The sense that something is wrong in British education is spreading far and wide. Even Eton headmaster Tony Little has complained that the government’s expressed appetite for aping China’s academic system – which ranks highly in international comparisons of literacy and numeracy – would create a generation of children who can pass exams but are deficient in vital skills such as the capacity to think laterally or imaginatively.
Little, who made headlines over the summer with his views, still wants to “stand up for robust academic rigour” and, as the outgoing headmaster of the UK’s best-known public school, no one would expect him to question the underlying conviction of English education that sorting children by exam results has great merit. But he is now apparently concerned that as A* and A grades become so vital, learning softer skills is becoming devalued. And he believes that the practice of students completing exam papers alone, in silence, should be overhauled to better prepare them for “a world in which, for much of the time, they will need to work collaboratively”.
Being assessed in silence is on the increase. Coursework is being downgraded as GCSEs and A levels become more “traditional”. Meanwhile, Russell Group universities are becoming much stricter over which qualifications they will accept. And even as they allow ever-greater numbers of students into their hallowed halls, their marketing departments stress how prestigious it is to gain entry into their particular university – thereby talking up the importance of exam results as they implicitly talk down the “competition”.
One explanation for this trend is that the education system we get reflects the society we live in. Among the most salient trends in British and, particularly, English society in recent years is growing economic inequality. Schools and universities could be seen to be adapting to, and reinforcing, that reality.
Consider the six wealthy countries examined by Daron Acemoglu, Killian professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and James Robinson, Florence professor of government at Harvard University, for their 2012 book Why Nations Fail. The graph below shows how they have diverged in terms of the proportion of total income taken by their wealthiest 1 per cent over the past 100 years. Since 1980, that proportion has shot up in the US, the UK and – more surprisingly – Sweden, while largely holding steady in Germany and France and declining slightly in the Netherlands. Sweden still ranks as the second most equitable nation by this measure, its wealthiest 1 per cent taking only half as much as the 1 per cent in the US. In a blog posting, Acemoglu and Robinson say: “It is far from obvious that all of these [income] changes are explained by global trends. There is therefore a prima facie case that other factors – and yes, domestic and political ones – have also played a major role.”
During the 1970s and early 1980s, a choice was made in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK, to let inequality rip. In the UK, this was driven by the dominance of a large group of predominantly English Conservative voters, some of whom reaped a short-term benefit, the rest being convinced by politicians that there is no alternative in the “global race”. So the UK shifted from being the second most economically equitable of the six countries in 1970, to being the second most inequitable a generation later. Young people growing up in Germany, France, Sweden or the Netherlands now enter a far more equitable workplace than that confronting UK school and university leavers, whose lifetime financial rewards will depend much more heavily on how they performed in school examinations.
In the US, the wealthiest 1 per cent of the population now takes 20 per cent of all income before tax. In the UK, that figure stands at around 15 per cent. In France, it is 10 per cent and in the Netherlands it was 6.3 per cent when last measured in 2012. If you want a single summary statistic to describe each society, it is hard to find a better one than this. In addition, all these figures may, in reality, be higher since the calculations rely on tax records, and the highest rewarded of all try hardest to avoid paying tax on all of their income.
Income inequalities are relatively low in many countries and are not rising everywhere. In the economically successful Netherlands they remain at 1970s British levels. The Netherlands is not the economic basket case that opponents of greater equality like to suggest the UK was then. Some of the international comparisons are simply staggering. In his new book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It, Owen Jones refers to statistics that suggest that there are more people paid more than €1 million (£800,000) a year in the UK operations of Barclays Bank than there are in Japan’s entire banking system and all other industry sectors combined. The 1 per cent in Japan takes a smaller – fairer – share than even the best-paid employees in the Netherlands.
The pernicious influence of economic inequality on societies is now widely recognised to be pervasive. Of course, even when strong correlations are found between inequality and societal ills, there are many intervening factors at play: young adults in the US, for instance, don’t wake up in the morning, check the Gini coefficient of income inequality and then make a decision as to whether to commit a crime that day. But economic inequality remains the single strongest predictor of variations in international rates of imprisonment, as it does for mental health and social mobility.
In an unequal society most have to accept below average incomes, since the median income (the top income of the bottom 50 per cent) is so very much lower than the arithmetic mean (the latter is pushed up by high, very high and ultra-high earners). Numeracy levels in the six wealthy countries examined earlier, as assessed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, display an almost perfect inverse relationship to the countries’ levels of economic inequality. So in places where the rich take far more, young people find it harder to understand why there can be such large differences between the median and the mean. Youngsters reflect the societies in which they live. The mechanisms will be complex; the outcomes are often simple to see. Similar relations are found when comparing levels of literacy between nations. The more economically equitable societies are the more able overall.
The UK and the US are not just global outliers when it comes to inequality in incomes or average levels of educational outcome. They are also countries in which stored wealth – both social and financial capital – is distributed incredibly unequally. Policies support this. In the UK, we have swapped child trust funds for rising student debt. Government payments to the universal child trust funds were ended when the coalition came to power, and in place of small sums of wealth, the young were handed debt, with fees of £9,000 to attend university. The rich are now being taxed less, the poor paid less and benefit levels are set to rise below inflation.
Parents in a more unequal country are fearful for their children’s futures; they understand what is at stake. The difference in the average wealth of the poorest 40 per cent of Americans and the next 40 per cent is immense. The incentive not to be at the bottom is always there, but in the US the bottom is huge and the top is tiny. As so many inequalities grow, those at the bottom are fed the hope that through hard work they have a chance to escape from it. Exam results are seen as the be-all and end-all. The message of the education system takes individualism to extremes: do well at school or it is your fault if later you are poor. You get what you deserve – and only a few of you are good enough to deserve much. What is less often heard is that in a highly unequal society, however hard the bottom 40 per cent work, a very poor bottom 40 per cent will always remain. And although they will hope to keep it quiet, those at the top will use all the skills and advantages they have, honest and dishonest, to remain there.
In the UK, good results can be bought through private education or by buying housing near to “good” schools – so the cycle of rising domination by the richest continues, generation on generation. In no other OECD country, apart from Chile, is a higher proportion of national income spent on private education by so few – for so few. Half of all A and A* grades at A level in the UK are secured by the 7 per cent of students who are privately educated, and 4.5 times as much is spent on teaching them as on the average state-educated student. The number of youngsters from the poorest backgrounds found in the most elite universities in both the US and the UK is similar to the number of people who win large sums of money on national lotteries – extremely low. Students from the most advantaged areas are nearly 10 times more likely to take up a place at a “top” university than those from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods (and the gap grows even wider when smaller areas of the country are compared). Four private schools and one highly selective state sixth-form college send more children to Oxbridge than do 2,000 other secondary schools, while the average private school fee is now £14,000 a year. But the richest 1 per cent have access to so much spare wealth that, for many of them, paying school and university fees up front is a minor expense.
What is all too easily forgotten, however, is how many children do not have access to even minor advantages and do not achieve anything but paltry examination success. The odds are stacked against them, and our education system is designed to polarise. Roughly two-fifths of young people in the UK do very badly in GCSE-level tests (they do not achieve five grade A-Cs with at least a C in English and maths) and leave school with what are labelled poor qualifications and, by extension, low social capital. A further fifth do better but choose not to go to university or do not perform quite well enough to get there.
For the two-fifths who do enter higher education, a 2:2 or below is now seen as a mark of poor social capital. More university students are obtaining 2:1s, but the proportion getting firsts is rising even more quickly, as is the number signing up for master’s degrees and registering for PhDs (more and more of which are self-funded by the rich). In many ways, the pyramid of our examinations and qualifications system is coming to better and better resemble the ever-steepening pyramid of our wealth distribution.
The problems of educational inequality continue after higher education. In the UK, elite employers use university name as the key selection criterion, above any more sensible measure of capacity to learn, enjoy and be good at a job. An ever more unequal society requires more and more mechanisms to divide our children and young people, to segregate the many and elevate the few. Yet the more exam-obsessed we become, the less qualifications show about what a person is truly able to do: they show only that, at a particular point in the past, they were found to have been successfully taught to do well at a particular test awarded by a particular institution.
The good news is that there is growing resistance to this direction of travel, to an unrewarding future of hyper-inequality and exam score obsession. This can be found everywhere from the rise of “underground” magazines (now often published online) to the work of maverick economists showing the direct link between the growth of the income of the 1 per cent and the fall in top tax rates – especially in the UK and US. The factors that drive up inequality are becoming clearer and clearer, as are the potential repercussions of failing to reduce it.
Universities are trying to widen participation. Greater rates of students from disadvantaged backgrounds than ever before are applying to and entering higher education, according to the Office for Fair Access. The gap between the proportions of advantaged and disadvantaged students going into higher education has narrowed slightly from 30.5 percentage points in 2010 to 29.8 percentage points in 2013. However, when you look at which universities these students are getting into and which courses they are studying, there remain staggering divides.
We should be aware of how much further inequality could rise. Consider the inequalities between the incomes of servants just before the First World War. While the steward at Blenheim Palace earned £100 in 1913, the confectionery maid earned £6 and the postilion £4. How many today consider that they might have a “career in service”? Yet a more economically unequal society will require more servants – and some of them may well have degrees. Schools and universities, meanwhile, teach their students nothing about how this ruinous momentum might be checked; why would they bother if it isn’t in the test? In the social sciences, lecturers could do more to teach students about our more equitable recent past, for instance.
It is now almost exactly a century since economic inequalities last began to fall in the UK, after they had reached unprecedented heights. Inequality declined steeply until the 1970s, but since then it has grown for almost 40 years. A turn is due.