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A two-tier system exists in our country, with many children’s fates decided before they ever set foot in a classroom; their futures decided by the wealth of their parents and their postcode.
For all the talk of “levelling up”, last week’s exam results have shown that the painstaking progress we have made in closing the attainment gap in this country is being squandered. Among this year’s GCSE students, those on free school meals were less than half as likely to achieve the highest grades as their counterparts.
Last year, the Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) report on the state of education in England found that the attainment gap between rich and poor was once again beginning to widen – and all this before the impact of the disruption caused by Covid had been measured.
The pandemic has really exacerbated the problems that many of us have been trying to highlight for years. That a two-tier system exists in our country, with many children’s fates decided before they ever set foot in a classroom; their futures decided by the wealth of their parents and the postcode they call home.
Education is meant to be an engine for social mobility, under this government the oil in that engine is sputtering
A decade of austerity, pushing more than 4.3m kids below the poverty line, is leaving a lasting impact, with the EPI and many others drawing a clear link between the increase in child poverty and the widening of the attainment gap.
And, of course, it is impossible to talk about education and the pandemic without mentioning the digital divide. In households with an income less than £10,000, only 51% have internet access compared with 99% among those earning over £40,000.
Put simply, the least affluent literally had less access to learning than their peers. That is to say nothing of the additional support they ordinarily receive from teachers and support staff in the classroom – or the many thousands who missing out on a hot school meal.
As it stands, our poorest and most vulnerable children are being set up to fail. It is a plight neatly summed up in a line on The Jam’s iconic album Setting Sons: “these are the real creatures that time has forgot, not given a thought – it’s the system”. Millions of kids in this country are at risk of being forgotten, not just whilst at school, but for the rest of their lives, because of the continued failures of successive Education Secretaries.
The statistics paint a bleak picture. Children eligible for free school meals are less likely to be in sustained employment and three times more likely to be on in-work benefits by the age of 27. And when they do leave school – particularly this current cohort of school leavers – they are faced with a bleak landscape where many, especially in towns and cities across the North, are forced to look elsewhere for employment and opportunity.
It is something that I am working hard to remedy in the Liverpool City Region. As in many areas across the country, untold numbers of young people are being locked out of the economy, denied the chance to get on in life, not because they lack talent but because they lack opportunity. It’s a reality I know all too well. A bricklaying apprenticeship and the chance to study later in life, opened up a world of opportunity for me. Every young person deserve the same.
Last year, I launched my Young Person’s Guarantee: the promise of a job, apprenticeship or training opportunity for all under-25s in the Liverpool City Region. Instead of making our young people pay the price of yet another economic crisis, we’re empowering them to be the drivers of our region’s recovery.
Education is meant to be an engine for social mobility, under this government the oil in that engine is sputtering. It’s time to put that right – and invest in our young people – before it’s too late.
Steve Rotheram is the Mayor of Liverpool.
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