It is extraordinary to think that Tony Blair gave the (in)famous “Education, education, education” conference speech almost 20 years ago now (1996). In the time since then we have witnessed the rise and fall of New Labour, the first term of the first coalition government since 1945, university tuition fees being introduced and then “uncapped” and the number of NEETs peak at over a million before slipping – very gradually – back to today’s spectacularly unimpressive figure of 954,000.
So, what did “education, education, education” achieve? Well, the answers are not especially clear. Setting aside the recent if-it-wasn’t-such-a-shambles-it-would-be-comical league tables release, performance of students at both GCSE-level and A-level has improved steadily over the last 18 years. The percentage of students attaining more than 5 A*-C grades at BCSE has risen from 44.7% ten years ago, to 56% last year (equivalent statistics), although A-level performance has levelled off in recent years (and all of the stats are hampered by successive governments fiddling around with the reporting mechanisms…).
But whatever Mr Blair wanted to achieve in narrowing the class divide or creating greater opportunities for everyone to fulfil their potential, the poorest in society are as disadvantaged as ever within our education system. According to the latest statistics, the number of state schools that failed to reach the government’s target of 40% of pupils achieving five or more “good” GCSEs (i.e. grades A* to C) doubled last year. In total, just one in three of state school pupils achieved this baseline performance, compared with over 60% of privately educated pupils.
Did I mention 954,00 NEETs? That’s almost a million young people who right now are contributing a pretty sizeable negative value to our economy, and – if they don’t find opportunities soon – could well continue to make that negative contribution for much of the rest of their lives. And it looks as though our approach to education is running the risk of simply producing more NEETs in the future, whilst the better off (and you can’t criticise them for making the most of their opportunities) continue to be largely immune to any of these challenges.
There are, of course, some superb things happening in education with many schools, colleges and educational authorities bucking the trend – good luck to them and well done! But any backwards step must be addressed as the government’s absolute priority. Nothing matters more than education, a fact that Mr Blair understood, at least for a time. So rather than tinkering with reporting mechanisms, please Mr and Mrs HM Government: do something about this now, and let’s provide a better and brighter future for everyone.