Can we predict where two children born, in different parts of the country, with all else being equal, will end up in later life?
Sadly the answer still seems to be yes.
Yesterday, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in a report published with the JRF, found that severe disparities exist in levels of absolute poverty between regions of the UK. The median income in the highest income region (the South East) is 25% higher than in the lowest income region (the West Midlands). So you’re already, from the moment you are born, more likely to live in poverty.
And whilst education should be our greatest tool for redressing this, delivering equality of opportunity and facilitating social mobility, it appears that a commitment to expanding selective education, through a new wave of grammar schools in England, is unlikely to help in addressing this. There is no lack of evidence that selective education takes few pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. A BBC investigation of grammar schools admission policies, for example, showed that less than half gave priority to poorer students when allocating places. This included some schools with poor neighbourhoods on their doorstep.
And by this point in a young person’s life, the path towards higher education and resultant employment prospects are starting to become truly fixed. The privately educated elite, for example, continue to dominate the UK’s leading professions.
The university system in the UK, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) argues, is also ‘hyper-selective’ and emulates the expensive boarding school model of education, traditionally employed by upper-middle-class families.
The HEPI today released a report calling for comprehensive universities in order to improve social mobility. Whilst the education system, for last 50 or so years at least, has embraced comprehensive principles for schooling, they have been rejected by higher education. Professor Tim Blackman, author of the report, argues that the UK’s higher education system is failing to make contributions to tackling social inequality and poor economic productivity and asks for our universities to be regulated in a different way.
He calls for measures to ‘desegregate’ and diversify universities, including quotas for the proportion of student places that can be subject to academic selection and targets to re-balance their skewed social class intake. Other possibilities are lotteries, catchment areas and feeder schools into higher education.
These recommendations are made on the back of evidence of the efficacy of mixed ability teaching in American higher education institutions. Public universities also actively encourage students to study closer to home by charging lower fees to students from their home state.
Some argue that comprehensivisation of higher education is a radical proposal. However, in order to redress firmly entrenched inequalities, radical solutions are needed. If considered seriously comprehensivisation has the tremendous potential to help redress the inequalities observed between regions of the UK.
In order to help overcome the pernicious influence the circumstances and postcode a young person is born into has on their life chances, we must get serious about changing their life trajectories. We need to do this with concrete policy solutions that tackle inequality, paying attention to all the institutions and spheres they come into contact with during their life course.