In Depth

Instant Opinion: ‘England’s education system rewards the rich’

Your guide to the best columns and commentary on Tuesday 18 August

The Week’s daily round-up highlights the five best opinion pieces from across the British and international media, with excerpts from each.

1. Frances Ryan in The Guardian

on Britain’s two-tiered approach to schools

The real problem is that England’s education system rewards the rich

“In the year before the pandemic, the Sutton Trust found independent school pupils were seven times more likely to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge than those in non-selective state schools, and more than twice as likely to take a place at Russell Group institutions. In 2018, another study found almost half of ‘clever but disadvantaged’ students failed to secure top GCSE grades. Just 52% of the disadvantaged high achievers at primary school gained at least five A* and A grades in England, compared with 72% of their wealthier, equally clever, peers. Far from being wrong, the infamous algorithm in many ways succeeded in replicating the socio-economic bias that has plagued the education system for centuries. Or to put it another way: the educational inequality laid bare by the government’s incompetence is not a shock. It is business as usual.”

2. Stephen Bush in The Times

on flawed data and a lack of clarity

Algorithms are here to stay but ministers must understand them

“The mess that both [Scotland and England’s] governments have found themselves in is down in part to an old saying from the world of finance: garbage in, garbage out. Your algorithm is only as good as the information you feed into it and, because in both England and Scotland students now only sit standardised tests at 16 and 18, reliable data to allow the exams watchdog to distinguish accurately between students is in short supply. The watchdog instead had to set results using information about previous years. This is a lot like trying to replicate the delayed Tokyo Olympics by putting in the results of the Beijing, London and Rio contests into a computer... Why should one British athlete’s 2008 stumble bring another down in 2020? That’s part of what makes people so angry about this year’s results: the only people not to have directly shaped the destiny of this generation of school leavers are the children themselves.”

3. Alastair Campbell, former director of communications to Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, in The Independent

on a government in over its head

From exams to coronavirus, it’s clear our government is not up to the task – we should all be very angry

“It is hard to overstate, whether on competence or values, the difference between the [British and German] governments. But frankly, you could compare the UK government with any EU country and find that on virtually every aspect of the Covid-19 crisis, Johnson and his team of second-rate ministers (I am being generous) have handled it worse. He is not in the same league as a Merkel or a Macron. When Der Spiegel wrote recently about Johnson, they did so in a piece headlined, ‘The four leaders of the infected world’, referring to Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Johnson. That is the depth to which he and his populism have taken us. What Brexit and Covid-19 have shown, what the exams farce/fiasco/shambles is showing, is that government requires more than a propaganda factory spewing out three-word slogans.”

4. Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph

on civilised discussion

No Twitter mobs, just intelligent debate: the time is ripe for the return of After Dark

“Public discourse in Britain, as in much of what we call the ‘free world’, is in a pretty shocking state. This is partly because of steadily lower and more partisan standards of education, particularly in the humanities, which prevent people from learning how to argue rationally and in a civilised way. It is also partly because of social media, which operates a form of mob rule over those misguided enough to take it seriously, and in which a dictatorial consensus is imposed about what subjects are or are not fit for discussion – thus pre-judging the outcome of those discussions. But it is also because one of the most influential arms of the media, television, has long since run up the white flag on intelligent discussion programmes, in which the public were not only invited to watch thoughtful and intelligent people having thoughtful and intelligent conversations, but could perhaps learn some of the skills of discourse from watching them in action.”

5. Frank Bruni in The New York Times

on a vital US election

Michelle Obama Showed Us Why These Democrats Are Our Last Best Hope

“Never in my 55 years has the Democrats’ success mattered more for the welfare, the sanity — the future — of these United States than now, because never has the other fork in the road been a Republican president as profoundly amoral, fundamentally corrupt and flatly incompetent as the one seeking four more years. Donald Trump has made clear that he’s willing to steal this election from Joe Biden if that’s the only way to ‘win.’ He has in fact commenced that heist. He’s ready to smash all faith in our institutions and all pride in our democratic system and fashion a throne amid the wreckage. And he has a shockingly large number of accomplices — including, to date, most of the Republicans in Congress — who are cheering him on or biting their tongues to the point of hemorrhage. In the context of that, what I saw on Monday night wasn’t something to be parsed or graded. It was something to rush toward and relish: a buffet for the starving. It was salvation.”

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