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  • Writer's pictureHarry Stratton

Five Easy Fixes in Education

The best higher education policy for the next Labour government would be a national education service, providing free lifelong learning from the cradle to the grave. Every pound spent on national education would be a pound towards a richer and fairer Britain. It would also be more than repaid, in economic growth and reductions in crime and unemployment as Britain transitions to a high-skilled service economy. And in the longer term, a national education service could build the same degree of public loyalty and trust as the NHS – meaning that, as with the NHS, even Tories who tried to strangle it in the cradle would show up to its birthday parties.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party currently has limited appetite for transformative spending projects – even ones which generate colossal returns on investment. So here are five easier fixes in education for a more prosperous and equal Britain.

1. Get rid of catchment areas for schools

In London, the average price of a home in an “Outstanding” catchment area is £654,289. That’s 26% more than the capital average of £521,146. The different is effectively a £10,000 annual school fee for those who can afford to pay it. But it’s a school fee that doesn’t even go towards the child’s education, but rather into the pockets of property developers and landowners. It means that the state education system’s best resources go to those who can afford to pay the most – compounding their existing advantages in life.

Every school has limited places, which means not every student can go to their first choice of school. But as a means of allocating limited places, catchment areas are unfair and inefficient. Instead, parents should be allowed to enter into school lotteries for places at any school they are willing to travel to – even if that means crossing catchment boundaries. The results of the lottery are random – but they are a fair form of randomness that does not reflect pre-existing advantage.

2. Hold A level exams earlier, so real results can be used for university admissions

The COVID pandemic exposed the unreliability and unfairness of so-called “predicted” grades, which seemed to more closely reflect stereotypes about particular students and their schools than their actual academic ability. But literally for reasons of timing, British university offers are usually made before students have their actual A level results, on the basis of those same predicted grades.

It is pointlessly cruel to put students through the stress of high-stakes final exams, but then discard the products of their hard work and the valuable data it produces. No other country does university admissions this way. It is the simple product of a mismatch between the timing of A level exams and the university admissions process – a mismatch long overdue for correction.

3. Stop using interviews for university admissions

“Holistic admissions” involve universities considering the “whole person” through interviews and extra-curriculars, not just grades. They have a wholesome name but an ugly history – Harvard’s “holistic admissions” were specifically instituted in the 1920s to reduce the number of minorities being admitted on the strength of their test scores.

Today, the reasons offered are different, but the results are similar. The subjective, impressionistic nature of interviews allows the interviewers’ unconscious biases about who does and does not belong at university to creep in. Students with old Etonian polish, or the resources and free time to pursue diverse extracurricular activities, are unfairly advantaged over those who grew up in less privileged circumstances, or who had to work to support themselves and their families through high school.

That’s not to say that test results don’t carry with them their own biases, reflecting different resources available to develop students’ academic abilities. But they are, at least, attempting to measure the right thing. A student’s lacrosse scores say nothing about their academic ability. And demographic differences in test scores are measurable, and therefore correctable, in a way that interview results aren’t.

4. Abolish visa fees and the NHS immigration surcharge for international academics and students

Someday, borders will be history – and our great-grandchildren will wonder what all the fuss was about over some lines on a map. But the UK’s immigration policy’s peak incoherence comes when we consider students and academics trying to come to the UK.

On the one hand, the government says it is trying to attract the best and brightest to build world-beating universities, and a higher education sector that is the future of the UK’s place in the global economy. But on the other, it socks academics and students with an NHS immigration surcharge of up to £624 a year, on top of visa application fees of up to £1,423 that largely go to private companies.

It’s a ridiculous system that forces international academics and students to pay for the NHS twice – once in income tax and VAT, and a second time in surcharges for being born on the wrong side of a line on a map. It means that those least likely to use NHS services – young, healthy people here temporarily – are charged the most for them. And it is fundamentally a false economy – getting rid of it and welcoming more students would mean more in student fees, and lifelong tax revenue from those that decide to stay.

5. End mandatory retirement ages for academics

The French fight to preserve a decent retirement age is not just a fight for the right to a well-earned break, but for a time of life where people themselves, rather than capital, are free to decide how to spend their time – to explore their existing passions and discover new ones. But for academics who do wish to keep working, mandatory retirement ages can be a death sentence for their life’s work – forcing them out in their mid-sixties at what would otherwise be the peak of their careers.

An Employment Tribunal has already found that this practice can amount to straightforward age discrimination. Its effect is a brain drain of academics to countries with more worker-friendly retirement rules, and a liability for university pension schemes to pay academics who want nothing more than to continue earning.

These five easy fixes are no substitute for a comprehensive national education service. But they are ways to break through current bottlenecks, and make the most of the education system Britain does have.

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