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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Ending the futures market in education

The old building of my old school, Christ's College
People are understandably cynical about statistical announcements from politicians, heavy as they often are with jargon, over-claiming and obfuscation. However, what such statistics often reveal (or conceal) is that some effort is being made to solve a particular problem - and is some effort not better than none? 

An example of that is the latest data on the Pupil Premium. The Pupil Premium is one of the better Liberal Democrat ideas being implemented by the Coalition Government. Under the Pupil Premium, for every pupil who is on free school meals, a state school gets an extra £488 for the school's overall budget. So the more pupils a school has living in poverty, the more money it gets. 

Why? So as to spend more money on the schools attended by the poorest pupils, to increase those pupils' chances of reaching their full potential academically. Is this a magic wand that will solve all problems? No. Is it a step towards giving all pupils (and not just those pupils who are lucky enough to have parents with spare cash) a better chance to do as well as they possibly can? Yes. In the London Borough of Barnet, our local state schools are getting £4,421,000 from the Pupil Premium in 2011/12, and this is entirely because the Liberal Democrats are in the Coalition Government and so implementing this policy. That has surely got to be better than nothing? To the cynics among you, I would say: if you don't like the Pupil Premium, what would you do instead?

If your parents have money and they don't like the state school you are at, they can pay to send you to a fee-paying school, or they can pay to move to a house in an area with good state schools. If they do one of those things, it is not because of any special virtue on your part, it is because of the lottery of who your parents happen to be. Had you been accidentally swapped at birth with another baby, then they (and not you) would have benefited from whatever money your parents were able to spend on your education. This is literally a futures market - buying a better future for one's children. It is one thing to have a free market in holidays, cinema tickets and washing machines. It is another thing to buy and sell children's ability to do well in life, based not on the children's qualities as individuals, but on the size of the parental purse. 

Of course, I support parents' right to choose fee-paying education and to move house. Many parents have no option but to do one of these things in pursuit of a good education for their children. We are never going to have a completely level playing field, but we do need a system which enables all pupils to achieve the most that they are capable of. I was educated by the state, and was helped to do well by my parents. They had moved to Barnet partly because it had excellent state schools. I had my own bedroom, and, when I started secondary school, I was bought a desk to do my homework at, and anything I needed for school was always paid for on cue. I had parents who had themselves been to university, and who therefore understood how to help me achieve things academically. They did not understood this because they had magic powers; they understood it because someone had explained it to them.

Had I not had all those things, would I have succeeded in getting into a good university? I don't know. My point is that, had I been exactly the same person but brought up by different parents in a different home with less money, I'd still have been me - and if the real me was able to get into Oxford, then this other me would presumably have been able to get in as well. Had he failed to get in, it would not have been because he was less academically able than I am, it would have been because his academic abilities had not been developed in the way that mine were. This would not have been because he was a less deserving person than I am, or because he was less able - it would have been because his parents (not him, but his parents) didn't have the money and experience that my parents happen to have had. 

If there is a kid out there who is going to find the cure for cancer, then I selfishly want that to happen - I don't want the kid concerned to fail to cure cancer because she has not been able to develop academically, while some less bright kid two streets away flourishes because her parents have the money to send her to a fee-paying school. That is why we need things like the Pupil Premium - to start to remove some of the obstacles that prevent some people from doing as well as they possibly can. It's not about helping less able pupils (that's a different issue); it's about helping able pupils to go as far as their abilities, hard work and individual qualities will carry them, so that we can all benefit from their achievements. Anything else is a waste of talent.

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