Mind the gap! The levelling up agenda must extend to education



In this time of mass confusion, three things have become painfully clear: the algorithm Ofqual used to calculate this year’s GCSE and A-level results contained class bias, the so-called ‘triple lock’ actually secures nothing and over the course of lockdown the gap between state and independent schools has broadened beyond comprehension.  

This government has a duty to extend the levelling up agenda to encompass education. It must first rectify current grade allocations and then stand up to pugnacious unions to ensure schools do re-open come September. 

It was well known that using historical data of a school’s performance would be grossly unfair. Due to smaller average class sizes, privately educated pupils were always more likely to be assigned their centre assessment grades (CAGs) than their state educated counterparts. Ofqual itself acknowledges this imbalance: “centres with small cohorts in a given subject either receive their CAGs or have greater weight placed on their CAGs than the statistical evidence”. It’s no coincidence independent schools saw the largest increase in top grades. 

The results allocated read more like a postcode lottery, rather than the product of a meritocratic algorithm. It is no wonder frustrated students are labelling this government, and by extension the wider Conservative party, inherently classist. 

The blame for this situation lies completely with the Education Secretary and while his resignation does seem inevitable, he cannot be allowed to step down until he has sorted out this mess of his own making. Absorbing the cost of appeals is a positive first step, though giving students the option to use their CAGs does seem the better way to progress. 

In order to shield future examinees from this year’s butchery, re-opening schools must be a top priority. 

Recent research from the UCL Institute of Education shows that during lockdown 31 per cent of independent schools provided at least 4 lessons daily, compared with just 6 per cent of state schools. They also found 50 per cent of independent schools assigned at least 4 hours’ worth of schoolwork daily, compared with just 18 per cent of state schools. Digital poverty is also a substantial hurdle that does not faze independent schools, as 97 per cent of privately educated pupils have access to a computer at home. 

State educated pupils will continue to be left behind while schools remain shut. Yet, it is left-wing unions who most passionately make the case against re-opening.  

In 2017 the National Union of Teachers (NUT) underwent a rebranding and changed its name to the National Education Union (NEU), presumably because their previous abbreviation was a little on the nose. This change, however, seems to be entire surface level because the response of some schoolteachers and their trade representatives throughout this pandemic has been nothing short of baffling. 

At first, the NEU supported lockdown (well they bemoaned the timing of implementation but ultimately agreed with the decision so I’m counting that as support); then the fear set in. Fear that time spent being taught at home, potentially by right wing parents, would counter their own masterful socialist indoctrination efforts. ‘Let schools reopen’ teachers began to demand. So, the government announced that come September, they would. And now, the industry body furiously cries, ‘how dare you endanger us all!’

British schools are more than capable of adapting to overcome challenges presented by COVID-19. Rigorous tracking and tracing, smaller class sizes and strategically placed hand sanitisers are all simple measures easily put in place without reasonable objection. These methods are already successfully tried and tested in Scotland and Denmark. It does appear the tangible benefits of reopening schools significantly outweigh the potential drawbacks. 

For all their talk about equality of opportunity, by refusing to get back into the classroom militant teacher unions like the NEU are actively creating another generation of left behinds. The PM must stand firm in the face of adversity and press on with the levelling up agenda he promised at the last election. If this means recruiting more teachers who are actually willing to go out and teach, so be it. 

‘Open, Open, Open’ Conservatives must cry. Though not as catchy as Mrs. T’s ‘No, No, No’, it sure sends a message. 

In many ways, the battle to re-open schools is Boris Johnson’s Thatcher moment.

Serena Lit is the YC Chair of Brentford and Isleworth Conservatives. Follow her on twitter: @serena_tara_lit