The Right and Left of British politics is becoming increasingly dominated by ideologues more interested in the argument than the evidence. Nowhere is this clearer than with the current debate about tackling educational inequality and the role of grammar schools in particular.
Proponents of grammar schools argue that they’re an essential tool for social mobility and that their decline had a detrimental impact on social mobility. But there isn’t a shred of evidence to support this claim.
They take fewer pupils from the poorest backgrounds that non-selective schools.
Those from the poorest backgrounds that do attend tend to do less well. And those that don’t get to attend get left behind.
Yet the expansion of selection is a centrepiece of the new government’s education reforms.
Harking back to the structures of the 20th century seems like such an obviously wrong-headed way to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.
The ongoing process of globalisation, the shifting gravity of global power and the onset of a Fourth Industrial Revolution makes unlocking the talent and potential of every citizen not just a social good but an economic necessity.
As with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth Industrial Revolution – characterised by a fusion of technologies crossing the boundaries between the physical, the digital and the biological – opens up new opportunities to increase prosperity and improve quality of life.
And not just in Britain but around the world.
We’re already witnessing the impact of innovations in artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, materials science, quantum computing and the Internet of Things.
But, as Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum has argued, ‘in addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
The unprecedented pace of change and the disruptive effect being felt by virtually every industry across the world is leading to increasing job market segregation between the low-skilled/low-paid and the high-skilled/high-paid, with a hollowing out of the middle.
So our challenge as a nation is to equip our people with the knowledge, skills, creativity, imagination and values to seize the opportunities presented as we push back further the frontiers of human discovery.
We are fortunate to have one of the greatest HE sectors in the world. We punch above our weight in the world rankings, produce cutting edge research, educate millions of students through a range of institutions and modes of study and remain a leading destination of choice for some of the brightest talents from around the world.
But we can’t afford for our HE sector to rest on its laurels.
Labour’s famous target of getting 50% of school leavers into higher education delivered a sea-change in attitudes, opening up the doors of our universities to talented students who might otherwise have been denied the opportunity.
But there is much more to do, as Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility Commission continues to show.
Young people from low participation neighbourhoods are still over 2 and a half times less likely to attend HE compared to those from areas with high participation. And kids, like me, who received free school meals are over half as likely to enter HE by the age of 19 than those not eligible.
The Government’s target to double the percentage of students from low-participation areas by 2020 is welcome, but at the current rate of progress, they would have to increase participation by 12,000 students each year.
Beyond this general challenge to widen participation in higher education generally are two specific problems that that require a harder focus.
The first is the well-documented challenge that our academically elite universities remain too socially exclusive.
The Sutton Trust has been a consistent champion for bright, but disadvantaged students, both in policy terms and by providing practical support to help young people from under-represented groups to access our elite universities.
Some university leaders and lobby groups, particularly from the most selective part of the sector, complain that the real problem lies with schools.
But if you compare the social mix of entrants to these universities with the social mix of those who have the right grades, there are an estimated 2,800 missing students at Russell Group universities from state schools and 1,900 missing students from social class 4 to 7.
This problem simply cannot be explained away by blaming prior attainment in schools. So forgive my fatigue at the hand-wringing protestations of some Russell Group lobbyists.
The Government proposes to compel universities to sponsor academies as part of an effort to address this problem. I’m not sure how students will feel about their tuition fees being spent on subsidising secondary education, but I wonder if the government might not be better off looking at whether funding for widening participation could be better spent.
There is a huge body of evidence and talent out there among widening participation practitioners. Perhaps we should pool their efforts to share best practice and target resources. We could call it Aim Higher.
The second challenge relates to those institutions that claim to be widening participation success stories while presiding over completion rates and graduate destination data that fall short of any reasonable definition of success.
It is simply not good enough to take in students from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds, plunge them into record levels of debt and leave them without a degree; or with prospects little better than they would have been had they simply left school at 16 and worked their way up the ladder.
I have always believed that higher education is a social good in and of itself. It is more than a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace and has a value beyond economic utility.
But for the students I’m talking about, getting a good job at the end of their course isn’t the rite of passage it is for some of their better-off course mates: it’s the essential means through which they escape poverty, often intergenerational poverty.
That’s why I’ve spent so much time during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill focusing on rights for students. Since the introduction of £9,000 fees, students are taking on an unprecedented financial burden with relatively few safeguards and protections in return. I’ve argued that the HE Bill ought to be a Bill of Rights for students and have tabled more than 30 amendments to bring the concept to life.
Under my proposals, higher education institutions would be required to publish clear information on areas like contact time, feedback and assessment and learning facilities that students could then use to hold institutions to account.
I’ve also proposed more granular data in areas like retention and completion rates, attainment and graduate destinations to enable applicants to make more informed choices.
One aspect of higher education policy that hasn’t been given much attention is student finance. I welcome the Government’s plans to introduce sharia-compliant loans for Muslim students, but this Bill is a missed opportunity to help students from the poorest backgrounds with the rising cost of living.
Early in my term as a new MP I blew the whistle on government plans to scrap maintenance grants for the poorest students and convert them into loans through a quiet statutory instrument.
It’s not just that the move is regressive and leaves students from the poorest backgrounds saddled with the highest levels of debt that concerns me; it’s that we’ve missed an opportunity for a wide-ranging debate about how we fund students across tertiary education to access the right course and make the most of the opportunities available.
My party has made clear our intention to restore maintenance grants for the poorest students in HE and the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-19 year olds, which I welcome. In fact, we should look at widening access to student finance for those going through a range of educational pathways. It could be costly, so we need to look at where we can invest public money to make the greatest impact on life chances.
That’s why I can’t support Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge for so-called ‘Free Education’.
It’s not new politics; it’s lifted directly from the Lib Dems, and it didn’t work very well for them. Like the Lib Dem policy, it would provide a massive subsidy to the well-off when money is short and could be better spent to tackle inequality and like the Lib Dem policy we have no idea how this would be funded. Students have been let down too many times by false hope and broken promises. To do so again would be unforgivable.
In any case, as I used to argue as President of NUS, when NUS advocated a graduate tax, you could scrap trident and tax the rich into poverty, but I wouldn’t spend a penny of the proceeds on subsidising the well-off through university.
To paraphrase Sam Seaborn in the West Wing, I’d spend the money on schools that look like palaces staffed by teachers paid the salaries of bankers. Strong leadership, high-quality teaching in vibrant schools would do more to create a better society than funding some of the wealthiest individuals through university.
Instead, Labour should be focused on addressing the shortfall in student maintenance and also taking on the Government’s disgraceful decision to change the repayment conditions on student loans retrospectively.
That’s why I’m working with Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis to propose amendments to the HE Bill that would make such changes impossible in future.
Labour has been justifiably full-throated in opposition to regressive education policy since the general election, but lacking sorely in our own alternatives.
The limited scope of Labour’s educational debate isn’t the fault of a Shadow Education Secretary who has been in the job for barely a few months. It’s a reflection on a five-year Parliament from 2010 where education was never really a priority for the Labour leadership, in spite of efforts made by successive shadow education secretaries to make it so.
And now, just as the Tories are looking backwards through rose-tinted glasses to grammar schools, so Free Education and a National Education Service sound rather retro and lacking in detail.
Because if Labour is to stand a chance at the next election, we need to turn our face to firmly the future and engage in the battle of ideas about what really works when it comes to tackling educational inequality.
This article is an edited version of a speech given at Policy Exchange, 15th September 2016