Let me introduce myself. My name is Nick Dennis and I’m a Deputy Head at an independent school. I am a governor of a Free School in London. I am also black, from Hackney and the first person in my family to study A Levels, go to university and complete a degree (I ended up doing three).
This is not a ‘sob story’ or an inspirational tale about overcoming adversity.
I’m telling you this because today, the Prime Minister David Cameron wrote a piece about the need for equality in Britain and I’m wondering whether he truly understands the extent of the problem he is trying to address. From where I’m standing his solutions seem pretty weak.
In today’s Sunday Times, Cameron stated that he wanted to reduce inequality in Britain.
But when you look more under the surface, it’s clear that we’ve still got some distance to travel to achieve the One Nation ideal. Consider this: if you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying in a top university. Only one in 10 of the poorest white boys go into higher education at all. There are no black generals in our armed forces and just 4% of chief executives in the FTSE 100 are from ethnic minorities.
As Trevor Phillips stated in the same paper, this is a watershed moment. Unfortunately, the proposed solutions do not match the written ambition.
The Prime Minister talks of addressing the problem in two ways. The first is raising aspirations. There is evidence that this helps (the ‘Nudge’ unit have produced some interesting research here), but it is not a solution. When material concerns such as high tuition fees/ reduced funding for state schools to provide education opportunities are obstacles, the financial package around education has to be addressed.
As a teenager living in Hackney during the riots in the 1980s and attending a comprehensive school in the Bethnal Green, university seemed like something other people did. It was somewhere I wanted to go, but at that point I – along with many of my classmates – had no way of knowing how to get there. In the end I was fortunate. During my GCSEs I got to spend a week at a university as part of a widening access programme. It opened my eyes to something I did not really think was possible. Later, I was able to study a course where my fees and living were subsidised by the state but even then, it was a worry. Student loans were being introduced and as I worked out how much I would have to pay back over a period of time, it seemed almost impossible. For current students facing a larger debt without the family resources to support their studies, what incentive is there? The effects of debt on decision-making have been clear for a while but do not seem to figure in the proposed solution.
Beyond individual choices, there are financial issues that reduce the ability for state schools to provide the great education they want to the students walking through their doors. Recruitment is a major problem because the wage is not enough to attract people in London due to high rents and travel costs. Teacher training, once the preserve of HE, has now moved to schools but without the budget or time increase you might expect. My experience in the independent sector shows that many schools have the capacity to offer housing with low rents and extensive training for their staff. If we really want to ensure that state schools can do a great job in helping to create the new equal society, a more detailed look at finance is needed.
Cameron’s second solution is to tackle discrimination in all its forms.
I don’t care whether it’s over, unconscious or institutional – we’ve got to stamp it out. We don’t need politically correct, contrived and unfair solutions. Quota’s don’t fix the underlying problems. To succeed, we must be far more demanding of our institutions, and be relentless in the pursuit of creative answers.
One particular target in the fight for inequality are universities. Cameron highlights that Oxford accepted only 27 black men and women out of 2,500 undergraduates. Cambridge don’t have a great success rate on this either. His solution is to make sure universities publish data on applied for and offers given. More detail will help (it is partly done already by Oxford and Cambridge) but it does not go far enough. The cuts that the government have made to HE funding has reduced the capacity for widening participation schemes to bring in more students from diverse backgrounds. Ironically, what it has also done is reinforce the commitment of many academics to include as many students from diverse backgrounds as possible (disclosure: my wife is an academic and this is a hot topic of conversation in at least one Russell Group university). Alumni funding campaigns have been increased in the hope of accruing the money to fund the great work many institutions are already doing. But both of these have happened in spite of the government, rather than because of it.
Finally, the PM issues the following challenge:
Ask yourselves: are you going the extra mile to really show people that yours can be a place for everyone, regardless of their background?
This is a very interesting question to ask and it is one area the government has a terrible record in. The data published by the Department for Education clearly shows the dearth of black head teachers and the number has not risen dramatically over the last few years. Where programmes exist, it is usually individuals like Dave Hermitt who take the lead. If the government cannot make dramatic changes, then it really is up to other institutions and individuals to pitch in.
Based on the above, I would like to ask the Prime Minister, is this really the extra mile? Because if it is, we are in trouble and the One Nation he hopes to create will remain an unfulfilled promise. In my view, this is just a first step. The vision is enticing but the steps to get us there demand a more reasoned, subtle and deep appreciation of the problem. It also requires genuine leadership and I look forward to seeing what the Prime Minister does next.