Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The arc of underachievement

Students getting their A-level results today would have spent the majority of their education under a Labour government, many starting their formative nursery years at the same time as the first secondary schools were becoming academies.

With a record number of university places offered, we can be proud of our ambition to open up the top tier of education to a far wider group of students. One of Labour’s greatest successes was the turnaround in the fortune of inner city education. Despite the historical revisionism of the current leadership, studies from the LSE and others have shown such success down to a combination of investment and reforms including the London Challenge and turning failing schools into academies.

The seeds which were planted in the early noughties will now flower at some of the top Russell Group universities.

But a report from Kings College London demonstrates the ongoing geographical inequities of our education system. The research shows an elite group of schools in the south doing better than many private schools, although many are not strictly comprehensive. Department of Education data has been analysed to show that inner London sends 1.89 times more students to Oxbridge than the national average. Whereas in the north-east, schools send 0.44 of the national average to Oxbridge.

This regional data simplifies a series of problems that educationalists have failed to address. An arc of underachievement – which includes coastal areas, white working-class communities and a number of former industrial heartlands still lag behind in results. If you take Cornwall, the probability that a poor child will have GCSE results in the bottom quarter nationally increased by eight per cent between 2006 and 2010. Whereas in Southwark, the probability decreased by seven per cent. Lambeth, where I am a councillor, has gone from being one of the worst performing authorities in the country to one of the best.

Some of this is cultural – while a son of an immigrant bus driver has made it to City Hall, it is not easy to identify white working-class role models who have succeeded in our education system. Many are credited with success in spite of their education – John Major left at 16 with three O levels, and Alan Sugar left education to sell aerials out of the back of his van.

Girls still outperform boys. At the same time, boys spend much of their free time playing computer games while girls are more likely to read and communicate socially. The former head teacher of Sydney Russell School in Dagenham, Roger Leighton told the BBC that ‘There is a touch of boys having a greater tendency to think they can get away with minimum work and wanting to spend their time doing other ‘more interesting things’,’ he says. ‘Girls, on the other hand, tend to understand the need to knuckle down earlier on – they take a longer view.’

The Tories think the answer is grammar schools – a classic error of choosing anecdote over evidence in political discourse – seeking to extend the ladder of those who did well in grammar schools while ignoring the cost to the majority of other pupils. Perhaps it is not surprising that one Whitehall source told the Times Educational Supplement that said the government were ‘far less interested in raising the bottom 10 per cent’.

This ignores the great challenge of underachievement in our society, that the greatest determinant of next week’s results for 16-year-olds will be the education of their parents.

Grammar schools will do little to close the gap – analysis by the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank showed that only three out of the 164 grammar schools in the country take more than 10 per cent of pupils on free school meals, when the total number is closer to 15 per cent.

A number of reports have illustrated the entrenched social division that arises in places where the grammar system is widespread, with gaps between the top and bottom earners a third bigger in grammar school areas, according to analysis by the Institute of Education.

There is a great chance for Labour to embrace this agenda. We need an ambitious plan for driving up standards in the arc of underachievement and not be afraid to take on failing schools and colleges to deliver for working-class pupils.


Alex Bigham is a councillor in Lambeth and a former adviser on education to the Labour party. He tweets at @alexbigham



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Alex Bigham

is an associate manager at APCO Worldwide, a councillor in Lambeth and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre. He writes in a personal capacity.

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