Equality in education means getting a job due to competence, not who you know

We’ve heard all the ministerial rhetoric. They must now make the right choice to level up our schools

Education recovery is critical, says Gavin Williamson

August is the holiday season for many of us, but for young people it’s normally a time with far more significance. Because it’s when the education calendar has its most pivotal moments, and make-or-break GCSE and A-level grades are revealed. For university graduates, already armed with their degrees and now looking ahead, it’s time to decide what comes next and ideally how to make those first steps towards a career.

But this year, little is normal for the class of 2020. The future for them has more uncertainty than for any generation in recent years. Yet out of this crisis must come a better, fairer version of Britain. This should be a moment when we bring forward bold, radical steps on education and employment that reset what has become a normalised British “tradition” of inequality of opportunity.

In a recent interview on equality of opportunity, I was asked, “Don’t we have more important issues to focus on?” My answer was that when opportunities are scarcer, having fair access to them matters even more. It’s not just a moral case of the kind of Britain we want; there is now a social and economic necessity that makes progress on equality of opportunity vital. If not now, when?

Recent reports suggest independent schools have seen a surge in interest from middle-class parents, worried about their child’s prospects in state schools. They are considering voting with their feet following the department for education’s minimalistic “catch-up” strategy, which sees £1bn invested into state primary and secondary schools, and £350m of that to create a national tutoring programme. An additional £1bn investment was supposed to be the start of a plan, not the whole plan. We now discover a large part of the money will be eaten up by the unfunded teacher pay rise. No parent should feel they need to leave the state system for their child to have a decent education.

For young people in a wider jobs market and economy it’s time to remodel our system so access to opportunity is no longer so based on connections over competence.

By the end of the year, the number of unemployed young people could hit a million, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). This would be the highest youth unemployment level on record – and with the best educated cohort of unemployed young people we have seen. It would be a scandalous waste of talent.

The wider evidence is clear: diversity prevents groupthink and makes for better decisions which makes for more successful organisations. Let’s ditch this in-built bias to a privileged elite, whichever sector we find it in, public or private. It only serves to rob our country of the ideas, skills and talent needed to create a more successful Britain with more opportunities for all of us. Privilege and connections-based opportunity hoarding is unacceptable in modern Britain.

Whilst we’re at it, for people already in roles, especially lower paid ones, let’s also make sure that no job is a dead-end job. Most people start at the bottom of an organisation – but just because someone starts in a lower-skilled role, it shouldn’t be the start and end of a career, if they want to progress. Everyone should have a fair opportunity to progress from an entry position to the boardroom if their potential can take them there. Many employers already believe in progressing all staff, and providing training to really nurture their talent, but it’s by no means the norm.

School leavers and college and university graduates face a daunting road ahead in the current climate. Covid-19 makes the levelling up agenda so much more important, not less. It means bolder plans, not more timidity. Young people face decisions this summer, but so does the government.

Will this be the moment we have a strategy that works to rebuild our economy and make Britain a leader in a post-virus fourth industrial revolution, with a net-zero carbon future? Or will it be the moment ministers capitulate, believing that attempting to avoid levelling down is the best they can do, consigning many young people to have wasted talent in the years ahead?

We’ve heard all the ministerial rhetoric. They must now make the right choice – to set out a radical, transformative levelling up plan for a Britain based on talent and competence, not connections and privilege.

Justine Greening is the former education secretary and founder of the Social Mobility Pledge

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