A mixed education system is the best way to speed up Britain’s lagging social mobility

Andrew Thorpe-Apps

Sir John Major recently spoke out against our country’s “truly shocking” lack of social mobility and the consequent dominance, in politics and other fields, of a narrow section of society.

The term ‘social mobility’ is an unfortunate one, couched as it is in class terms. In reality, it is economic mobility and the ability to progress in one’s career that most concern us in 21st century Britain.

A great deal of attention was given to Sir John’s intervention, not least because many viewed it as an attack on David Cameron and the ‘Notting Hill Set’. Some on the Left have even praised the former Tory Prime Minister as a kind of class warrior. For those on the right of the Conservative Party, branding him as a class antagonist provides a convenient way of concealing Britain’s social mobility problem. Whilst Sir John’s beginnings were indeed humble, it is wrong to think he is calling for some idealist notion of equality.

Absolute social and economic equality are achievable only under authoritarian leadership. The reason for this is simple: equality is not a natural state of affairs; it must be artificially constructed through the workings of the state. Further, under such a system, there could be no social mobility as any individual disparity would represent a threat to state control. Whilst greater economic equality is a laudable aim, it should not be conflated with the means by which to achieve it.

Due to this preoccupation with egalitarianism, the Left are inherently opposed to social mobility. Labour’s attempt to close Britain’s grammar schools was a clear example of this. On the other hand, the Conservatives are the natural party of individual economic and social improvement, chartered under the banner of ‘equality of opportunity’. Yet a truly meritocratic society cannot be achieved when people’s life chances are largely determined at birth.

The issue is not that the majority of the Cabinet were privately educated; it is that individuals from less privileged backgrounds did not have an opportunity to even stand for election.

Sir John is right to raise the issue of ‘intergenerational mobility’, as economists like to call it. It is one of the greatest challenges facing this country’s politicians. Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the world, with statistics consistently showing it to be less socially mobile than other developed nations. A 2005 LSE study found that, whilst the gap in opportunities between rich and poor is similar in Britain and the US, in the US it is at least static, while in Britain it is getting wider.

Furthermore, social mobility is not a purely moral imperative. Britain is suffering an economic loss by not ensuring that the best and brightest are rising to the top. How many potential inventors and entrepreneurs have been lost simply because they did not have the financial means or social networks to flourish?    

Although family, social networks and attitudes will always play a role in determining an individual’s success, there are measures which governments can undertake to ensure that individual ability becomes more of a driving factor.

The greatest reason why Britain’s social mobility is in decline is because the better off have benefitted disproportionately from increased educational opportunity. Whilst the proportion of people from the poorest fifth of the population obtaining a degree has increased from 6 per cent to 9 per cent since the early 1980s, the graduation rates for the richest fifth have risen from 20 per cent to 47 per cent.

Education is the key to social mobility, and grammar schools are a beacon beside the lumbering behemoth that is comprehensive education. Michael Gove has made progress in shaking up the education system. Yet Gove runs the risk of fragmenting education in a way that could prove counterproductive to social mobility. Free schools, though perfectly laudable, are generally set up by middle class parents in the suburbs. 

Gove would do well to look at Germany. Here, secondary education includes five types of school. The school a pupil attends will depend on their academic attainment, but particular focus is also given to the type of vocational training which will best fit each child’s skills. Whilst in Britain there remains a preoccupation with academic success, in Germany it is recognised that academic and vocational education are equally valuable. It is no coincidence that Germany has been enjoying the kind of export-driven economic success that Britain can only dream of. Germany also performs far better in the social mobility stakes. By adapting the education system to account for the varied skills of its children, Germany provides greater opportunity to those from poorer backgrounds.   

A mixed education system, with strong independent and grammar schools, and comprehensive and free schools which channel the talents of their students, will help Britain to reverse its social mobility shame.

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Defence cuts must lead to a limited world role for Britain

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Louis Reynolds

George Osborne has opted to reduce the MOD’s civilian headcount as part of the latest £11.5 billion savings drive implemented across Whitehall departments. While this cutback will certainly be noticed even within the supposedly wasteful MOD, it is an excellent alternative to further cutting H.M. Armed Forces proper.

Cutting the Forces to some degree is also seemingly the only option the Chancellor can decide upon in his mission to further slim down the British state. With Education and the NHS – which will by 2014-2015 account for 43% of spending – totally ‘ring-fenced’, the other departments must inevitably undergo more substantial butchery than would otherwise be the case, especially given Liberal Democrat misgivings about further cuts to Welfare.

The Armed Forces is also an easy target. Despite occasional and brief protests from the Chief of the General Staff Peter Wall or retired senior officers, the military is often the subject of significant cuts because it is in the culture of Britain’s services to make do. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War the continuing theme underlining British defence policy has been near constant downsizing. Finally defence cuts, while unpopular and often unwise, are felt less directly by the general public than other spending reductions.

The unequivocal necessity of government spending reductions combined with the political inability of the coalition to meaningfully confront the departments with the most substantial budgets has resulted in a 20,000 soldier reduction of British Army strength, around a fifth of its personnel, over the Coalition’s period in government.

Despite this significant reduction, the Strategic Defence and Security Review failed to properly engage with the changes the government has made to the British Armed forces, merely offering a miniaturised version of Britain’s Cold War capability and a more cautious application of force than that used in the Blair government’s unpopular operations.

The British Army was chronically undermanned and under resourced in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early part of the Global War on Terror. The British Army’s failure in Basra and its severely limited utility in Helmand was the direct result (to a considerable extent) of a chronic lack of resources and manpower as well as a commitment which overreached its capability. Britain’s struggle to amply fulfil her supporting role in both of the major conflicts of the early twenty-first century damaged her reputation and risked significant military embarrassment.

Since the withdrawal from Iraq and the declaration of imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British Army has undergone quickly implemented and very deep cuts. The increase to defence spending that would be required to enable the British Army to successfully enter into two such medium scale military commitments today is, in the intermediate term, unforeseeable. Minor mercies such as today’s announcement make little realistic difference to that uncomfortable and poorly addressed fact.

Where does this leave Britain? Despite Ed Miliband’s recent and uncharacteristic outbreak of pragmatism, the Conservative party is respected as a realistic and frank broker. Sensibly reviewing British defence policy in a manner that the public could understand would lay much needed foundations for British strategy, as well as helping to prevent our ‘can do’ military being overcommitted in future operations. It is in the country’s interest, and the Coalition could do so without alienating core voters; moreover, once a realistic vision of Britain’s hard power capabilities has been established, a less nebulous and myopic foreign and security policy could be shaped.

The Coalition cannot take the easy route and conform to the pattern set by the Blair and Brown governments; continual minimisation of an outmoded and unappreciated fighting force. If we cannot afford to substantially augment H.M. Armed Forces, we must think much harder about what role it must play.

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The education system’s betrayal of bright pupils

Giles Marshall 9.00am

How often is it possible to bemoan the same problem and consistently avoid the obvious solution? Plenty, it would appear, if the problem is how to support bright children in the state education system.

Ofsted have today reported that thousands of bright youngsters are failing to achieve their potential in secondary schools. They have issued some shocking figures. Take English: of the children who achieved Level 5 in English in their primary schools and went on to the standard non-selective secondary school, 62 per cent failed to gain a grade A or A* in the subject at GCSE. Even taking into account the natural decline in learning that some children experience in the secondary school years, that is a lamentable figure.

More than a quarter of previously high attaining pupils failed to gain a grade B or A in Maths or English. The bright, eager primary school pupil with ability to nurture is being betrayed by what Ofsted have described as a “culture of low expectations” in secondary schools.

Of course, it is no easy job to encourage the bright students when you are teaching a class of thirty students whose abilities range right across the spectrum and who contain a fair share of the educationally discontented amongst them. Blaming the schools and their teachers is all very well, but the demands we make by our present system are huge.

The problem of the mixed education system was well identified by a prominent academic in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2010, entitled simply “Meritocrats”.  He furiously denounced what had been happening to secondary education when he wrote:

"For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.”…. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity."

He was not the first critic. In the Black Papers of 1975, one author argued:

"Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?"

These were strong words, and the interesting thing in both cases is that they came from the pens of bona fide left-wing thinkers: Tony Judt and Iris Murdoch respectively.

They correctly identified where the real victims of the comprehensive reform of state secondary education would lie, and while articulate middle class parents push their way into the catchments of the few remaining grammars, everyone else has to put up with the “culture of low expectations”.  

Oddly, for all his reforming zeal, Michael Gove has steered well clear of the grammar school debate. Happy to push for elitism in the form of exams; presumably happy to maintain the elitism required for the university system to thrive (because yes, they select students based on academic ability), he has made no pronouncement whatsoever on grammar schools. Free Schools and academies are hamstrung in one significant way – they cannot select on the basis of academic ability alone.

Perhaps Conservatives - more likely to be able to use the private selective school system, or ensure residence in a catchment area for a state selective school, or able to take advantage of the free school opportunity – don’t really have any motivation to push for a fully selective system on the state. Maybe their opposition to state control of education stands in the way of advocating a directed system of educational elitism to aid the aspirations of the poor and disadvantaged.  

If so, is it entirely outside the bounds of political credibility for the Labour party to rediscover its commitment to social mobility, and advocate the return of a grammar school system? In one bound, they could pull the rug from under the feet of the wimpy Conservatives who have avoided this toxic issue for so long. They could, indeed, listen to Tony Judt’s closing plea not to accept the disastrous status quo:

"Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy."

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Macmillan Lecture 2013: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On Reforming’

 MACMILLAN LECTURE 2013

Keep Calm and Carry On Reforming 

By Rt Hon Damian Green MP

The previous occasion I delivered the Macmillan Lecture was in 2005, just after a disastrous election result for the Conservative Party which saw us make little progress even though Tony Blair’s Government was visibly crumbling.

“Why aren’t we thinking what they’re thinking” was the rather gloomy title, prompted by the thought that the lack of progress made it much more difficult to obtain an overall majority in the subsequent election—a sadly prescient point. One thought I was keen to make then is equally true in the very different world of today; that if the Conservative Party does not like modern Britain it is unlikely that modern Britain will warm to the Conservative Party.

Of course there is much that needs to be changed, and much that is changing because of this Government. As I say in the title of this lecture, we must carry on reforming.  But we should not let the long recovery from recession, or individual horrible incidents such as the Woolwich killing, leave us gloomy or grumpy as a country. It is less than twelve months since the world admired the best Olympics of the modern age. They admired not just our national organisational skills but the character, warmth and openness of the British people. We should not just keep calm, we should cheer up.

I should move from the national to the party.  The same injunction applies.  

Perhaps this is the appropriate moment to fulfil the duty of all who deliver this lecture to quote Harold Macmillan; “It is the duty of Her Majesty’s Government neither to flap nor to falter.” Admirable advice which is both timeless and timely.  For centre-right politicians there are significant reasons to be both calm and cheerful , the most notable of which is the public’s reaction to the financial crisis and subsequent recession. It was the fond hope of those on the left, perhaps particularly those who grew up at the feet of Marxist philosophers, that this would be seen as a crisis of capitalism. The people would throw off the shackles of false consciousness and realise that free markets had failed, and that state spending, borrowing and control was the route out of recession.

Fortunately the British people have more sense than that, and tend to prefer the analysis that state spending and borrowing was precisely the route into recession. There is no spin in this analysis. Successive poll findings have shown  that even when Labour is enjoying a significant lead the Conservative team is markedly ahead on managing the economy. This is true even over the past few weeks, where calmness has not been the prevailing emotion.

The most recent Ipsos Mori poll showed a 14 percent lead for David Cameron on managing the economy. Truly, if it still is the economy, stupid, that sets the political tone we are winning the most important argument.  British Keynesianism failed in the 1970s, and enough people know that to ensure that its modern enthusiasts have little credibility. The world has not gone left since the crisis. Where right wing Governments have been ejected, as in France, the left-wing alternative is already in trouble. The economic facts of life are still Tory.

So keep calm. But also carry on reforming, and more particularly carry on reforming in a Tory way. There is gathering strength to the argument that the reforms we are seeing to, for example, immigration, welfare and education address exactly the issues that people want Government to concentrate on.

These key reforms have three significant features. The first is that they are as important to the success of the Government as the central economic policy. The second is that all of them are dependent on Conservative ideas and energy to drive them through. The third is that they are precisely on the Common Ground originally identified by Keith Joseph as the proper target for successful Government, rather than the centre ground.

So as well as winning the central economic argument we are reforming in the areas where the country needs changing, and we are doing so in a Conservative direction. This message cannot be sent too often or too loudly, particularly to traditional Conservative supporters. They want lower immigration, an end to abuse of the welfare state, and higher standards in schools. Conservative Ministers, drawing on Conservative principles and our Manifesto promises, are delivering this.  

On immigration, the latest figures show that net migration is down by more than a third since June 2010, and is now at its lowest level for a decade. At the same time as seeing this dramatic decline in overall numbers, which is the main requirement, we have continued to support economic growth by welcoming the brightest and best to the UK. Higher numbers of skilled worker visas were issued over the last year, as were university student visas. So we have lower immigration, and more selective immigration: both good Conservative policies.

On welfare, we have introduced the biggest welfare to work programme the UK has ever seen to get people back to work.  We also believe it must always pay to work – which is why we have capped benefits so that no one can get more on benefits than the average person earns in work. We want to help people escape poverty, not trap them in it. This reform is squarely in the tradition of  which Harold Macmillan would have approved.

The same is true with our education policy. We are making sure that every parent has the choice of a good local state school for their child, teachers have the powers they need to keep discipline in the classroom and the exam system is rigorous, respected and on a par with the world’s best.

We have a programme to improve the quality of teaching, including scholarships to attract the best graduates, higher literacy and numeracy requirements for trainee teachers and a network of ‘Teaching Schools’ across the country.  79 Free Schools and more than 2,000 new Academies have been delivered already. Many of them are in areas where most people have not been able, up to now, to gain access to an excellent education for their children. We are restoring discipline to the classroom with new search powers for teachers, an end to the ‘no-touch’ rule, and higher fines for truancy.

All of these essential reforms have been delivered by Conservatives working in a Coalition Government.

Which brings me to a theme which is particularly important for the Tory Reform Group, and all moderate Conservatives.  There may be areas of policy where we agree with Liberal Democrats, but we are not the same.  We believe in change and modernisation , and we recognise that what modernisation means changes over time, but we are first of all Conservatives. We have principles which are not shared even by the most orange of the Orange Bookers. We also do not regard ourselves in any way morally deficient compared to Liberal Democrats.

I get on very well with many of my LibDem Ministerial colleagues, but I am entitled to challenge their thesis that this Government can only be kept compassionate by their presence. There is a long and honourable tradition of decent Conservatives who want to help those who need help, and Macmillan himself was of course a prime example at all stages of his political career.

Macmillan  was alive to the difference. As he put it; “As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas. Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound.”  We do have practical differences, as I discovered on a regular basis when I was Immigration Minister.

There are similar debates about key issues such as childcare. All of these debates can be, and are, resolved within Government, as they would be whether it was a Coalition or a one-party administration. But they illustrate that the moderate Conservative tradition is a vital part of any Conservative mix, and is distinctive from the instincts and habits that the LibDems bring to politics.

This distinction is key for those who worry that in the Coalition the tail is wagging the dog. We are reforming and we are reforming in a Conservative direction. Every Conservative policy is about promoting opportunity and social mobility.  We know that  making Britain succeed globally and allowing people to achieve their aspirations are the two keys to a successful society. Economic growth and individual growth need to go hand in hand. This is the basis for economic and social policy under this Government and I cannot understand why any Conservative, whichever tradition they adhere to, would object in principle to this approach.

There will always be disagreements about tactics and day-to-day priorities but these must not be allowed to divide the right, when the only beneficiaries will be the left. All  of us who campaigned so hard and so successfully to preserve a first-past-the-post electoral system must accept the consequences. Under first-past-the post a serious party that aspires to Government has to be a broad coalition.  This in turn requires a degree of self-discipline and capacity to compromise. If we Conservatives forget that, our opponents will be the beneficiaries.

This means that the tone of the discourse between Conservatives is important. If we sound as though we dislike each other, others will draw the obvious conclusion. I love Twitter, but its general tone should not be a guide to how Conservatives address each other. Disagreement on an issue, however emotive, does not mean treachery, or not being a proper Conservative. Politics is a team game, and mutual loyalty is vital for a successful team.

The biggest and longest-running cause of Conservative discord is Europe. Every Conservative should have a high regard for the lessons of history, and the party’s history on this issue since the 1990s is terrible. The effect of this has been, ironically and yet predictably, that Britain’s fate in Europe has been in the hands of those who have no sympathy at all for the Eurosceptic viewpoint. Surely we are all able to learn this lesson of history and not repeat it.

I am not just lecturing others. We must all learn lessons. For years pro-Europeans opposed the idea of a referendum. But the strategy of negotiating a new settlement, and then putting that to British people, is clearly the right one for current times. Most British people want it to happen. So much has changed since the 1975 vote that it is time to put the argument again. I hope and expect that the outcome of this process will be to renegotiate, reform, and revalidate Britain’s place in Europe. The Prime Minister has made clear that this plan will be central to Conservative policy up to and beyond the next election. It is time for the whole party to get behind it. And it is possible for those who hold the whole range of views on Europe to do so.

For those of us sympathetic to the European argument this is an opportunity to make our case, and the Prime Minister’s case, that a properly reformed EU will be hugely to Britain’s advantage. For too long only a few lonely voices in the Conservative Party have made the case that we are better off in. Those of us who hold that view cannot wait for the few weeks before a Referendum to argue our corner.  There is a hard-headed Conservative case for Britain’s membership of the EU, for all its imperfections, and it needs to be heard.

The core of the argument is economic. All sectors of industry agree that we are better off in. Let’s start with manufacturing. Five out of every six cars made in this country are exported, and 700,000 jobs depend on the industry.  How many of those firms would invest long-term in Britain outside the EU? No wonder Ford’s European Chief Executive, Stephen Oddell, has said that “Leaving a trading partner where 50% of your exports go… would be devastating for the UK economy.”  

Then there is the City, often seen as the part of the economy most hampered by EU rules. Goldman Sachs are unlikely to be sentimental about the economic effects of leaving, and they have concluded that departure would be a loss/loss scenario, in which the loss would be greater for the UK than the EU.  In particular they argue that “The UK’s ability to conduct business in financial services across the European Union is likely to be severely compromised by a departure from the EU.”

Then there is the argument that we should concentrate on the fast-growing economies in Asia and South America rather than sclerotic old Europe.  I have never understood how you make it easier to export to China by making it more difficult to export to Germany, and indeed the German example is surely one to follow. Last year Germany exported $804bn worth of goods to Europe, and another $519bn to the rest of the world. They are complementary markets, not alternatives.

Finally there is the argument that our businesses have to obey all these petty rules that hinder them. Does anyone imagine that the rules would be less onerous, or indeed less of a hindrance to British business, if they were made without any input from Britain? Since Britain will need to trade with Europe, we would be putting an added burden on our business, not removing one. And we would have to pay a large fee for access to the Single Market, as Norway does. The idea that we can remove all the irritations, but retain all the benefits, is not worthy even of the saloon bar.

Of course there is need for reform, not just for Britain’s sake but for Europe’s. We need a Transatlantic Free Trade deal. We need a single market in a number of new areas, including digital services. Above all, we need a reform deal which will deliver benefits to every country in the EU, so that others will be as keen as we are on reform.  This will show how beneficial it can be when Britain plays a leading role in Europe.

This European reform will be consistent with all the other hard-headed, unsentimental, pragmatic, Conservative reforms which the Government has embarked on. It will fit in with a wider modernising agenda which is nothing to do with party image and everything to do with making Britain (and Europe) fit to compete in the modern world. All these reforms, taken together, will change Britain for the better. So the job of all Conservatives at this point is neither to flap nor falter, but to get on with the job of persuading people that Conservative principles in action give all British people the chance to succeed. We should be proud of our record so far, and we know there is much more to come. We have an important job to do. We should devote all our energy and time to doing it. 

Only by calming down shall EU rebels get what they want, or have any colleagues left to share it

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Nik Darlington 9.54am

Yesterday on these pages, Giles questioned whether the Tory party truly wants to resist the UKIP surge, or whether the Tory party in fact embraced it. This morning on ConHome, Paul Goodman questions whether Tory MPs even want to win the next election.

For some “lunatics”, to paraphrase Mr Soames commenting yesterday, this is not wide of the mark. The MP for Ketting, Philip Hollobone (majority 9,094), is insisting on parliamentary time to debate a referendum bill and "if it ends the coalition, so be it".

That would, in all likelihood, end the Tory party’s tenure in office. It would not, in all likelihood, end Mr Hollobone’s tenure in the House of Commons.

There are however many hard-working, bright colleagues who would be sacrificed at the alter of Mr Hollobone’s (and others’) capricious whim.

To recap, John Baron (Basildon & Billericay: majority 12,398) posited a motion criticising the Queen’s Speech for not including an EU Referendum Bill. Coalition with the Liberal Democrats precludes this, however David Cameron has since announced the independent publication of a draft bill that is presumed will be taken on by the first name out of the hat for private members bills.

Mr Baron and supporters - including Peter Bone (Wellingborough: majority 11,787) and the reinstated Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire: majority 15,152) - have extracted this significant concession. Yet they press on. And on. Today’s Times (£) cartoon puts this best.

Has the Prime Minister handled this badly? Of course he has. Should a doomed stand be made against the muddled, undemocratic ranks of the Labour party, the Lib Dems, Greens and the rest? Yes, it should.

Europe is a salient issue for voters and the British people deserve a say on EU membership, pending the Prime Minister’s negotiations. For what it is worth, looking at the status quo, on balance I would vote to stay in; but it would be a close call.

It would not take much to convince me otherwise. The ‘out’ lobby has a war chest of momentum, funding and evidence. The ‘in’ lobby does not. In fact, I fear supporters of EU membership have at worst largely forgotten why they support it, and at best are relying on out-dated evidence.

Nevertheless, Europe is not the most salient issue for voters. It does not even come close. The crucial consideration in this sordid episode is that the Conservative party is being poisoned by myopia, desperation, and fears the wrong enemy.

Lance the boil. Have the debate about a referendum bill. Expose opposing parties. Be done with it.

Demonstrate to voters what this Conservative-led Government has achieved in the realms of welfare reform, schools and immigration; ram home the paucity of Labour’s alternative; press on with vital reforms to healthcare; and continue the hard but necessary work of rebuilding Britain’s economy.

Only by doing so shall the Conservative party have a hope of winning in 2015. Only be doing so shall there be a chance for an EU referendum. And only by doing so shall those MPs in safe seats who yearn for that referendum, have any colleagues left to ensure it.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

In praise of £9,000-per-year university tuition fees

Matthew Plummer 10.58am

Children in their last year of school are gearing up for what one contemporary Scottish philosopher calls ‘squeaky bum time’. A-level exams in the summer suddenly don’t seem so far away, and shortly the contents of acceptance and rejection letters from institutions will start being broadcast in Facebook status updates up and down the country. 

The deadline for art and design schools is later this month, and last week I had coffee with a student I mentor to look at her portfolio and university application. Her work showed plenty of promise, but as we talked I realised that while she was desperate to do a photography degree, she wasn’t particularly interested in using it as the foundation for a career taking pictures – she just liked the idea of studying photography, and would do something different after her graduation.

She’s by no means alone. We have a large number of students in creative tertiary education, many of whom realise during their studies that enjoying something at A-level (often taken as an alternative to boring ‘academic’ subjects) isn’t enough to sustain them through the long hours of working in the studio at their university. Others quickly find out that that their work simply doesn’t cut the mustard when they enter the saturated graduate marketplace. And – being completely blunt – the tertiary sector’s vast oversupply of creative graduates unable to work in areas where their degree have prepared them for is nothing short of scandalous. 

To someone with a rose-tinted view of the whole university experience this probably sounds harsh. University is about growing up, finding one’s feet in the world, etc. Yet the ease in justifying a degree in the creative arts is symptomatic of the distance we have yet to travel in shifting society’s attitudes towards tertiary education.

The wretched ‘50 per cent of school leavers going to university’ aspiration was a misplaced and profoundly damaging New Labour ploy to seduce parents. It was also politically very smart: ‘thanks to the government my child is the first in our family to have a university education’.

The policy flooded the workforce with graduates, and sent a clear signal to students that choosing not to do degrees made them second best.

At the drop of a hat sixth formers saw areas like photography that really should only be one or two years in duration as the gateway to the newly hallowed university education – albeit in a technical subject that doesn’t give them the transferrable skills and intellectual rigour that employers associate with degrees in subjects like history or geography. Private schools also need to take some of the blame: it’d be a rare headmaster who tells parents that their child isn’t university material having taken £150,000 in fees over the past five years. Better a degree in photography, music journalism, etc, than no degree at all, or so their logic flows. 

The danger is that students are supposedly now paying for the bulk of their education. Fundamentally this is a good thing: America’s dominance of the top 100 universities is plainly and inescapably due to their system of fees – not my analysis, but that of Tony Blair in his autobiography, who (rightly) points out that when it comes to recruiting academic staff “those who paid top dollar got the best”.

Tuition fees also address the small matter of successive governments failing to fund universities properly. And as a Head of Sixth Form friend of mine pointed out, “if you’re not intelligent enough to realise that £9,000 a year to go to a top Russell Group university is a bargain, then you really shouldn’t be applying to those places in the first place”.

The scrum of blue chip firms recruiting on Britain’s top campuses hammers home the value of forking out for the best education the UK can offer, and the new fee levels will help ensure that graduates from UCL, Cambridge, etc, can expect their qualifications to stack up globally (with salaries to match) and help ensure our universities continue to churn out world leading research.

Incidentally, as someone who mentors students in two of South London’s most deprived schools, I was really pleased to hear from the teachers there that the new fees structure and bursary support is more favourable for those from less affluent backgrounds than the previous government’s scheme – which is exactly as it should be. Nevertheless I remain to be convinced that many of the wide-eyed UCAS applicants for photography and music journalism degrees will actually find that their three years of undergraduate study has transformed their employment prospects.

More importantly, will their studies enable them to repay much of the £18-£27k in tuition fees that they’ve taken on, full of enthusiasm for whatever creative A-level subject they dabbled in at school? Or will they find they’ve been sold a pup by institutions who are desperate to prop up their student rolls with courses of dubious value? It’s interesting to hear Pam Tatlow of the Million+ think-tank (representing many former polytechnics) describe this year’s small increase in university applications as a “recovery”, whereas the market behaviour from this year’s students seems to indicate that for some of the institutions Million+ represents the decrease in rolls of 50-60% could well be terminal. And while this plays out the Treasury’s exposure to the student debt it underwrites grows and grows – after all, the government pays for your education until you’re actually in a position to reimburse it.

So where does this leave my enthusiastic photography student? Higher student fees are here to stay – Mr Blair himself saying that “once introduced as a concept, there [is] no looking back”.

For some disciplines this must surely spell trouble for the idea of three year degrees. The higher end providers of vocational courses will flourish, but institutions without the cachet of the Slade and LCC may well have to rethink how they deliver education to increasingly savvy consumers. Photography, journalism, graphic design, etc. are hardly lucrative careers, so the American concept of shorter ‘associate’  degrees for some vocational and creative subjects seems very sensible: students avoid the £10-15k involved with a third year of study, and employers provide the final polish in the initial stages of paid employment.

My student wants to experience tertiary study, so understandably a single year course doesn’t appeal. I did a two-year photography diploma in New Zealand, and by the end of it I was desperate to finish and get stuck into winning clients and getting proper commissions, as well as avoid an expensive third year – the money saved being more than enough to buy a decent studio setup.

Why is it then that our creative universities stubbornly persist with courses that seem aimed at lining their own pockets and propping up a ill-conceived system? Sure, politicians and society at large need to take some responsibility for fostering the often dubious allure of ‘going to uni’, but there’s a horrible irony in institutions aimed at nurturing creativity being so painfully regimented and unoriginal in what they offer today’s young talent – and cheerfully milking them dry at the same time.

Matthew Plummer is a commercial photographer. Follow him on Twitter @mwyp

All those people went to private schools? Really? The Sutton Trust is better than this.

Nik Darlington 11.02am

What do you like to do to celebrate a big milestone, a birthday or anniversary? Throw a party?

Or compile a list of lots of important people, tot up which schools they went to, and dress it up as a bit of serious research to get into the papers?

Enter stage left, the Sutton Trust. To mark their fifteenth anniversary, the education charity has scoured the depths of Wikipedia to give Times (£)readers the knowledge that David Dimbleby attended Charterhouse, Andrew Rawnsley went to Rugby, and Ray Winstone went to a grammar school (when they still existed). It is also covered by the Daily Telegraph (next to the now-obligatory image of young Etonians in tails, as though that’s how EVERY public schoolboy looks) and doubtless by others.

The Times has happily obliged the Sutton Trust’s hard work by putting together a colourful illustration of photographs and bar charts. I’m sure the newspaper’s editor James Harding (St Paul’s and Cambridge), not to mention leading writers Giles Coren (Westminster and Oxford), Brian Glanville (another Carthusian) or Hugo Rifkind (Loretto and Cambridge), to name a few, would have approved.

Dr Christopher Ray, high master of Manchester Grammar School, wrote for the Telegraph last week about the “demonisation” of private schools, by politicians and the media class (many of whom benefited from the brilliant education many of those schools bestow).

We’ve come to the point where the most important aspect of the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s character (note: character) is that he is an Old Etonian, just like those other toffs David Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and the vast majority of the Cabinet (okay I made the last two up, but because any number of journalists still can’t be bothered to check that the Chancellor went to St Paul’s or only a small handful of ministers are OEs, it doesn’t really matter any more).

Surely the more interesting thing about the Rt Rev Justin Welby is that only recently he was an oil industry executive? No. He wore a waistcoat and tails to school forty years ago. Got to be more important. He probably eats swan and hates poor people.

What the Sutton Trust’s ‘research’ demonstrates is a failing of basic education. That so many leading lights in British industry, politics, the arts and religion attended private schools is proof that those schools are preparing their pupils for certain careers better than the vast majority of other schools. Not Haverstock, of course, don’t you know Tulisa from the X-Factor went there? And the Leader of the Opposition?

The Sutton Trust would do better concentrating on ways to make all schools better, rather than sneering in language to suggest that private schools are invidious. As a line of debate goes, it’s cheap and it’s been overdone to death.

I’ve no doubt that the Sutton Trust has done wonderful things for social mobility in its fifteen years, produced countless excellent and thoughtful reports, and contributed meaningfully to the advancement of education in this country. But it’s better than this.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

New charity to offer boarding school places to disadvantaged pupils - good, we need more of the same

Nik Darlington 11.26am

Boarding schools have many detractors. They also have many supporters. Singer James Blunt said being sent away to boarding school aged 7, “is as great an inspiration as any songwriter could have”. Actor Ruper Everett, on the other hand, said he went to boarding school aged 7, “and cried and cried”.

Each to their own.

The closest I got to writing songs was some ropey piano and guitar playing and producing an album for a band named after a rubefacient menthol sports spray. Life skills.

Yet I’m in the Blunt camp. Boarding school was a wonderful experience and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Coming from something of a different angle is former Labour education minister Lord Adonis in this morning’s Times (£):

"Boarding schools…offer a unique type of education - security, structure, pastoral care, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I know from my own experience that boarding schools can make all the difference to children who are in care or who are growing up in chaotic or floundering families."

Perhaps that is why it has always been the schooling of choice for the aristocracy.

Lord Adonis argues the virtues of a boarding school education need to be offered to a wider number of pupils, from all walks of life.

"But too few children who could benefit get the chance of a boarding education. There are only a few dozen state boarding schools and only a tiny number of private boarding schools, such as Christ’s Hospital, in Horsham, with charitable foundations able to pay the fees of large numbers of poorer students."

The Labour party spitefully abolished the Assisted Places Scheme in 1997, so denying an opportunity to thousands of children (80,000 participated in the scheme between 1980 and 1997).

Thankfully, numerous independent schools and charities are stepping in to offer bursaries. Lord Adonis praises Rugby School’s pioneering Arnold Foundation (I declare an interest as a committee member), which since its launch in 2003 has provided full bursaries to scores of youngsters. The aim is to have 10 per cent of Rugby School pupils supported via the Arnold Foundation (for boarders) or the Lawrence Sheriff Bequest (day pupils) within the next decade.

Lord Adonis also mentions a new charity launched today called SpringBoard, based on the Arnold Foundation, which will offer hundreds of boarding school places to disadvantaged pupils. SpringBoard hopes to be assisting 2,000 pupils within a decade.

The snobs of the education establishment will hate it, but ignore them. For many children who have not been born into privilege, and who otherwise see little future for themselves, a boarding school education could be the best thing that has ever happened to them. To deny them the chance is to deny potential, and organisations such as SpringBoard are to be applauded for offering it.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington