In the face of rising poverty levels and with this, rising educational inequality, the education system in the UK is in clear need of reform. King’s Think Tank hosted a panel discussion on ‘The Inequality of Education in the UK’ on the 23rd November 2015 – an opportune event in light of the upcoming Spending Review, as education is the third largest area of public expenditure. Over one hundred think tank members joined panelists David Hoare – Chair of Ofsted, Amy Finch – Researcher on Education Policy at Reform, James Dobson – Researcher at Bright Blue, as well as Johnny Luk – CEO of NACUE (National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs). Head of the Education Policy Centre Francesca Tripaldi, introduced the debate providing an overview of post-war education policy to date, scrutinizing current reforms proposed by Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan MP.
Responding to the first question on the attainment disparity amongst children on free school meals at GCSE, David Hoare did well to highlight that educational equality begins at the age of zero. While secondary and tertiary institutions receive a high level of media attention for poor performance amongst the demographic, children from low socio-economic backgrounds quickly fall behind their middle-class peers even before they enter primary school. He argued a lot of the time further education colleges are expected to solve problems that begin and worsen through the 16 years a child spends in an educational system that hasn’t addressed earlier issues.
Amy Finch echoed the notion that early years education needs to become a focus within the government in her critique of Nicky Morgan’s introduction of measurements that are aimed to tackle ‘coasting schools’. She noted that while the proposal is welcomed as a means of reporting on the progress pupils make within secondary schools, there are a lot of issues with measuring schools that have an abnormally high-intake of high-attaining students compared to others, since those students tend to progress more rapidly. This will inevitably skew the performance reports of secondary schools that take in a proportionally greater number of lower ability students. Finch also noted that research into the current progress of academies is inconclusive, demonstrating that this radical transformation of the secondary education sector has not provided the expected results. It underlines the argument that the government’s focus ought to address the attainment gap in the earlier stages of a child’s education.
The debate then moved to a discussion on alternative educational routes. As C.E.O of the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, Johnny Luk suggested apprenticeships could be better value for money for post-18 learners considering the trebling of tuition fees and elimination of maintenance grants which were announced in the Summer Budget. James Dobson highlighted that the education system has also worsened for mature learners where access to part-time higher education was an avenue for missed opportunities. Numbers of part-time students have declined significantly since access to loans and funds has also been adversely affected.
Other aspects of the evening’s debate included improving elements within the education system that prepare individuals for the world of work. The curriculum and the real world are in many aspects disconnected and often the education system fails to equip students with tools to start and develop successful careers. Members of the audience were invited to engage with the ideas presented by the panelists and the evening ended with a series of thought provoking questions.
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Mayowa Sofekun, Education Editor