The Right to Education

Economist always say that a highly educated workforce is a primary driver of economic success. For different reasons, every parent says that maximising the potential and opportunities of their children is their hope.

Based on that you would expect building a great education system would be the highest priority of any government. If you got carried away, you might even hope that education could be taken out of politics, but nothing separates political ideology more than how we educate our children. Funding, structure, and syllabus changes have dogged UK educational performance.

In the UK, a proper summary of all the changes and developments will be thesis piece because there have been so many changes and tinkering.

As a quick precis, though, here, is my history.

In the 1960s I was very privileged with my education. I was at a State primary school, Kensington Avenue for those that are interested, at a time when there was an 11+. That was a test that all children aged 11, took which determined the format of the secondary schooling. Passing the 11+ meant a grammar school and failure was a path to a less academic future with an increased focus on a more technical skills education.

I passed my examination and managed to get into the top ten in the whole of the Croydon area which meant an interview at Dulwich College, a private school. I succeeded at the interview and under a scheme then in place, Croydon education paid the scholarship fees at Dulwich.

Then to University. I went to Leeds and again Croydon paid my tuition fees. This wasn’t a scholarship but the structure then in place. The local authority paid tuition fees for everyone while maintenance was means tested.

Over the years much has changed.

The 11+ is no longer. Labour governments hated the idea of children being tested and graded so young in what they saw as a life-defining moment.

Nor did they like Grammar schools which they believed to be elitist and introduced the concept of a Comprehensive school where all abilities were educated together. Within a Comprehensive school, the amount of streaming was restricted.

Over the recent years, Grammar schools have made a limited comeback but mostly in Conservative run education authorities.

The student contributing some or all of their University tuition fees was introduced across the entire United Kingdom in September 1998 under the Labour government. Then students were required to pay up to £1,000 a year. Over the years this has increased and capped at £9,250 a year

Students can have a loan to pay these fees repaid over their working life as a direct deduction from their wages or salaries, once annual salaries have reached a threshold.

It is not the same across the whole of the UK with the devolved authorities in Scotland and Wales having their own arrangements and in Scotland, for example, the devolved authority pays tuition fees for those defined as Young Students.

Education arrangements in the UK are very complex and this is a short and very incomplete summary but getting it right is more crucial than anything else, probably more so even than a good Brexit agreement.

In 2015-16 around 76% of all institutions charge the full amount of tuition fees. There is no difference for the effort a University puts into delivering a course or for the value a student receives. There is now over £160 billion of loans outstanding and the Government has conceded that a significant proportion will never be repaid. There is a strong belief that the system of student contribution, paid for by loans that will never be repaid, is just as costly as the State paying directly. The only difference is that in one the student graduates, and enters a real world, with debts of over £40,000

Yesterday, the Prime Minister called for better value for students in England, admitting they face “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”. The contribution required in the USA is less (for other than Harvard and similar schools) at around £5000. France the student fee is £500 and in Germany, it is zero.

While announcing an independent review of fees and student finance Prime Minister May also argued for an end to “outdated attitudes” that favour university over technical education.

At last, but this is a review that will take over a year and is driven, I believe, more by political expediency than any sense of moral purpose. Last year, in the General Election, the Labour party said they would remove all student tuition fees immediately capturing the youth vote.

I am not sure that my opinion on the right way to go forward is particularly relevant as we all driven by our past and maybe not the needs of the future.

However, that won’t stop me saying that I think:

  1. We need stability and consistency across all political parties. Education must be taken out of the day to day political posturing. Whatever the new parliament, long-term funding needs to be ring-fenced while the trajectory of approach must be consistent.
  2. Teachers, like doctors and nurses, need to be revered and respected as the most important people in our communities. They need to be paid among the highest and not the lowest.
  3. Streaming by ability is important. As I have said in other pieces, in relation to sport, competition is hugely important to achieving the maximum from your abilities.
  4. Saddling university students with huge debts as they leave is perverse. Education is trying to set up undergraduates for a future and not ‘put them behind the eight ball’.
  5. Not everyone is academic and wants or needs a traditional university course. Many a young adult is better learning and improving trades and similar skills. We need to invest in technical schools and apprenticeships. We need an education system that is fit for everyone’s abilities. That will also benefit society far more.

When I talk to friends the only one of these 5 points that raise any debate is the third. That is easily resolved. There must be data which shows if streaming maximises the potential of the best and increases the average for the less gifted. Or, vice versa. I will live by data.

Politicians, please, stop playing with the future of our children. Stop throwing dice with the future of the country.