Does it matter if the poor are given a bad eduction? Christine Blower, head of the National Union of Teachers, has just been on BBC1 Sunday Politics. She’s very influential (as her £155,000 pay package suggests) especially at a time when Labour policy is aligning behind NUT policy. When confronted with figures showing how the poor achieve far worse exams results than the rich, she had this to say:-
So”that is not the failure of comprehensive education. That is because we have a monstrously unequal society.” In other words: blame the parents. Some of these pupils, she says, are in the hands of slob parents who don’t give them breakfast. “They may not have a bed in which they can sleep,” she said. We should do “everything we possibly can,” she said – by which she meant things like offer free school breakfast as well as lunch. She had nothing to say about teaching quality.
To be sure, Britain has plenty of poverty. But does that really explain the scandalous correlation between wealth and GCSE results? The below is the Graph of Doom, compiled by Chris Cook for the Financial Times. It shows everything that’s wrong with the comprehensive school system.
Why do we think the poorer kids get worse results? I’d like to bring in Neil Kinnock, who one spoke very eloquently on this point.
Kinnock was right. The poor lacked a platform for a basic education – then. And too many of them lack a platform for an excellent education now. This is the new outrage. Once, it was the goal of government to give child a basic education. But the Labour movement seems content to let things rest there. The Conservatives think differently: that the goal of our time now is that every child has the right to an excellent education. That the very notion of a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ is abhorrent, especially as parents who can afford to move into the catchment area for a better school usually do so.
I often think of the Kinnock speech when I hear someone like Blower saying that poor kids can’t be expected to do so well. These (stunning, sickening) examples of how the poor are systematically failed by our education system really does call for the kind of anger that Kinnock envinced in 1987. It was a conservative, George W Bush, who updated Kinnock’s point for the 21st century. “Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards,” he said in 13 years ago. ” I say it is discrimination to require anything less–-the soft bigotry of low expectations”.
This is what separates British left and right now. The left, in its post-Blair phase, no longer very worked up about the poor doing badly at school. (“It may matter or it may not,” Blower said about poor children going to top universities). The standard left response is to talk philosophically about inequality in society, as if this has the slightest bearing on whether the sink schools ought to be tolerated in this day and age.
By contrast, the right are hopping mad about educational inequality. When the subject is raised in front of Michael Gove, it’s like flicking a switch. He blows his top. When I last interviewed him and raised the subject about whether it poor kids should be expected to do as well as rich, he replied in a crescendo of anger. Here’s the end of it:-
It is snobbery to say that working class people cannot achieve in the same way as others and I’ve had it up to here with people saying oh don’t expect too much of them, these are high-falutin’ expectations. In 1940 the average number of books that a working class boy would read is six every month, 72 a year, working class boys. When I said we should have 50 books being read a year people said: that’s outrageous. The truth is that we’ve lost the level of expectation that we used to have about what people were capable of achieving. They don’t have attitudes like that in East Asia or South Korea. No one is going to say in South Korea, ‘what dreadful snobbery that you go to university’. The last person who said it was dreadful snobbery to go to university was Rick Santorum in America and we regarded that as a view of the Rampithecan right, like the Scopes Trial all over again. The truth is that more people should go to elite universities and if you look at these schools where the expectations that it’s snobbish, don’t get above yourself – no!’
Gove makes precisely the same point as Kinnock. Those people “who could sing and play and recite and write poetry” also read books – then. Why should we not expect them to now?
The difference between left and right, now, is that you will seldom hear a left-winger getting Kinnock-style (or Gove-style) angry about educational inequality. The right are so angry about educational inequality that they want to tear up the whole system. Now that Labour takes 80pc of its funds from the union, it seems to be on the side of the system, no longer on the side of those failed by the system. As I argued in the Telegraph on Friday, the Conservatives can now claim to become the party of the working class.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.