I like to think that, flawed as it is, British society is developing more of a conscience. Particularly amongst the younger generations, the importance of recognising one’s ‘privilege’ has been emphasised as a way for individuals to develop a greater understanding of the inequalities which plague our social fabric. These efforts to drive a new social mindset, while sometimes superficial and performative, nevertheless seem to be driven by a genuine desire to see a fairer society.
But it seems that not everyone has quite got the message. I was recently shocked to read details of a review of over seventy schools by Lord Agnew, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of Sate for the School System. Advisers dispatched by him concluded that a lot of money was being misappropriated in the way that schools managed their budgets. For example, one of Agnew’s advisers noted that at one primary school, when experienced teachers retired, they were often replaced with equally experience teachers. According to them, this was an unnecessary expense, and suggested that a good solution to this financial outlay was to replace the member of staff with a newly-qualified teacher, or even, someone without qualifications.
Another recommendation was that the school day should be shortened, and that the number of subjects on offer should be reduced. Perhaps the most chilling suggestion was that the portion sizes for student lunches were unnecessarily large, and should be reduced in the interests of balancing the books.
Of course, it is easy to see that this review reveals a school system at breaking point; when a few extra vegetables on a child’s lunch plate are deemed to be stretching the available finances, we know that we have a problem. But we have known this for a long time. The Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed last year that school spending per pupil has fallen by 8% in real terms since 2010. Countless studies and testimonies show us that schools are in dire financial straits. What is therefore striking about the findings from Agnew’s research is the manner in which they are expressed.
Agnew’s analysis finds no shortfall in school spending. Instead it sees necessities as wastage. And his findings are all the more unpalatable when you consider his background. Privately educated at the prestigious Rugby School, Agnew experienced an education where no expense will have been spared. And just because his parents were able to pay for his schooling, it does not make him more deserving of a quality education than children whose parents cannot. In fact it seems blindingly obvious to me that if one set of children experiences a boundless education funded by the coffers of their rich families, and another experiences an education defined by cutting costs and corners, one group is likely to remain hampered by that inequality of opportunity for the rest of their lives.
But not in Lord Agnew’s view. Instead lunches must go, teachers must go, lessons must go. But when nine out of ten educational staff believe that poverty and low income are affecting their pupils’ learning, is school really an area of life that needs to be cut back on more? When a 2017 report found that school holidays in the UK leave more than three million children at risk of hunger, how can school lunches be deemed excessive in size?
What we see in Agnew’s report is the politicisation of a lack of empathy. A man who, in educational terms, has had it all, arbitrarily decides that the good fortune he encountered need not be universal. But this is not to say that Agnew himself is spectacularly blind to the needs of others, nor that he is a particularly unfair individual. His thinking is the product of a society that has been getting more unequal for generations.
Lord Agnew has come from wealth and ended up in wealth. This wealth has afforded him the opportunity to do things (such as donating £134000 to the Conservative party over the space of two years) which have certainly helped to put him in important political positions. When wealth becomes the determiner for success and power, it is easy to start conflating wealth with merit.
And this is why children who do not come from wealthy backgrounds are falling behind. There is a political system in place which, at the heart of it, sees this lack of wealth as a lack of worth. And as long as people who come from wealth are propelled to the top because of it, we will continue to see that divide between rich and poor grow, not simply in economic terms, but socially as well.
Poorer education leads to poorer health outcomes, to higher rates of juvenile crime, and is linked to homelessness. Until the Lord Agnews of this world take a step back from the policies they champion, and recognise the human impact that those policies actually have, we will only see a crueller society. A society that forgets that a good education and the opportunity that comes with it should not simply be the preserve of the rich.