What is education for? Whatever your memories of school, whether fond or ambivalent, a huge part of who you are today is the result of your experience in the education system. The oft-recited clichés about education ‘opening doors’ or ‘breaking down walls’ are really a distillation of millions of stories in which real people used the tools that their education gave them to realise ambitions and build a legacy of meaningful achievements. But today in Britain millions of children are being denied the chance to pursue their own ambitions to the fullest extent of their potential and we are selling our future as a country short as a result.
How bad is it?
In the UK today child poverty is very real. One in four British children are affected by it. Even more shocking than this statistic is the unfairness with which your life as a child in Britain today will be decided. Circumstances far beyond your control will dictate your level of literacy before you even start school, your employment prospects and even how soon you will die. The United Nations recently reported that the UK has one of the greatest gaps in the developed world in terms of the health and education provision between the poorest and wealthiest children.
Unfortunately for pupils from low-income backgrounds, this misfortune does not end when you eventually leave school. Out of 30 OECD countries, the UK is the sixth most unequal in terms of income. What does that actually mean? The net income (accounting for tax and benefits) of the poorest 10% of British households earn £9277 per year, while the richest 10% bring in nine times that figure (£83,897). More shockingly, those fortunate 10% at the top own 45% of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 50% of Britons own only 8.7% of the wealth.
Are children from poor backgrounds able to rise up in society?
So, if you find yourself born into the lowest 10% of UK households in terms of income, what can you do about it? Theoretically, if you work hard at school, get into university and manage your working career astutely, shouldn’t you be able to eventually join the ranks of the well-heeled? Sadly, social mobility in the UK is dead; there is no greater predictor of your future prospects than your socioeconomic background. At every turn – no matter your reserves of determination or personal resilience – your background and class will loom large and either unlock or irrevocably bar certain doors to you. We already know that your parents’ income will affect how good your qualifications are when you leave school, but, assuming you somehow buck this trend, what next? Want to be a journalist? Who will foot the £1500 per month rent bill for your London bedsit while you complete that unpaid internship? Without wealthy parents you may need to revise this ambition. Similarly, if a career in law appeals, and assuming you can stomach the £9000 per year debt for university tuition, you will need to find £12000 from somewhere to complete the Legal Practice Course.
Now consider the other end of the spectrum. If you are lucky enough to be born into wealth, and if your parents seek for you the very best education they can, perhaps they will stump up the £286000 needed on average to put you through private schooling. Even if they count out private schools, they may be able to afford to buy or privately rent a second home in the catchment area of a desirable state school. These are of course, both courses of action that your disadvantaged peers cannot afford to pursue. This is indeed a shame as attending a private school will massively boost your chances of gaining entry to Oxford or Cambridge University. Then the career choices are only limited by your imagination; you are invited to join an exclusive elite with a disproportionate amount of power, influence, and, of course, money. Is it pure coincidence that 43% of newspaper columnists, 62% of senior military officers and 71% of senior judges are privately educated? If you’re British, sadly the best career advice remains: be born to rich parents.
Why should we care?
Educational inequality is both a consequence and a cause of economic inequality. But why is this income/wealth inequality such a bad thing? Many mainstream economists would argue that without income inequality there would be no incentive for people to seek greater skills in the pursuit of higher pay. However, as we’ve seen British society is afflicted by particularly extreme economic inequality. This has serious consequences. Unequal societies are more violent; a country that reduced its inequality from Spanish levels to Canadian levels would cut murder rates by 20% and robberies by 23%. Highly Unequal societies are also less economically stable. They also depress levels of trust and happiness; members of unequal societies are less likely to help each other with acts of altruism, there are lower levels of cultural activity and lower degrees of engagement with civic life (lower voter turnout, for instance). You will also be more likely to be depressed, have physical illnesses, suffer the death of your children in their infancy and succumb to your own demise before your time if you live in an unequal society.
Is there cause for hope?
If the lessons we can learn from our own history or from abroad teach us anything, it is that we do not have to accept the unhealthy, unhappy, unfulfilling, isolated, foreshortened life that a grossly unequal society offers us. Things can be different and can be better. The starting point for the journey we must take is the championing of the most disadvantaged and most vulnerable members of our society: children from low-income backgrounds. An excellent education system that closes the gap between the achievements of children from well-off and less well-off backgrounds is the key to building a fairer, happier, more fulfilling, more tolerant, more peaceful and more prosperous society.
We do not have to look far from our own borders to see what a successful education system, and a successful cohesive society look like. Finland often ranks the highest of any European country in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. Is it coincidence that Finland also happens to have the lowest income inequality of any EU country? Or that it is reportedly the country with the highest rate of happiness and life satisfaction in Europe?
We too can achieve a better society through the improvement of our offer to disadvantaged children. It will take a change of public attitudes towards poverty, education and the teaching profession. It will take the collaboration of teachers up and down the country who embrace change and look for better ways to do their job. It will take the work of charities such as Teach First and ARK. It will also take politicians with unabashed courage, unwavering conviction and an incorruptible sense of public duty. These disparate parties have the ability to elevate the disadvantaged children of the UK such that they will not be consigned to the vicious cycle of deprivation that their parents endured but can instead take their rightful place as empowered agents of tomorrow.
Who are you?
I am am a class teacher and literacy leader in an outstanding London primary school that serves one of the most deprived estates in Greater London. While my educational background is in music, I taught English abroad for a time and subsequently trained as a teacher through Teach First in 2014. I started the AOT website at a time when my own school was federating with a neighbouring primary and I realised that the possibilities of collaborating and sharing high quality practice and resources had potential far beyond my own context. In addition, the momentous political events of the period from 2014-2016 gave me pause to question the direction British society was taking, to add my voice to those making the argument that it is not working for millions of its members and to make the case for teachers being at the forefront of leading initiatives for change.