An Unfair Road to a Level Playing Field

Tom Mottorshead

Image © conservativeparty

With the second national demonstration against higher education cuts earlier this month, and the campaigning engines of the countries student union’s are in full flow, the issue du jour is, in the words of a recently published author: ‘Education, Education, Education’. Now, the question that comes to my mind when hearing about the slashes to the higher education budget that some argue will impede equality of opportunity in higher education, is why we do not pay equal attention to how people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still unable to access the relatively level playing field that is University. Is the question of the quality of pre-university education not more important than those associated with University tuition, and if we care so much about equal opportunity, why are we not in moral outrage about the state of secondary education?

 

Even before Michael Gove’s plans for free-schools and extended academies there was a plethora of different educational routes: fee paying, faith, home schooling, grammar and academy. The important question to ask is: are the changes to education and the increase in educational choice dividing or providing for the next generation? Before we consider the new changes we have to ask whether the path to more choice that we are currently on is one that we want to follow. As a society do we want to simply facilitate equality of opportunity or do we want to make a substantive attempt to provide an equality of fair opportunity that actively tackles the negative effects of arbitrary factors such as people’s class, culture, community or family income? If the answer is the latter then we need to address the patently unfair current system by asking whether it provides a fair equality of opportunity: or if this is not the case what is the factor, such as increased overall utility perhaps, that overrides this value. Should some children be bought a better results based education simply by right of birth, is it fair to separate children by simple academic intelligence at the age of 11, does private tuition distort entrance exams to the detriment of people who cannot afford it and many other similar questions need to be answered in relation to getting to the level playing field of university before we start discussing how level that playing field is.

This issue may seem laboured, but this is precisely the point: a discussion of private schooling, or of Free schools, or of schools free from the curriculum even, is necessary because all of these issues matter because we are trying to figure out the right way of educating the next generation. We care about how people’s lives go, and so we care about the opportunities that they are offered or refused. The more we can talk and learn about these issues then the more confident we can feel that our political institutions are representing our ideas of right and wrong, of justice and ‘fairness’. Such issues in education matter more than ever and it is the collective decisions we make now that will define the opportunities and failures of generations to come.

Beyond this intellectual debate the most important question for the populace is will a cabinet, of whom only 17% were educated in the state system, deliver, for the 90% of pupils for whom they are responsible, an education that will empower them to challenge the status quo that has favored the aspirations of the majority of the coalition cabinet. Or should ‘angry’ and ‘idealistic’ students look beyond the personal angst of a rise in tuition fees to the systemic faults of the larger education system that renders the relatively level playing field of university largely irrelevant. If students stop caring, stop getting angry, and give up being recklessly and optimistically idealistic about things that don’t directly affect them, what’s the point in holding the idealistic views that are supposed to be embodied in the tuition fees campaign.

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