Tuesday, 29 March 2011


What a bloody mess we're in.

Why is the current political consensus so boring and pathetic on education? That was the buzzword of the nineties, remember? 'Education, education, education', said Blair. But don't challenge the ideas of grammar schools (whilst preventing streaming in other schools, of course), for goodness sake, it'll only upset the parents. Oh, and don't over-tax public schools, either - we need the middle to vote for us.

So that was Labour then. And Labour just before May last year - a City-Academy sponsoring, revitalised party? No, not really. One boring myth peddled about Oxbridge is that our academics actively select against state school pupils, meaning that around 39% of home students at Cambridge are from private schools, compared to the 9% educated in the private sector. But of course, just a little delving into the FACTS (not opinions) does the world of good.

An Oxbridge education is supposed to be world class - that is, the best. Taking the best students. Best students, in the minds of our academics (given the appalling methods by which to judge them, our failing A Levels), are those who achieve the best grades - A*AA being the current achievement boundary. Guess what the ratio of state educated to privately educated pupils is that achieve this - about 60:40. Oh dear, nay-sayers - Oxbridge just reflects the way kids are left after school finishes at 18.

Alison Richards, the last VC of Cambridge, got into very hot water a few years ago by claiming that universities are not, and should not be, machines of social engineering. But is that so controversial? Surely universities should naturally assume the role of enforcers, rather than creators, of social mobility? Plenty of people have argued that Cambridge should employ methods of positive discrimination, to increase our state school intake, and I agree with this to a degree. What I totally disagree with is that, at interview, quotas should be drawn up on schooling. My thoughts on 'positive discriminatory' tactics that work are:
  • Increased application rates from those in non-traditional backgrounds are desirable, hence a push for access work in schools.
  • Consideration should be given to those who had a tough couple of years at school, be it through ill health, being a carer, lack of funds, necessity to work etc.
  • In so far as it is practical, in the above situations, potential as well as achievement should be considered.
  • Some form of funding (either the EMA or the more targeted - but less cash-injected - system) should be provided to help those in the above kind of situations buy books/travel etc.
  • Funding for the poorest students when at university - and an increase in the maintenance loan provided to all students (which at the moment is pathetically small, and barely covers accommodation - but which has been very cleverly overlooked in all the discussion on tuition fees).
This is not to say that those not acheiving the grades from all state-maintained schools should be given a golden ticket - obviously not - but you can take into account circumstances without unduly disadvantaging those from the private sector.

But back to my point - education. What is it for, and why do we have it? Is it an inhererent social good? Yes. Does it help our country (and world) to improve living conditions and life chances? Yes. Are a significant number of our prison population under-educated? Yes. Should we be providing a world-class and equal opportunity of education to all? Yes. Does education stay in the classroom? No. Do things like cooking, managing a budget, relgious choice, sport, music, etc, all count as education? In my opinion, yes. Should we be providing them to our children, again world-class and equal opportunity? Yes. Does social mobility suffer if we don't? Yes. Are people the most malleable before they reach 18? Yes. So what on earth are we doing cutting the education budget?!

People go on about ring fencing not working - indeed, the new Chair of the BMA has said that if health spending were truly 'ring-fenced', then we would be spending 100% of GDP on health in 50 years time! But, of all things we should be ringfencing in a time of austerity, education must, MUST, be number 1. Good education leads to better health - so in my opinion, as a medical student, indeed, education must come first. But not a single political party seems to think so. Cf my last blog - if Labour wants a priority, going back to that particular theme of Blair's would do them the world of good (although this time, try looking at more sensible ideas - yes to mobile streaming within schools, for example; and kill the private schools debate by making our state schools the best in the world, and the place to be). Invest in education; invest in good teaching, in better facilities (stop taking money from BSF for example), and in providing the next generation with the skills and knowledge they require to excel.

I will briefly touch on HE - Labour destroyed the fabric of 'HE' by moving it into BIS - the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (under His Grace Lord Mandleson, Lord Foie) - removing it from education. What a stupid mistake. Not a single party asks the simple questions - what is education for? When should it stop? Is HE really HE or just employability skills? What kind of courses should be funded? What is the public good? Should the arbitrary figure of half of the population really attend university? Until questions like these are asked, and answered, by our major parties, the whole question of tuition fees (incidentally 'free education' lost under the Labour Govt when £3000 fees were introduced) cannot even be considered.

As I say, what a mess. But a salvagable one - and one which could win the next election, couldn't it, Labour?

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