Nick Clegg’s speech to launch the Commission on Inequality in Education

Speech by Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP to launch the Social Market Foundation’s Commission on Inequality in Education on 12 January 2016. Check against delivery.

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Good morning – and thank you all for coming.

And thank you in particular to Emran Mian and his team at the Social Market Foundation who have made this all possible.

When Emran approached me several months ago and asked if I wanted to be involved in a project looking at ways to tackle inequality in education and its impact on social mobility, he was pushing at an open door.

This is an issue very close to my heart – as it is for many of you in this room today who have done such important work in this area.

Reducing inequality in education is a cause that I have pursued more or less my entire political career.

As a liberal, I believe that every child should have the same opportunity to get ahead in life, no matter where they are born; how wealthy their parents are; or what colour their skin is.

But for years we have known that the life chances of children in Britain are dictated in large part by the economic circumstances of their parents.

The wealthier mum and dad were, the more likely a child was to succeed.

And the poorer the family, the less likely that a child would be able to reach their potential, regardless of their talent, ability or intellect.

Nearly a decade and a half ago, I travelled to Denmark, Holland and Sweden to visit a number of schools and see for myself how different approaches to education could reduce inequality and improve social mobility.

After that trip I co-authored a pamphlet with Richard Grayson calling for extra investment in schools targeted at the poorest children, regardless of where in the country they lived, to be used by head teachers in whatever way they saw fit as long as it helped those pupils to keep up with their better off classmates.

That policy, the Pupil Premium, became government policy in 2010 when the coalition was formed. The extra funding rose to £2.5 billion a year and has paid for breakfast clubs and one to one tuition; for extra staff and equipment; and for outreach programmes to help engage parents.

It gave schools more than just the money to act – it gave them the incentive to focus on poorer pupils, backed up by Ofsted accountability.

And it has made a tangible difference.

In my time as Deputy Prime Minister, I travelled to schools all over the country, talking to teachers and pupils and seeing first hand the difference that the extra funding was making to the lives of those children.

That’s why one of my proudest days in government was late in 2014 when the latest primary school results were published. They showed children from the poorest backgrounds getting their best ever results and the gap between them and their better off classmates narrowing.

But even as the gap between richer and poorer pupils in primary schools begins to close, progress in secondary schools has been far slower, showing that there is still a long way to go yet.

Working alongside David Laws, whose commitment, determination and inexhaustible effort really drove this agenda in government, the Pupil Premium was just one of a slate of policies we introduced to try and help children and young people from poorer backgrounds to reach their potential.

We increased the amount of free early years education available to all three-and-four-year-olds, and introduced it for the first time to two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Free school meals were provided for the first time for all infants in primary schools;

Nearly half a million employment and training opportunities for 18 to 24 year-olds were provided through the £1bn Youth Contract;

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission was established, under the excellent chairmanship of Alan Milburn;

And fair and open recruitment and wider access to the professions was promoted through the Business Compact.

When Richard Grayson and I published that pamphlet in 2002, the debate in education – among politicians at least – was mostly focused on structural changes.

Were academies a good thing or not? How much autonomy should head teachers have? What powers should be retained by local authorities? What sort of label should be put on the sign at the school gate?

Socio-economic inequality, and its impact on the life chances of our children, was not at the forefront of the political debate and often remained an implicit, rather than explicit, objective of these structural reforms.

But we have come an awful long way since then. Today there is a broad, open consensus between political parties that we should be seeking to close the gap between the performance of disadvantaged children and their better of classmates.

The fact that poorer children are less likely to succeed is scandalous enough – and it is something that many people have sought to address in many ways over many years, as I did during my time in Government too.

But – thanks to the work of the Social Market Foundation and others – we are now seeing a far more complex, and in many ways more worrying, picture in our country.

By focusing strictly on socio economic inequality, policymakers like myself have been pre-occupied with just one part of the problem.

What is now becoming clear is that inequality in education comes in many shapes and sizes.

It is not just the relative wealth of parents that holds large numbers of bright kids back: it is postcode inequality too.

What part of the country a child grows up in has a real impact on their life chances.

The SMF analysed how well children aged eleven performed over three generations – those born in 1958, 1970 and 2000 – using verbal reasoning tests which could be compared accurately across all three groups.

For the youngest group – those who are in secondary school today – there were stark differences in performance in different regions.

Those living in London, the South East and the North West had the highest proportion getting high scores.

Whereas those living in the North East, Yorkshire and the West Midlands had the highest proportions getting poor scores.

We may live on a small island – but which corner of it our children call home makes a huge difference to their life chances too.

And it is not just the region that matters.

Other recent studies have shown that schools in seaside towns, for example, are struggling compared to those elsewhere in the country.

The good news is that it is possible for schools to buck the trend.

Whereas we used to think of ‘the inner cities’ as places where children generally struggled, in recent years we have seen a dramatic improvement in the performance of children in inner city London and Birmingham.

Take, for example, the King Solomon Academy in Paddington. Despite just over half its pupils being eligible for free school meals it has achieved incredible results, with more than 90 per cent of its pupils getting five GCSEs at grade C or above, including English and Maths.

However, the fact that the success of children in London and Birmingham is not replicated in other major cities is another sign that the problems of inequality are complex and unevenly spread.

Postcode inequality is an issue which requires much more work in order to fully understand – and that is the work this commission will be doing.

We will compare the performance of schools in different areas – built up urban areas versus isolated communities for example – and also compare high-achieving schools with under-performing ones in similar areas.

We need to find out what it is that makes the difference in these schools and where innovative thinking and best practice can be identified and applied to other places.

But these geographical disparities are far from the only trends that the research by the Social Market Foundation and others have found.

Among children born in 1970, boys were already performing a little bit behind girls. That difference has become much starker in the years since.

Girls born in 1998 outperform the boys by almost 12%. That’s 12 more girls per 100 pupils who are getting five or more good GCSEs.

The difference in the performance of rich and poor pupils has been pretty marked in our country for a long time. Among those born in 1958, coming from one of the most deprived areas in the country meant your chances of getting five good O-Levels was only 16%. Wealthier children were more than twice as likely to achieve that standard.

A generation later, the gap had grown to more than double.

Later again, among kids born in 1990, the performance of those in the most deprived areas improved. Almost 45% got five or more good GCSEs. But in richer areas, more than 80% are hitting that mark.

In other words, even as performance amongst poorer children improved, the gap between them and more affluent children persisted.

But it is not all bad news. Change can happen. Take, for example, the case of children from Asian backgrounds.

Those born in 1970 were underperforming the national average at age 16 by 13%. In other words, 13 fewer children out of every 100 were getting 5 or more good O-Levels.

This has now changed dramatically. Looking at those born in 1998, who took their GCSEs last year, pupils of an Indian or Chinese background now outperform the national average by a similar margin.

Children from Bangladeshi and Black African families are also above the average. And children from a Pakistani background are catching up too.

Yet, despite these shards of light, it is clear that Britain is a starkly unequal country.

It is a damning indictment of our society that a child born today stands less chance of realising their potential if they are born in a different part of our country to another child.

And it is a challenge to policymakers – myself included – who have spent their careers trying to break down one type of barrier only to find that there are many more than we had anticipated.

Like pass the parcel, you tear away one layer of wrapping paper only to find another underneath.

Of course, whilst the focus of this commission’s work is inequality, no-one is suggesting that every child who goes through the education system will do equally well – people differ naturally in their abilities and interests. Complete equality of outcome is impractical and implausible.

However, inequality of opportunity – rather than outcome – is an entirely different matter.  None of us can accept, surely, that a child should do worse than their peers simply because they are a boy, or because they belong to a particular ethnic group, or because their family has little money, or because of the postcode they live in?

It is these kinds of inequalities which we must seek to eradicate if we really believe in creating a society in which everyone has the chance to achieve their true potential. This is where the link between inequality and social mobility exists. Inequality of opportunity makes true social mobility impossible to achieve.

If we do not rise to the challenge, our children will pay the price.

That’s the purpose of this commission. We are not here just to analyse the problem; we are here to create solutions.

This is just the start of a process. For that reason, myself and the other members of the Commission can’t stand here today and immediately float a series of policy proposals.

But to give you an idea of the sort of area we need to tackle, one challenge that has become clear is how to get high quality teachers into struggling schools in remote or coastal areas.

Teach First has had great success bringing talented young teachers into deprived inner city areas in London. But it is one thing to attract bright people to live in one of the world’s great cities – getting them to move to more remote parts of the country is quite another thing.

So we need fresh ideas about how to attract and retain high quality teachers in these places.

Likewise, we need to look again at the role of vocational qualifications – so often the Cinderella of education policy – and how we improve their status and credibility. This has been much talked about but never achieved.

On these and the many other big challenges facing schools, this commission will seek out new ideas and new thinking with an open mind.

We will listen to the experts and the professionals who are grappling with these issues day in and day out.

And we will follow the evidence, wherever it leads us.

That is why it is so important that this is a cross-party commission.

This is about consensus, not rivalry.

I am grateful to Stephen Kinnock and Suella Fernandes for putting party differences aside to join the commission. Of course, we come from different starting points ideologically…

While my party has long placed its emphasis on social mobility, Stephen’s has a long-held commitment to reducing inequality and Suella’s believes strongly in the role of home and family in education.

I hope that by bringing together our different perspectives we can approach these challenges with an open mind.

I am also extremely grateful to Becky Allen and Sam Freedman, two of the leading experts in the education world, who both have a deep knowledge of our school system and the use of data to drive improvements.

Regardless of political persuasion, we all owe it to future generations to give them the best possible chance to reach their potential, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

But I would also like to make a wider point about working across party lines.

We are in a particularly volatile period in British politics right now – perhaps the most turbulent and unpredictable since I was at school myself in the 1970s.

In these circumstances it is both easy and tempting for parties to retreat to their comfort zones and indulge themselves in tribalism.

It is a temptation that we must resist.

This country faces huge challenges, of which growing inequality and its impact on social mobility is just one.

If we are to compete in the globalised 21st century economy; if we are to build and sustain a health and social care system as more and more of our citizens are living longer lives; if we are to tackle the growing threats of terrorism and climate change and rise to the myriad other challenges we face, then like-minded politicians must learn to put their tribal differences aside and work together in the national interest.

I hope that in its small way, this commission can be an example when it comes to politicians of different stripes coming together to find solutions to a common challenge.

For people my age, the idea that our children’s generation may be the first not to do as well as their parents is deeply troubling.

But that is the reality for millions of parents worried about their children’s education; the difficulty they will have getting on the housing ladder; the insecurity of low paid work; the long-term sustainability of the NHS, social care and the pensions system as more and more people live longer into old age.

Of course, the work that we do in this commission cannot solve the root causes of inequality in our society – nor would we attempt to. But by focusing our efforts on the education system I am sure that we can make a real difference.

Previous efforts have shown that innovative policy making can make a tangible difference to people’s lives – as we have seen with the turnaround in results for children from different ethnic backgrounds, or those growing up in London and Birmingham.

I hope that through this commission we will come up with new and innovative policies that future governments will adopt – regardless of their political composition.

Thank you.


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