A-Level furore will dissipate; but the underlying injustices in English education will not

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One of the most entertaining exposés of the current scandal around A-Level results, and in particular the automatic, computer-generated downgrading of kids from state schools in poorer parts of the country, was undoubtedly provided by James O’Brien of LBC radio. Speaking on 14 August, he expressed his anger as he surveyed the latest gross injustice inflicted by Tory governments on the already-vulnerable, the already-marginalised.

As this article is being written, the current iteration of those governments has screeched into another embarrassing U-turn and has abandoned the offending algorithm – returning to teacher-assessed grades for A-Levels and GCSEs. This is undoubtedly an important victory for the thousands of students from England’s comprehensives and sixth form colleges who had been unfairly downgraded and risked losing places at university. Yet in reality, the U-turn will change nothing about the underlying, grossly unequal and grossly unfair nature of the national education system – a system that for centuries has been the main cog in a perpetual, grinding engine of inequality.

O’Brien, to his credit (he is, after all, himself a product of that system), called this out on his show. The algorithm had merely made explicit, he said, something that had previously been implicit – that successive UK governments have repeatedly and deliberately violated the inalienable right of every child to equal access to quality education. Unlike countries such as Finland, where every child, no matter the station of their birth, enjoys an equal right to a state-funded and state-provided high-quality education, in the UK quality education and opportunity are mere commodities – to be sold to the highest bidder (in the form of places in the country’s elite private schools).  

Writing in the Guardian in 2019, Francis Green and David Kynaston explained the particular impacts of private schooling on equality and non-discrimination, and on economic and social rights in Britain.

“What particularly defines British private education is its extreme social exclusivity”, they wrote. Only about 7 percent of the UK’s school population attends such institutions, “and the families accessing private education are highly concentrated among the affluent”. Once there, pupils at the country’s leading private schools (such as Eton, Harrow and Westminster) are “overwhelmingly … rubbing shoulders with those from similarly well-off backgrounds” – thereby perpetuating the UK’s rigid class system and cementing the division of the country into ‘haves and have-nots’.

The consequences of this for an individual’s economic and social rights continue throughout his or her life. “The proportion of prominent people in every area of UK life who have been privately educated is striking, in some cases grotesque”, according to Green and Kynaston. “From judges (74 percent privately educated) through to MPs (32 percent), the numbers tell us of a society where bought educational privilege also buys lifetime privilege and influence”. They might also have added that 59 percent of civil service permanent secretaries, 54 percent of top journalists, and 85 percent of British prime ministers attended private school (fully 20 of them went to Eton). British private schools are, in short, the UK’s ‘engines of privilege’ (the title, incidentally, of Green and Kynaston’s 2019 book on the subject).  

The UN has been openly critical of this situation. Following his visit to the UK in November 2018, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, noted that the UK had long been a “pioneer in privatising previously public services across a wide range of sectors”. And yet, he noted, “in 2018, the National Audit Office concluded that the private finance initiative model had proved to be more expensive and less efficient than public financing in providing hospitals, schools and other public infrastructure.” “Abandoning people to the private market in relation to services that affect every dimension of their basic well-being, without guaranteeing their access to minimum standards, is”, according to Alston, “incompatible with human rights requirements”.

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Alston’s comments echoed those of the former UN special rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh. Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Singh argued that “education is not a privilege of the rich and well-to-do; it is the inalienable right of every child … Privatisation cripples the notion of education as a universal human right and – by aggravating marginalisation and exclusion – runs counter to the fundamental principles of human rights law. It creates social inequity”.

Even though the UK government has now announced a U-turn on one of the symptoms of this situation, namely the unfair system used to grade this year’s A-Level and GCSE students (based on an algorithm that automatically punishes pupils from poorer areas and underperforming state schools, as compared to their privately educated peers), it will do nothing to alter the underlying condition – the deeply unequal and unfair nature of the country’s education system. 

Despite his oft-repeated claim that he wishes to ‘level-up’ the country, it is inconceivable that Boris Johnson (Eton College and Oxford), Dominic Cummings (Durham School and Oxford), or anyone in the UK Cabinet (around two-thirds of whom attended private school), would ever look to dismantle this engine of inequality – because, quite simply, they and their families are its main beneficiaries. As James O’Brien foresaw in his LBC monologue, as long as the Tories remain in government, bright, ambitious students in England’s comprehensives and sixth form colleges will continue to “watch people with less talent fly by because of the tie they wear around their neck”, while people like “the 5th Baron Bethell” (Harrow School) will still be able to “fluff their A-Levels” and yet find themselves in the House of Lords and a minister in the UK government.

Unfortunately, while parents’ anger at the discrimination unwittingly laid bare by the government’s A-Level algorithm has been both visceral and powerful, it is unlikely that such indignation will spread to the actual epicentre of inequality – the country’s powerful private school system. Why? As James O’Brien correctly judged, because “parents [of children from less affluent backgrounds] have [consistently] been gaslit into voting for this kind of perpetual privilege … into voting to give further advantages to people born with the most glittering prizes already within their grasp … a system that already implicitly encourages you to vote, doff your cap, tug your forelock, and see people born into a Baronetcy as somehow more deserving of advantage than are your own children”.

Until the scales fall from people’s eyes and they see the current school system for what it is – namely (like Brexit) a product of, and a means to perpetuate, gross discrimination and inequality in British society – and vote accordingly in a general election, then the system will remain in place; notwithstanding occasional bouts of anger at some of its more egregious consequences. And perhaps here, in the final analysis, there is some room for hope. With each passing scandal over A-Levels or GCSEs, with factory closure due to Brexit and the unfulfilled promises of Vote Leave, with each preventable death or job lost as a consequence of the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with each example of Tory corruption and sleaze; more and more scales will fall from people’s eyes and they will demand change – real change. At least, that’s how things were when I was last in English education: 1997.  

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