Last week, one hundred thousand eleven-year-olds waited anxiously for the letters that would determine their futures as highly contested school places were allocated across the country. This year, more than twenty percent of children failed to get into their top choice schools, with almost forty percent of children missing out in some boroughs. Much blame was attached to the controversial new lottery system, which has recently been implemented in up to a quarter of local authorities.
Part of the fury caused is simply down to semantics; the word ‘lottery’ is naturally provocative, and headlines vehemently declared that ‘education shouldn’t be a lottery.’ In fact, the lottery system is only used by a small number of schools, and even then it is normally combined with a number of other factors including aptitude, proximity to school, and special needs. The idea is to include a cross-section of socio-economic groups in every school, encourage social mobility, and make educational opportunity equal for all.
Unfortunately, unless a system of allocating places becomes universal, it cannot be truly fair. The reality is that it is the wealthy who can afford to buy their way out of such a system, either by moving to an area which does not implement it or by opting for private education. There has been talk of the lottery system becoming the new standard, but abolishing the catchment area system is a practical disaster; a child may live on the same road as a good school but be forced to travel an hour across town. A lottery system encourages an abandonment of community spirit which is needed most by the very children it aims to help, who often come from broken homes.
So what is to be done? Social mobility in the UK is currently amongst the lowest in developed nations, and forty-four percent of young people from the richest fifth of the population attend university compared to only ten percent from the poorest households. Ultimately this farcical scramble for school places only exists because it is widely accepted that many schools are completely inadequate. Instead of shifting pupils from failing schools to better schools to achieve an equivalent mediocrity, ministers should be concentrating on improving the worst schools and giving extra help to the lowest achieving pupils.
Education is unquestionably a crucial instrument in any attempt to address social mobility. The governmental response has been to set up initiatives to encourage a socio-economically diverse range of students in schools, and provide incentives to schools which manage to push previously low-achieving students through exams.
But this problem has been addressed in the wrong way. What is overlooked is that, as it stands, schools can only do so much. Wealthy middle class children are at an advantage from the day they are born; their extra-curricular activities are time-tabled by zealous parents, they are encouraged to have high aspirations, and they benefit from daily contact with their own educated parents. Likewise, schools do not just succeed because their teachers are inherently brilliant, but because their pupils are motivated and interested, and the attitudes of middle class parents can be the driving force behind the academic success of pupils. Placing an under-privileged child who has been poorly motivated their whole life into an academic and pressurised environment may not benefit them. Without parental encouragement, the child will become frustrated, disruptive and a hindrance to the rest of the class.
Social engineering is never the answer. Ministers’ seeming obsession with meeting largely arbitrarily imposed targets means that the examination system has been de-valued in order to boost the accomplishments of the under-qualified. The focus on judging schools by examination results means that many lower achieving schools encourage pupils to take qualifications which are seen by top universities as inferior, simply to boost their standings in league tables. The utopian idea is that the more students who achieve top grades and attend university, the greater the potential for social mobility. But the proliferation of top grades at A-level, and the increased number of graduates, means that both top universities and companies are looking for other factors to distinguish between applicants. These factors include extra curricular activities, internships and an ability to convey a passion for a subject.
Clearly it will be children from wealthy backgrounds who will have had the necessary coaching to play rugby at county level or pass a music diploma. They have the connections to secure themselves internships and work experience, and are not hampered by the need to take a paid job. Most importantly, it is these students who have the confidence to carry them through these interviews, which comes from the conviction, ingrained into them from birth, that they will succeed. When the current educational system leaves everyone equal, only the wealthy can afford to differentiate themselves from the crowd.