Like Rob Wilson, I believe we should strive to ensure equal opportunity in education and try to minimise the impact of factors such as social class and ethnicity. But I don’t think positive discrimination is really the way forward. We could put more emphasis on raising the quality of education across the board, but, let’s face it, a level playing field is the stuff of utopian dreams right now. The idea of reserving taxpayer-funded places for bright pupils in the best private schools is not a bad idea, but it’s ridiculous to restrict those places to children entitled to free school meals. We need to give a lot more thought to the issue of selection.
Or maybe we should go further than that and re-evaluate the very nature of education in our schools. To my mind, educational expectations and outcomes have always been too narrowly defined in terms of academic merit. The introduction of the National Curriculum and the impact of school league tables have made things worse. Children are born with various abilities into various environments and there are various ways they can be helped to achieve their potential. There are many gates with different locks. Children need help to find the right key for the right gate. Their schooling should equip them for a fulfilling working life, whatever form that may take. Too often, however, young people are denied opportunities because their worth is gauged purely in terms of academic attainment.
Of course, some manage to upset this model. David Beckham, Alan Sugar and Colin Firth were not unduly handicapped by a modest academic education. It is possible for people with talent and commitment to break the mould. But it should be easier.
Couldn’t we start to adopt a more holistic approach to education, seeking to improve people on many different levels? Formal academic education cannot identify and nurture every form of human merit. We should help young people develop their creativity, humour, leadership, work ethic, tenacity, empathy, morality and other qualities that could benefit them (and society) later in life. Education should be broadened to provide credible alternative routes for those who seek to excel in non-academic fields.
We need a comprehensive review of higher education, embracing the provision of properly funded work placements and apprenticeships. School leavers have become conditioned into believing that university is the only option. It shouldn’t be. Ignorance and incompetence are a human tragedy, but a university degree is not the only insurance against them. We need a shift towards better quality vocational training.
Social background and ethnicity should not be a barrier to achieving one’s full potential. Lack of academic ability should not be a barrier either.