Robbed of their schooling and forced into the fiercest of races for university places, this is surely the Covid generation’s unluckiest student cohort. In years to come the bruised and battle-hardened class of 2023 will always carry with them a sense of intergenerational injustice – whatever success most will go on to make of their lives. What made this summer’s wait for A-level results so nerve-shredding was the worst kept secret in education: the generous grade boundaries that softened the blow for previous victims of the Covid school closures would be cruelly removed for this, the biggest wave of university hopefuls in living memory.
England’s 2023 school leavers have every right to feel unfairly treated. Students from just across the Welsh or Scottish borders may have earned the same exam marks but have benefited from higher grades that can make all the difference in the great scramble for coveted degree places. One missed opportunity can change a life. Once more, the adults in charge have failed our younger generation. In the post-pandemic era, the dream that education could somehow act as the great social leveller seems a distant, laughable fantasy.
The biggest victims, however, are the young people on the wrong side of an increasingly unequal education arms race. National examination results lay bare the societal and educational inequalities that have shaped young lives over their entire lifetimes. We should never call any young people disadvantaged; they are simply under-resourced. It is not their fault that they lack the sharp-elbowed parents able to navigate a bafflingly complex university admission system and advocate for their children in the frantic rush of clearing. They aren’t to blame for missing out on all the extra tutoring and home support provided during the turmoil of the Covid years.
Sadly, for education’s have-nots, the dials are all pointing in the wrong direction. The stark academic gap between private and state schools is now wider than it was before the pandemic. Just under half of A-level entries (47.4%) in the elite fee-charging sector in 2023 were graded A* and A grades, compared with just 22% in the state sector. For all the talk of levelling up, geographical divides have also widened: students in London and the south-east have pulled further away from their peers in the rest of England when it comes to securing highest grades. Yes, more pupils on free school meals have entered higher education in 2023; but this is merely a product of the rising tide of child poverty pulling more students into hardship – hardly something to celebrate.
This week’s GCSE results, I’m afraid, will bring further ill tidings. About a third of teenagers will have failed to secure the basics in their English and maths exams after 12 years of schooling – a statistic that has scarred the education system for decades. This summer’s results are set against the arguably the greatest worry of all: hundreds of thousands of younger pupils persistently absent from the classroom. This doesn’t bode well for the future.
In any other era, these damning figures might constitute a national crisis. Yet political debate on education remains high on rhetoric and frustratingly low on firm financial commitments. It’s great to hear talk about smashing class ceilings, and boosting maths or speaking skills. But these promises are empty without vows to invest the extra billions now needed to improve our ailing education system. At the height of the pandemic the government’s own education commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, was forced to resign after his £15bn recovery plan to get children back on course was rejected by the government. Funding for the government’s national tutoring programme, meanwhile, has all but dried up. We also need an urgent review of how to create sustainable funding for our universities.
In truth, we were already heading for a reckoning long before the pandemic. A perfect storm of growing inequalities, economic downturns, and the harsh winds of globalisation and technological automation has created a growing sense that the current model of capitalism is broken. The problem for politicians is that the promise that anyone can make it through education is essential to defend a world of ever-starker inequalities. Trickle-down economics relies on several assumptions. And a big one is that anyone can get the good education needed to stand a fair chance of succeeding in life.
Other countries have recognised this undeniable truth. The best education performers on the international stage have made long-term investments to properly support teachers and a growing army of welfare workers. Levelling the playing field of learning requires a combined effort inside and outside schools – and support from cradle to graduation. There is also growing recognition that there is more to developing human potential than just preparing for narrow academic tests.
Improving social justice, moreover, is seen not simply as a matter of catapulting a fortunate few into elite universities, but a much broader challenge of enabling people to lead decent lives whatever they happen to do and wherever they happen to come from. But our political leaders need to recognise that these grand aims always come at a price: they need to put their money where their mouths are and give our younger generations the fairer and brighter future they deserve.
Lee Elliot Major is professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter. His latest book, Equity in Education, is published this autumn