Imagine that we had an education system that was perfectly fair. Children from the poorest backgrounds, if they worked hard and showed ability, could climb the ladder of attainment and achieve the highest qualifications. Children from the wealthiest backgrounds, if they were lazy and incompetent, would end up with few or no qualifications. Poor children could end up getting some of the best jobs; rich children getting some of the lowest-paid ones. In short, a perfect meritocracy.
Yes, I know – I’m having a John Lennon moment. You may indeed say I’m a dreamer. But with so much debate recently about social mobility, I’m clearly not the only one. “A country that works for everyone”? “For the many, not the few”? It seems all our leading politicians are talking about reducing inequality.
The reality, of course, is shocking. Former education secretary Justine Greening recently said: “Britain faces a social mobility emergency”. Research evidence, from the Sutton Trust and others, shows that UK children born into families in the lowest 20 per cent income band are 19 months behind those in the highest income brackets before they start school.
In gets worse. By the time a young person from a low-income background reaches 16, they are two to three years behind in educational attainment. They are less likely to get good exam results therefore much less likely to get a well-paid, secure job.
Turn things round
They are more likely to end up in a further education college like the one I serve as principal. Last year, more than 75 per cent of the 2,000-plus young students enrolled at my college came in without a grade C or above in English or maths – most without either.
Our job in the FE sector is to turn things round for these young people. We do this with some of the lowest funding rates in the UK education system, way below those in most other developed countries.
Having been so far behind from the start, it’s not surprising that many of these students need extra time to reach the same level of attainment as their wealthier counterparts.
But sadly, adult education funding has been whittled away by 40 per cent in the past seven years. Colleges get a third less funding for 18-year-olds than before. Those older than 19 either have to take out a loan or pay out of their own pocket for anything other than basic education.
At my college, the number of adults studying advanced courses has dropped from more than 1,000 to 400 in the past five years. Instead of helping the poorest to complete their education by studying for that vital extra two or three years, we now have a system where funding support disappears on their 19th birthday.
Social mobility has ground to a halt. Justine Greening was right to sound the alarm – but now she’s gone in yet another ministerial reshuffle, who is going to actually do anything about it? And when?
Andy Forbes is principal and CEO of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London