Is our education system the great social leveller its made out to be?

Britain's sticky social mobility is hurting us all but inequalities are so extreme that schools can't level the field says Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of The Sutton Trust

The romantic notion of education as the great social leveller is indelibly implanted in our national consciousness. The country’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was the daughter of a shopkeeper who went to Oxford University. Adele, the singer-songwriter from Tottenham who has sold 100 million records, attributes her success to gaining a place at the BRIT School for Performing Arts. The son of immigrants, Harry Kroto, who went on to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry, said his life changed when he secured a scholarship at a local grammar school.

Yet these are the notable exceptions to the overwhelming pattern observed for schools and universities. We have unrealistic expectations of our education system as an engine of social mobility. Teachers do an amazing job. But the idea that they can, single-handedly, cancel out the extreme inequalities outside the school gates is a fanciful one. It is little wonder we are witnessing a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention.

What we have instead observed has been an ever-escalating education arms race, in which the poorest children have ended up hopelessly ill-equipped to fight. The signs are all around us: the booming billion-pound industry of private tutors paid to boost pupils’ grades; the sharp-elbowed tiger parents stopping at nothing to get their children into the best schools, and the stressed-out students trying to navigate a complex and often baffling university admissions system.

Because graduates make more money than non-graduates, the middle classes have got even richer.

In this race, the rewards have increasingly gone to the offspring of our social elites. Take for example the expansion of universities. The proportion of the poorest young people earning degrees grew from six per cent in 1981 to 18 per cent in 2013; yet the proportion of the richest young people earning degrees went up from 20 per cent to 55 per cent. In one generation the graduation gap nearly trebled; and because graduates make more money than non-graduates, the middle classes have got even richer.

In this race the biggest losers are the school-leavers with no qualifications at all. Around a quarter of 16 to 18-year-olds lack basic numeracy and literacy skills. Every year hundreds of thousands of children leave the school system without the basics to get on in life. Most end up in dead-end jobs stuck on the lowest rungs of life’s social ladder.

To understand how a 16- or 17-year-old can leave education without basic skills, you need look no further than a school register detailing the tough lives of their most troubled pupils. These are deeply harrowing tales involving years of instability, abuse and violence at home as young children.

The only way to improve Britain’s low social mobility is to address inequalities both outside and inside the school gates. The divides in income and wealth have reached unhealthy levels. We need to pay decent wages for teachers and other key workers and close the tax loopholes enjoyed by our wealthy elites.

At the same time we need a radical rethink of our education system. Our schools have become an academic sorting machine celebrating a narrow range of academic and memorisation skills, but neglecting other talents, be they creative, practical or vocational. Many pupils, labeled as failures, could benefit from a more vocational curriculum teaching functional maths and English. A vocational pathway need not equate to a drop in standards. We need to assess schools on how well they prepare all pupils with the basic skills for life.

We also need to even up the academic playing field. School tests are as much a signal of the support children receive as their natural ability, and universities have become hyper selective as they try to pick out the very best students. Universities could instead identify a threshold of academic excellence – the minimal grades that are good enough to get in. Undeniably, the most equitable way to allocate places to equally deserving candidates would be to pick them randomly. ‘Losers’ perhaps could be guaranteed a place at another university. Deploying random allocation alongside simple academic criteria would create more diverse intakes of students. It would have the added benefit of cutting down on the escalating costs of admissions.

Improving social mobility requires tough choices both inside and outside the education system. Failing to face up to them however means that our schools and universities will continue to benefit the few and not the many. And we all pay the price for a society missing out on all its talents.

Social Mobility And Its Enemies by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin is out on September 27 (Penguin, £8.99). Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust.

Image: iStock