Education. It’s one of the most significant dividing lines in politics. And Britain’s vote for Brexit threw full light on the worsening education divide that cleaves our society. Not every Leaver is poorly-educated, of course. About one in four of Britain’s university graduates opted to leave the EU, although curiously we haven’t heard much about them since the referendum. But, statistically speaking, if you have a lower level of formal education, then you were far more likely than your better-educated counterparts to have voted to radically shake up the existing settlement.
As the National Centre for Social Research points out, the average level of support for leaving the EU among degree-holders was just 26%. This compares to 50% among those with A-levels, 61% among those with O-levels or GCSEs, and a striking 78% among those with no qualifications. Almost every study of the Brexit vote since has confirmed that low formal educational attainment is a major predictor of whether or not somebody backs Brexit, just as it is a major predictor of whether or not people vote for populist, nationalist or Eurosceptic parties elsewhere in the world.
These voters have routinely been dismissed as ignorant, or as the ‘losers’ of globalisation. But they actually had very good reason to want to radically shake up the social settlement. Many were keenly aware that both they and their communities were getting a rotten deal. And this is especially true when it comes to the one thing that has a bigger impact on life outcomes than almost everything else: education.
When we explored the role of educational divides in support for Brexit with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we found that — often regardless of their own level of education — people were significantly more likely to back Brexit in communities that were ‘low-skilled’, where there were fewer graduates and less opportunities for them to get ahead. It is in these areas where people face what we call a ‘double whammy’: while people find themselves falling behind because of their own lack of formal education, this disadvantage is then compounded by a general lack of educational opportunity in their area.
Indeed, had Britain explored the state of educational inequality before the referendum, then the country might not have been surprised by the result. As the Commission on Inequality in Education has shown, during the 30 years before Britain voted for Brexit, regional inequalities in education were not only strong but had been worsening. Furthermore, these inequalities were often sharper than those seen in many other advanced nations, while poorer countries such as Latvia were actually doing better than Britain at reducing them.
It is areas that ended up voting for Brexit in the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the Midlands and Wales that were the hardest hit by education inequality. We’ve talked endlessly about how voters in these pro-Brexit regions were ‘misled’ by politicians or ‘manipulated’ by social media while ignoring the fact that they are on the receiving end of an increasingly inegalitarian education system.
Schools in Leave areas are more likely to have larger numbers of low-performing students, to have fewer experienced and qualified teachers, to suffer from high rates of teacher turnover and to lag behind London and the South East on a range of other measures. As the Education Policy Institute notes, in some areas of London – where only 40% of people voted Leave – nearly 70% of available secondary school places are in high-quality schools. The comparable figures in Blackpool, where 68% voted Leave, or Hartlepool, where 70% voted Leave, were zero.
Most reports estimate that these inequalities will get worse not better. David Laws notes that while 16 of the 20 local authorities with the biggest increases in access to high-performing school places were in London, all of the areas that struggled with the biggest declines in access to these coveted schools were outside the capital, in typically pro-Brexit areas such as Barnsley, Blackpool, Hartlepool, Knowsley, Redcar and Middlesbrough. Most of these Brexit towns do not have a university and are usually far removed from one.
But having a university in all these towns should not necessarily be the end goal. Britain needs to be doing a lot more to increase the value and status of non-university forms of education. As one observer recently pointed out, if you combine teaching grants, tuition fee subsidies and research grants, then public spending on higher education is around £17 billion a year, whereas spending on core adult skills fell by over 40% between 2009 and 2015, and is now only £1.5 billion. It seems obvious that one thing we should have done immediately in the shadow of the referendum was to start spending a lot more money on developing vocational education and training in these areas, as well as developing an apprenticeship scheme that actually works.
But it is also true that when it comes to education many of these areas do not offer much in place of a university. As one analyst notes, towns that saw a strong vote to leave were also “more likely to be home to FE colleges whose public funding has been slashed since 2010”.
Given all this, then, why are we spending £50 billion on a high-speed railway, the effects of which are contested, when we could be investing in improving further technical and vocational training, or the quality of early-years education, in left behind communities, which we know will pay dividends in the long term?
Why not take this money and a greater share of other pots going to London and the South East and use it, instead, to follow the advice of the recent Commission on Inequality in Education by establishing a new fund for schools in disadvantaged areas. Such funding could be used to help teachers buy homes (which means they stick around for longer) or support a national roll-out of after-school family literacy classes in left behind towns. Improving teacher training and retention, and bolstering parental engagement, are two things that are routinely identified by experts as being key to tackling educational inequality.
Another longer-term option would be to learn more from countries like Finland, which is routinely flagged as a model of best practice in the education world. Even though some of the small nation’s metrics have fallen a little in recent years, it remains a top-performer. In sharp contrast to our own system, Finland is philosophically opposed to private schools, has universal pre-school education until the age of seven and subjects children to less standardised testing, putting a stronger emphasis on kids being … um … kids.
Students receive little homework and during the critical early-years period far more effort is focused on personal rather than academic development. There is also a strong focus on developing socially mixed classrooms, by adapting catchment areas to ensure that the intakes are socially diverse — something that will be increasingly key to tackling divides between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. And teaching training is much more rigorous: you can’t teach without a Master’s degree and most teachers train for around six years, including more detailed training in pedagogical research.
Crucially, around eight in 10 teachers then continue to undertake professional development and many are required to complete a residency program, which in theory could be adapted so that more highly-trained teachers in the UK have to complete mandatory work experience roll-outs in more disadvantaged towns.
It surprises me that there haven’t been far louder calls for a debate about how to fix our obviously broken social and economic settlement. The damage was exposed by the referendum back in 2016 and inequality in our education system is a root cause. If one by-product of our never-ending and often tortuous Brexit deliberations is that we all begin to think harder about how to remedy these glaring inequalities then perhaps it was worthwhile after all.