Good for John Major for noticing that social mobility is deteriorating. But while he is surely right to say the current dominance of the privately educated is “truly shocking”, he cannot – justifiably, at least – lay the blame for “the collapse in social mobility” at Labour’s door.
As an adolescent growing up in Tony Blair’s Britain two things were made abundantly clear to me. The first was that the Iraq war wasn’t very popular; the second was that there was probably no better time in history to be educated at a state school.
To paint it in numbers: during the ten years Blair held office, “per pupil” funding rose by 48 per cent. That means Labour spent £1.2bn more per week on state education than the previous Tory government and spent £1,450 more per year, per child. What else? Teachers' salaries actually went (shock horror) up – by 18 per cent in real terms, while headteachers' wages surged by 27 per cent. This in turn meant there were more teachers around (around 35,000 of them) – which thereby reduced the pupil-teacher ratio considerably in both primary and secondary schools.
“Education, education, education” – it turned out – wasn’t just Tony Blair’s crappest ever tricolon.
But the really important changes made by Labour – and the ones that Major so blissfully overlooked in his recent speech – were best seen at close-up. One wonderful intervention was the introduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance in 2004: a scheme which offered underprivileged teenagers £30 a week to stay on into Sixth Form. EMA was that rare thing – a means-tested scheme built with the sole intention of actually improving social mobility by giving poorer people the chance to reach the point where they could apply, and subsequently study, at university.
This story has a sad end. The incumbent Coallition has crippled the social mobility that Brixtonian former PM John Major so pines after, because it has crippled the education system. Before the Conservative government was elected Michael Gove flatly promised he would not scrap funding for EMA. In October 2010, five months after gaining power, the Conservative government scrapped funding for EMA.
It was a decision that proved symptomatic of the Tory attitude toward state education that would follow. A veritable joke has been made of the teaching profession since 2010, with a two year wage freeze for teachers having the equivalent effect of a 10 per cent cut in take-home pay when taking into account inflation and increase in pension contributions.
My personal favourite of Gove’s insults to state education, though, has been the Education Secretary’s ban on curved walls, translucent plastic roofs and roof play terraces – deemed to be “extravagant”, the halt on building these features will apparently save the government £6mn.
What does the future hold for social mobility and the state-educated under a Tory government? Not much – I fear for the sake of Sir John Major, among others. While our new curveless state schools will have the shiny, purpose-built sheen of prisons, we can take solace in the fact that class sizes are surging uncontrollably and that the teachers in charge of things now needn't bother with qualifications.
A word of advice for the new generation of state school students hoping to progress to pastures new? In the words of former Prime Minister and Harrow old-boy Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going”.
Joseph Charlton is Assistant Editor of Independent Voices.