Every year thousands of children reach the pinnacle of academic achievement – three As at A-level. Last year 13,500 school pupils scaled that mountain top. Quite a cause for celebration.
But hidden within that, apparently, impressive figure is a story. Of those 13,500, just 189 were students who had been eligible for free school meals. And the number who qualify is substantial. Around 15 per cent of pupils take free school meals. And yet just 0.15 per cent of those who get the best exam results in our schools come from that background of disadvantage. That is a scandal. And it's changing that desperately unjust situation which drives the Conservative plan for radical school reform.
We believe schools should be engines of social mobility – where talent and hard work can help individuals overcome accidents of background and the barriers thrown up by prejudice and disadvantage. And we are concerned that the education system isn't delivering social mobility at the moment. As they go through school, the most disadvantaged pupils fall behind their peers.
It's because we wanted to overturn that injustice that we looked to social democratic Sweden for reform. Fifteen years ago the Swedes decided to challenge declining standards by breaking the bureaucratic stranglehold over educational provision and welcome private providers into the state system.
Since they introduced their reforms, 900 new schools have been established in Sweden, a country with a population one-sixth the size of England. Those new providers have not only created schools with higher standards than before, the virtuous dynamic created by the need to respond to competition from new providers has forced existing schools to raise their game. There is a direct correlation between more choice and higher standards – with the biggest improvements in educational outcomes being generated in those areas with the most new schools.
There have been claims that the Swedish reforms have increased social segregation but I saw all-ability comprehensives with a higher than average number of ethnic minority pupils.
It's the bureaucratic system in our own country which disproportionately favours the wealthy by allowing selection through house price. We believe that a system based on challenging complacent monopolies would give poorer parents better opportunities. New providers would naturally want to open up in areas where the parents are desperate for better schools. Areas like predominantly working-class Lewisham, where half of parents say they aren't happy with the choice of secondaries.
We would encourage new providers to locate in areas of disadvantage – through a pupil premium rewarding schools for taking children from the poorest backgrounds.
There is already evidence that what has worked in Sweden can work here. In Hackney new schools have been created outside bureaucratic control. One of them, Mossbourne, is one of the best comprehensives in the country.
And far from driving segregation, these new schools have driven up standards all round. The success of new schools has acted as a spur to their neighbouring maintained schools. A rising tide lifts all. This must be just the start. We must offer every parent access to a school of their choice.Reuse content