Government efforts to find a way of compensating for the inadequacies of many state schools as part of its ‘social justice’ agenda are becoming ever more desperate. The latest plan comes from privately educated Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister who also heads the PM’s “earn or learn” taskforce for 18 to 21 year-olds. He wants employers to ask job applicants if they have attended private school.
He recognises that, unsurprisingly, a high quality education provides an advantage in the jobs market. Hancock’s dangerous supposition is that this is unfair and that employers need to do something about it. Discriminating against the privately educated seems to be his answer, even though a third of such pupils are on bursaries or financial support of some kind.
We cannot afford to laugh off this well-intentioned but pernicious form of social engineering. It carries with it very real dangers if we want to develop a more meritocratic society.
I am sure that most people would prefer to see employers using honesty, fairness and good sense when making appointments. Social and educational background may or may not play a part, depending on individual circumstances. It is, already, routine for any discerning employer to know a job applicant’s educational background. By highlighting the importance he attaches to this information, the minister is promoting what he perceives as a need for ‘positive discrimination’. As well intentioned as he may be, he is seriously mistaken
Discriminating against the privately educated would mean a loss of talent and few employers in the private sector, other than for ‘token’ PR reasons, are going to be persuaded. The public sector, however, under pressure from government may have little choice and does already include more than its fair share of ‘class warriors’. Are we heading, then, for an even more ‘dumbed down’ public sector? In truth, this is unlikely.
Any employer who discriminates against the privately educated will not thereby advance the employment prospects of under-privileged state school pupils. The employer will still want the well educated and will have to draw from the pool of applicants who attended good state schools.
The real privilege gap in education is not between private and state, it is between good schools and poor schools. This is the ‘great divide’. Around 50 per cent of state schools, for example, do not put forward any candidates for Oxbridge and nor do they put forward many for Russell Group universities. Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector, has described a “demotivating culture” and a “worrying lack of scholarship” in a large number of state secondary schools. It is small wonder that many of our school-leavers lag so far behind their peers in the best performing education systems around the world.
Any threat to discriminate against private school pupils will make good state schools even more popular. They will become even more the preserve of those ‘well off’ parents who can afford to purchase a house in the right catchment area.
The Prime Minister and his former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, have both been able to choose the same top quality state school for their daughters. Tony Blair was able to choose similarly outstanding schools for his children and to back it up with private tutors from the prestigious independent Westminster School over the road. These politicians represent state school ‘privilege’ in action.
David Cameron told his party conference that, “Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world. Here, the salary you earn is more linked to what your father got paid than in any other major country … we cannot accept that.” This is not going to change, however, by discriminating against privately educated children. It will change when access to the catchment area of a good state school is not dependent on a parent’s income.
Matthew Hancock’s well-intentioned desire to help under-privileged youngsters will achieve the exact opposite of what he wishes to achieve. It will decrease the number of places for poorer children in the best state schools.