The Death of Social Mobility: COVID-19 didn’t simply create educational inequality, it exposed it.

Rosie McCann is a third year History student at KCL, who grew up in the North West of England. She is passionate about social mobility and representation in higher education. Rosie also serves as UK Politics & Brexit Current Events Reporter of The Clandestine.

[Featured Image: Protesters against the A-level results yelling and holding a sign saying “Give us fair grades, not broken futures”. Source.]

With the cancellation of final year exams for GCSE and A-Level students across the United Kingdom, academic inequalities across class lines became increasingly prevalent. The initial government solution to the lack of assessment nationwide was to allow teachers submit estimated grades for students based on their previous performance. These grades were then moderated by an algorithm which took into consideration the school and its area. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a staggering 40% of results were lowered by at least one grade.

In response to collective outrage from both the students and the wider public, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson u-turned on the use of the algorithm to moderate A-Level results. English student’s results would now be entirely dependent on teacher awarded grades. Yet, despite the government’s attempted rectification of their misguided policy on exam results, there are still issues to resolve. What the initial policy revealed, was deeply ingrained inequality and class biases which need to be addressed.

The moderation algorithm highlighted deep disparities in the education system, rooted in social class. It was estimated that 85% of low socio-economic status students; those on free school meals, or from low ‘ACORN’ areas, were predicted to achieve a C grade or above at A-Level. However, the government system led to only 76.4% achieving this – decreasing by over 10%. Comparatively, wealthy students from privileged backgrounds had more luck. A whopping 81% were given C grades and higher. When private education is also considered, the figures are even more staggering. A grade results were up by 4.7% in private schools, compared to 0.3% in sixth form colleges. UpReach, a prominent social mobility charity, found that subjects taken by private schools were graded at a much higher level than those typically taken by working-class students. For example, students receiving an A* in Latin or Classics increased by 10.4%.

What these statistics reveal is entrenched discrimination towards not only comprehensive schools, but also students who attend them. This is not news to me, reader. My own experiences as a free school meals student from an industrial town in the North West of England also offer a shocking indictment on both the government, and education system’s internal biases. A Russell Group applicant from a working-class background, not only did I have to work twice as hard to get where I am, I also felt an immense level of pressure to prove myself to those who doubted my academic talents over the years. For example, a teacher who told me I would never amount to anything in life, another who stated I was more likely to fail because of my class background, and a student in the University College Oxford dining hall in interview week who stated that ‘poor’ students can get into Oxford even if they fail all their A Levels because admissions tutors favour them. Ah, how wrong they were. I found myself arguing with my interviewer about social mobility that very same day, and felt I was screaming into a void that didn’t recognise the ingrained disadvantages certain students face in the higher education sphere.

This was well over 2 years ago, but it doesn’t seem to be getting much better for students who share my background and experiences. With some further education colleges in England reporting that more than 50% of their grades had been adjusted downwards by the government’s dreadful algorithm, it is unsurprising that two university officials stated that the September 2020’s intake is set to be their ‘poshest cohort’ yet.

As previously mentioned, these inequalities are not simply the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sutton Trust recently published a report, revealing that the school a child attends makes a difference of between 10 and 20% between their academic results. The social gap in education therefore is continually widening between students, and it’s undeniable that the causes are rooted in economic disparities. Social mobility initiatives, admission policies and surface level solutions to this vast problem can only do so much. Ensuring children have access to books, facilities and tutoring is invaluable to their success. A lot of government officials take for granted that some children can’t access a library as their parents don’t drive, have no books in the house as their parents don’t read, and no one to help them with homework past the age of 10, let alone guide them through the university application process.

Thus, it is important to close the attainment gap as early as possible in a child’s academic journey. Lockdown revealed an immense injustice in both school funding and capabilities. It’s been noted that children in private schools kept the closest contact with teachers, receiving lessons, frequently marked homework and more importantly, their resources were bought with three times more funding than the average school. Compare this with a primary head in Southwark who told the Guardian that she spent the entirety of lockdown organising food parcels for hungry families and raising money for laptops and Wi-Fi that Gavin Williamson promised but never delivered. Solving early years academic disparities will allow for strong progression in later life and would make a revealing difference in the Higher Education sector too.

What COVID-19 has revealed is not just the government’s incompetency at dealing with difficult issues within the education sector. It has also revealed the educational inequality that the U.K faces and will continue to face without serious intervention.

First, the government needs to invest in early years support for disadvantaged students in deprived areas. Areas like Wigan, Bolton and Gateshead need more council funding to ensure that all children can access libraries, tutoring, and support in their academic journey from the age of 4 onwards. Furthermore, hungry children cannot be expected to learn at their full potential. At the start of 2020, a third of children in the UK were trapped in poverty. How can 4.2 million of our children pay attention in class, and dedicate time to their studies when they may be more concerned about going without electricity, food, or clothes? Just a reminder – we live in the fifth richest country in the world. To fix educational disparity, it is paramount we address economic disparity first.

Next, outreach schemes should be expanded. Certain universities do good work, with the Sutton Trust partnering with Research Intensive Universities every year to deliver a summer school so that students from low-income backgrounds have an insight into University life, the admissions process and their desired undergraduate subject. Oxford provides many outreach schemes, such as UNIQ, and the Pembroke Humanities Outreach week – both of which I attended and attribute to my confidence in academia and my knowledge of university life as a first-generation student. And these schemes shouldn’t end with the University application process. They need to continue throughout student’s university years, to prevent high dropout rates, aid their funding, and provide a listening ear when they feel alienated by those around them who come from wealth and privilege.

It’s undeniable that Universities themselves have made good progression in terms of outreach. Reduced offers for low income students, bursaries and outreach has gone a long way. But, it’s up to the government to ensure it is properly implemented across all Universities, not just the ones who take it upon themselves to improve their admissions statistics. It is also up to the government to create an environment whereby children are supported in their academic progression from cradle to grave, to ensure the attainment gap does not continually worsen until students reach sixth form and can’t compete with their wealthier peers.

So, thank you Gavin Williamson for retreating on your terribly discriminatory algorithm that implies working class students from low income areas cannot achieve academic brilliance. The gesture is appreciated. Social mobility is restored (Ha!). However, the educational inequality within this country runs much deeper than a flawed response to problems that arose during a global pandemic. More action is required. Working class students across the country cannot be let down again.

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