Thanks a million, Eton

If further proof were needed that ‘levelling up’ is a soundbite rather than a strategy, the proposal for a new cadre of elite sixth forms provides it. Mick Fletcher explains.

Trailed as one of the key measures in a programme to address 55 ‘education cold spots’, the aim is apparently “to ensure talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the highest standard of education this country offers”.

Since social disadvantage impacts on a child’s chances well before kindergarten, the sixth form stage may seem a little late to address it. But if putting some pupils on a pedestal counts as ‘levelling up’, logic has flown out of the window anyway.

The headline announcement in relation to new sixth forms concerns plans for new ‘Etons of the North’. Eton College is apparently working with Star Academies to develop new ‘elite selective sixth forms’ in Oldham, Middlesborough and Dudley (north seeming to mean north of Slough). According to the headmaster of Eton, selecting 240 pupils for an elite sixth form experience will, somewhat improbably, “raise standards for everybody”. Decades of research on the impact of grammar schools suggest he is wrong.

Grammar schools achieve good results simply by selecting the most able students.  While those selected may do a little better than otherwise might be the case, any gain is more than offset by poorer outcomes in surrounding schools. The net effect of selection at eleven-plus is clearly negative.

There is understandable concern among existing schools and colleges that the new elite sixth forms might do the same. They are unlikely to be reassured by the headmaster of Eton explaining that these ‘elite selective’ institutions will not simply “cream off the bright kids”. It’s hard to see quite how this Schrodinger’s sixth might work, being both selective and non-selective at one and the same time.

Those with a genuine concern to improve the performance of deprived regions will similarly not be reassured by the claims of one of the few supporters of the scheme among state school leaders, Alun Francis, Head of Oldham College. In his view the new elite sixth forms will cater for those who want to “move out [of the area] to move on” while colleges like his cater for those who will be left behind. Facilitating an escape route for the most able might be better described as levelling down.

There is, however, one good reason to be grateful to Eton. The school is planning to invest £1 million per year in each of the sixth forms it sponsors because it believes the funding provided for state pupils does not allow a decent standard of education.

 “The kind of provision we envisage is simply not possible under the current per-student funding provided by the government for 16 to 19 settings”, according to an Eton College source.

 We don’t need to be especially grateful for the cash. It’s some recompense for the absurdity that allows businesses devoted to serving the wealthy to claim the financial advantages of charitable status. We should, however, be grateful for the unequivocal confirmation that we short-change the great majority of our young people at the sixth form stage.

 It seldom hits the headlines, but the underfunding of state education is most extreme for those aged between 16 and 19. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), “Colleges and sixth forms have seen the largest falls in per-pupil funding of any sector over the past decade”. Despite increases announced by the Chancellor last autumn, the funding rate for this group of pupils in 2024/25 will still be 10 per cent lower than it was in 2010.

Astonishingly, the basic funding per pupil in English sixth forms and colleges is even less than it is for pupils in the lower school. The lack of resource explains why our young people typically receive 15 or 16 hours teaching per week at this stage, compared with 25 hours in most comparable countries and 30 in places like Shanghai or Singapore. It is a national disgrace.

Government support for the Eton initiative implicitly accepts the deficiencies in the state system. Its response however, as is so often the case, is to divide, to segregate and to impose a hierarchy. It is, apparently, important that “talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds” have access to education of the highest quality. It is not, it seems, for everyone else.

To shower resources on the few, while conspicuously neglecting the needs of the majority, is an unforgiveable policy. To do so under the banner of ‘levelling up’ compounds the offence.

The young people of this country need serious investment by a serious government, not just headline-grabbing gimmicks that threaten to make things worse.