Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

All grown up

In the debate about how we tackle inequality, our attention is rightly focused on what schools can do to tackle educational disadvantage to improve the life chances of the poorest pupils. Labour’s unrelenting focus on school improvement was one of the great success stories of the last Labour government. But we should also be concerned with the educational inequalities outside of the classroom.

New research published by the Sutton Trust, ‘Shadow Schooling: Private tuition and social mobility in the UK’, reveals the extent to which the United Kingdom’s expanding market in private tuition is unevenly distributed by region, class and ethnicity. Unsurprisingly, the demand for private tuition is led by parents who want to support their children with a particular subject or to prepare for school entrance tests, which is particularly relevant in the context of the current debate about the expansion of grammar schools. The extra learning support provided, which costs around £27 per hour in London and £24 across the rest of the country, gives students an edge over those who can’t afford it. Children from richer families are twice as likely to have received private tuition.

Take-up of private tuition is rising: 25 per cent of 11-18 year olds have received private tuition, which rises to a whopping 42 per cent in London. Ethnic minority students are almost twice as likely to receive private tuition than their white counterparts. These are patterns I see played out in my own constituency on the London/Essex border.

While parents’ determination to do their best for their children is understandable and commendable, it does pose the risk of further entrenching educational disadvantage for those children from families who can’t afford the cost of extra tuition.

The challenge is not limited to private tuition. Successive studies in recent years demonstrate that the more wealthy or better educated the parents, the more likely their children are to have access to after school clubs, sporting activities and performing arts. These activities are often those that develop the skills that employers often complain are missing: research by the British Chambers of Commerce found that 88 per cent of firms believe that school leavers are not prepared for work, citing a lack of soft skills such as communication, team working and resilience as the main reason.

That is why Labour should propose funding to enable pupils from low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and additional, high quality one-to-one tuition from a qualified professional.

There is also a crucial role for the voluntary sector to play. Where better to learn about teamwork than completing an obstacle course with the Army Cadet Force? Or to learn communication skills while helping the community through the National Citizen Service, as 2,223 young people from Redbridge have since 2014? Government needs to look carefully at the reach and impact of existing schemes and follow the evidence, rather than eye-catching fads, to scale up those programmes with the greatest impact on learning outcomes and social mobility.

By announcing a new wave of grammar schools for the first time since the last Labour government limited their number to existing grammars only, the Tories have put ideology and blind faith in selection before a mountain of evidence that grammar schools reinforce educational inequality rather than tackle it. In doing so, they have effectively abandoned the pitch in the rational debate about how we can improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children growing up in Britain today. Labour should seize the opportunity to lead the debate and remind those who need reminding of the transformational difference that Labour governments can make to the most disadvantaged children.


Wes Streeting is the Member of Parliament for Ilford North. He tweets at @wesstreeting



All grown up: How do we best support our young people for the world of work outside the classroom?
Monday 26 September, 7.30-8.45pm, Comedy Central, 17 Edward Pavilion, Liverpool L3 4AF

This event is in partnership with NCS, National Citizen Service. 

Speakers: Lucy Powell MP | Wes Streeting MP | Michael Lynas | Jermain Jackman | Chair: Amina Lone Co-director, Social Action and Research Foundation



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Wes Streeting MP

is member of parliament for Ilford North

1 comment

  • This article rather than suggesting Labour work economically to achieve what has been its goal for 80 years – a genuinely comprehensive education system funded much better than it has done until now – merely suggests the state fund private education. Now that really is a Tory idea. Not a social democratic one.

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