The education secretary has thrown a vision of social mobility and teachers’ and pupils’ hard work under a bus
Last modified on Tue 21 Jul 2020 02.01 EDT
In the midst of a global pandemic, schools, in emergency mode, are fighting hard to ensure pupils can still achieve the grades they need for their next steps in life. And yet this is the moment when the education secretary decides to announce that, actually, there’s no real purpose for so many pupils in England to get degrees after all.
All those years spent doing revision classes, taking students on university trips, painstakingly revising application forms? Sorry, big mistake, according to the minister. What exactly is Gavin Williamson doing and why?
In a speech at the Social Market Foundation, he decreed that: “When Tony Blair uttered that 50% target for university attendance, he cast aside the other 50%. It was a target for the sake of a target, not with a purpose.” Now, Williamson said, the focus would be on skills for jobs and further education colleges.
This statement about Blair’s target is untrue – the target was not for university attendance, it was for 50% of young people to get higher qualifications, including those gained in further education. To many of us, it is also blood-boilingly insulting.
If Williamson needs a history lesson, I am happy to provide it. The purpose of offering more access to university was to ensure that people like me, growing up in towns decimated by low employment – thanks to Conservative government decisions in the 1980s – still had something to do with our lives. The purpose was to ensure that working-class people in Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, were no longer locked out of a snobbish university culture that in 1990 educated less than 20% of people and admitted women at significantly lower rates than men.
The purpose was to make more space for pupils from comprehensive schools, instead of handing places to young people from private schools whose tutors rubbed elbows with the admissions officers. The purpose, quite simply, was social mobility. Selective amnesia may mean Williamson has forgotten this, but those of us who lived it must not.
Happily, hard toil by teachers and young people has meant much of this was achieved. This year, just over 40% of 18-year-olds applied to attend university. Women now outnumber men. State-educated pupils are the norm, even in Cambridge and Oxford. Yet instead of taking a moment to be pleased about this, Williamson has chucked it under the bus so he can tell a story about his preferred future.
“We need to create and support opportunities for those who don’t want to go to university, not write them off,” says the education secretary. On this point, he’s right. But let’s be clear: it is the Conservative government who wrote off non-academic pupils as if they were bad cheques. Successive Tory education secretaries have made it harder to pass GCSEs, chopped vocational qualifications from the school curriculum, slashed FE funding by eye-watering amounts, and complicated the apprenticeship system so badly that only half as many young people now starting an apprenticeship as in 2017.
If Williamson wants us to believe that further and technical education can genuinely have parity in the future and this whole narrative isn’t just a way of pulling up the drawbridge on university access, here are a few things he could do.
First, if there are going to be fewer undergraduate places, in order to preserve social mobility a large portion should be reserved for those from low-income families or areas. Second, if apprenticeships are for everyone, not just “other people’s kids”, then why not set another target? Make it so that every school is expected to send, say, 25% of young people on to apprenticeships. No exceptions for grammar schools. No exceptions for schools in leafy areas.
Finally, make student maintenance loans (the ones used for living on) available to those on vocational routes. A big draw of university life is the ability to live independently, using the loan and topping it up with part-time work. Apprentice wages are often too low to live on, and long hours make top-up work difficult. Fund vocational routes fairly and the calculation becomes very different.
Do this, and Williamson’s announcement suddenly looks like a genuine revolution. Until then, I fear it’s just another way of cutting back and preventing people like me from going into higher education. Unimaginable? Not any more.
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