Still subsidising the rich

Of course, it isn’t surprising that the current education system entrenches social hierarchies. The question is what to do about it.

The new A* grade for A-Levels will be disproportionately awarded to fee-paying pupils (or rather the children of fee-paying parents); in associated news, it has been reported that “bright children from the poorest homes are seven times less likely to go to a top university than their richer peers.” Obviously this isn’t going to bother the current government in the slightest, but this is clearly an enormous problem for a society which purports to strive for equality of opportunity (if not outcome).

It hasn’t been enough for universities to manage this process themselves. It’s frankly sickening that an establishment like Oxford would take pride in ‘only’ over-representing independent school pupils by more than 500%. The key to winning support for radical change is to ensure that current pupils are not unfairly treated during any transitional phase. My rough idea for a solution would be as follows:

1) To withdraw charitable status from fee-paying schools on a set timetable, e.g. in three years. This gives plenty of time to either secure alternative funding to make up the tax difference, or for parents to choose to put their children into the state system. I’m actually amazed that someone as unabashedly obsequious to the elite as David Miliband supports this idea, though as we all know, you can say anything when in opposition or desperate for the votes of rank-and-file party members.

2) More importantly, to introduce an incrementally-reducing quota of students who have spent the majority of their secondary education at fee-paying schools at any university. This should probably begin at 40%; Oxford currently admits around 45% of its students from independent schools. This should be reduced by at least 5% per year until reaching 10%, a figure which would still allow a small over-representation of independent school students (currently just over 7%).

These measures would have several effects. First, there would be a voluntary (carrot) incentive for wealthy parents to move their children into the state sector as soon as possible and to become committed stakeholders in that system. Second, the reduction in university places acts as both a carrot to parents of particularly bright children and a stick to those who are less so, more accurately balancing the raw intakes of universities with their outputs, and making the meritocratic proclamations of the education system somewhat more valid. Third, the timescale – six or seven years, and more if some advance warning were given – would allow children currently in the system to move without prejudicing their future position within a quota. Fourth, it should provoke a profound reform of the independent sector based on providing other added value than simply the ability to (virtually) guarantee entry to a top university in return for large sums of cash. Outstanding independent schools may continue to flourish; production lines of over-confident mediocrity would doubtless fall by the wayside. Finally, it may have the effect of equalising the intakes of universities to a small degree as children from fee-paying schools become more widely distributed throughout the higher education system.

This is a separate debate from the existence of fee-paying schools per se; in my view, that is a conversation to be had after this sort of process demonstrates whether they are a viable good when detached from the university admissions process. Of course, it seems very simple to me, and I’m sure there are any number of administrative flaws to this simplistic plan. I’d be more interested to see if anyone can raise fundamental ethical or practical barriers though.

Published in: on August 14, 2010 at 9:33 pm  Comments (1)  

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