Funding education: Primary, Secondary or Higher?
Historically at least, the current government, despite calling for ‘big society’, has kept a tight rein on what education institutions can and cannot do, from holding the purse strings for research provision to taking charge of examinations reform, and from (un)capping tuition fees and student numbers to having the ultimate say in how taxpayers’ funds should be doled out (or held back). Such things are still in place.
Two weeks ago, The Guardian website asked readers how they would spend their government’s education budget? On primary, secondary or higher education? In a report, Seven Key Truths About Social Mobility, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility has proposed that we now turn our attention to primary schoolers, together with their extra-curricular opportunities, in order to improve social mobility. This would complement the government’s interest in higher education as a means to resolve society’s inequalities, a focus that has been heavily criticised this week by education charity Sutton Trust.
The Group suggests that narrowing social divides during a child’s primary school years will improve academic achievement and redress social imbalances that currently mean a fifth of top university places go to privately-educated students, when only seven per cent of children go to fee-paying schools.
The logic behind this is pretty sound. The higher up the education ladder we climb in order to address the issue of social mobility, the more we find that the effects of inequality have already taken hold and are considerably more difficult to counter. By tending to social division and inequality at an early age, children will be less alienated by the time they enter secondary and tertiary education.
The success of this proposal depends upon three issues. One, in order to tend to the state of affairs in primary education, resource must be diverted from other places. Cutting funding to secondary and higher education is not the answer and would only stretch two sectors already under threat. Two, the effects of the reform won’t be visible for some ten years or more. For a government focused on immediate answers to the pressing question of the budget deficit, such a proposal may seem counterintuitive. Finally, the spirit of such reform must permeate both secondary and higher education in order to tackle social inequalities as children progress towards university and beyond.
Some feel the government has not laid out coherent policies for the higher education sector despite acknowledging the need to address divides between tertiary education and secondary education, and between the world of work and university life. Such divides, as I’ve previously argued, are long-standing issues. Certainly a long-term strategy is needed to work with these various tensions. Perhaps now is the time to start addressing these issues from the ground up. The Parliamentary Group’s report is welcome news.
Posted in In the media.