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From Cheltenham to Durham

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Lee Elliot Major shares perspectives from recent visits to the Cheltenham Literature Festival and Durham University.

“Fortunately in England…education produces no effect whatsoever.” Oscar Wilde once said. “If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence.”

A century on and the education system still appears to be a middle class fix. Guardian columnist Owen Jones drew knowing applause when he suggested as much during our panel discussion at last month’s Cheltenham Literature Festival. I had been speaking about the booming industry in private tutoring outside schools. An estimated 400 million pounds alone is spent preparing privileged children for entrance tests for grammar schools each year.

The irony was that the highly educated literature buffs who had turned up in the bright sunshine of a fresh Cotswolds morning were overwhelmingly the winners of this educational arms race. Many, no doubt, were themselves products of grammar schools. I’m sure that as parents and grandparents they have done all that is humanly possible to ensure that their own children and grandchildren have had the best education.

I spoke briefly with Michael Gove in the writer’s tent afterwards. And as we spoke I wondered whether the former education secretary privately worries at all that the Govian school reforms could exacerbate rather than diminish the gaping education divide that has blighted our country for so long.

It’s good to see finally the progress of poorer performing pupils count when we assess a school’s worth.  Yet I can see the army of private tutors licking their lips in anticipation of the extra business surely coming their way as pupils adapt to the intensive academic diet being ushered into schools. Will the move to more summative end of year tests primarily gauge how much help children have had in memorising their facts and honing their examination technique?

YES, was the overwhelmingly answer to this question from secondary school heads in the North East when I was speaking a few days later at Durham University. They believe that the attainment gap will almost certainly widen when the newly graded GCSEs come into full effect in the summer of 2018. If these predictions are accurate then universities will find it even harder to attract students from all social backgrounds.

There is already a dawning realisation among university officials that the current system of academic selection is at breaking point. No, not at age 11, but at age 18. Few admissions officers now believe that A-grades at A-level are a reliable indicator of raw IQ or pure academic potential in young people. Rather they have become the gold standard of how well prepped and drilled the privileged few have become. Highly selective universities like Durham University are having to consider new radical ways of identifying academic talent irrespective of where it is from: perhaps they will have to resort to taking the background of candidates more into account following the example Ivy League universities in the US.

These debates were ringing in my mind as I walked by Durham’s magnificent mediaeval cathedral to head back by train to London. The inescapable, almost heretical question is this: are we all co-conspirators in creating a system that has been set up to fail a large swathe of the population? Is our obsession with a narrow range of analytical skills denigrating all those other human attributes – practical, vocational, creative, artistic, emotional – that we should value in equal measure? Actor Michael Sheen and the Principal of the Brit School, Stuart Worden, had something spirited to say on this in Westminster on Monday night. With each passing generation are we a step closer to Michael Young’s self-serving (and ultimately doomed) meritocratic elite?

As Young himself wrote: “A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education’s narrow band of values.”

“With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority…The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.”