At a time when belief in our capacity to absorb immigrants is under threat as never before, the new report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) on schools and social mobility is inspiring.
For a long time it was a commonplace that the staggering variety of ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions found in our inner-city schools condemned them to underperformance, if not outright failure. And the old ways of dealing with the problem – accommodating and indulging children from different backgrounds – made matters worse rather than better, turning schools into places where children were amused and entertained rather than obliged to study.
All that changed under Labour’s Education Secretary David Blunkett in the late 1990s, with his requirement that primary schools devote serious amounts of time every day to literacy and maths. The seeds of educational reform are slow to ripen, but now the results of that re-orientation are plain to see.
In a nutshell, the situation has been turned upside down, with the performance of deprived children in inner-city schools, especially in London, outstripping that of children from more privileged backgrounds in other parts of the country. Fully 80 per cent of pupils in inner-London schools are from non-white and/or non-British backgrounds, compared with 14 per cent for the country as a whole; but disadvantaged pupils in London are 21 per cent more likely to gain five high-level GCSEs, including English and maths, than children elsewhere.
Not only has achievement improved in absolute terms, but the performance gap between privileged and deprived students in the capital is now much the lowest in the country. If new evidence were needed that a multicultural society is far from being an outdated liberal fantasy, here it is.
But solving one problem exposes others that were barely on the horizon 10 or 15 years ago. As the IFS report reveals, reinforcing other recent studies, the most pressing educational challenges today are not those of the metropolitan inner city and the ethnic minorities who live in them but of those who live outside the big cities and belong to the white working class.
Having for a long time had the most striking challenges in terms of diversity and deprivation, the capital has also been the recipient of the lion’s share of attention and related funding. The opposite is true of those who live in less obviously stress-prone localities with a more traditional ethnic mix. In particular the children of the white working class, ignored by all the recent reforms, are steadily sinking in relation to their peers from non-British backgrounds.
It is a problem with multiple causes. White families which have received little benefit from education generation after generation are harder to convince that things can be different for their children. An immigrant’s urge to upward mobility may well be stronger than that of families which have been bumping along society’s bottom. Living far from the big city, models of achievement may be scarce – and that may apply as much to the teachers as to the pupils.
The new report admits that the reasons for “the London effect” are still a matter of study and debate. What matters now is for the reforming zeal that has worked wonders in the city to be directed to the children and the parts of the country which have been so badly left behind.