraging education and attainment. The Grammar School system is perfect for curating this environment, as it highlights natural ‘bright sparks’ who have benefited from the early intervention schemes and put them in a nurturing environment. Often working-class kids are teased or not praised for academic excellence, we need to put talented working class children in an environment which values academic excellence.
This dualistic approach should cut out a proportion of the ‘class bias’ criticism that is often posed against Grammar Schools. Targeted early years intervention should mean that working-class children will be able to compete with middle-class kids in entrance examinations.
The old Grammar system was also criticised for being too deterministic because entry relied on one exam (The 11+). Revolutionising Grammars by allowing for entrance either pre or post GCSE will allow ‘late bloomers’ the opportunity to attend. This will create a fluid environment that works for the individual development of children, making sure no child is left behind or defined by the results of one exam at age 11. This would be a system that mentors children throughout their education.
We also need a change in attitudes around apprenticeships and skilled trades. In the past, during the old grammar and secondary modern era, there was more esteem placed on academic achievement, with a little snobbery around practical skills. It is a hangover we are still suffering from today.
New Labour placed so much esteem on academia and university education for all, so much so that around 50% of pupils are now attending university, while skilled work and learning a trade has been demonised and generally not encouraged.
In the past, it was only around 7-10% of pupils who attended university – and those who went to university tended to have a higher potential for earning better wages. However, now that so many people are attending university, this rule is no longer the norm. Rather than aid social mobility and improve earning opportunities, pushing pupils into academia – rather than skills based work or learning a trade – has lowered average graduate salaries.
Many graduates struggle to find work at all because there is a lack of people qualified for the jobs that are on offer, too many of us are choosing liberal arts over STEM subjects or trades. A plumber now earns vastly more than the average graduate – and although graduates have the opportunity to grow their salaries over time, the massive amount of student debt they are saddled with makes choosing a trade work out the same, if not better in the long run.
Having a diverse labour force is so important for the economy. We could have a system that supports childhood development throughout a child’s school career, and creates an environment where no matter what your individual talents are (academics or trade skills) you are supported, equally respected and given multiple opportunities to change educational pathways. In my mind this is a system which would be truly meritocratic, providing more of us with oppurtunity.
These simple changes could deliver long term prosperity to the nation and remedy the ills of modern day Britain. By intervening early in childhood development, harnessing talent and investing in a targeted way – the U.K could improve social mobility and employment opportunities, which in turn will lead to the ability for new graduates to find steady work.
The answer Britain needs is not more government spending but targeted financing in the community to make sure people have a fairer start in life. It’s cheaper, more effective and meritocratic than indiscriminate spending. As the studies have shown, a steady and balanced labour market is conducive to better attainment for children. We need to stop focusing on equality of outcome but rather equality of opportunity; this way we create a society and economy that both thrives while being fair.
Charlotte Winterton is a tory activist and libertarian. You can follow her writing at charlottevictoriawinterton.com