John Humphrys: new research is “massive indictment” of unequal UK schools

What John Humphrys has to say about the education system is pretty humbling. Let’s face it, whatever arguments exist about state access into the university, every Oxford student has done well – unfairly so, perhaps – out of the school system.

The flip side doesn’t make pleasant reading: children from deprived backgrounds are half as likely to achieve 5 A* – C grade GCSEs as those from middle class families. The disparities are uncovered in the documentary Unequal Opportunities, to be aired on the BBC later this month, in which the Radio 4 presenter explores why access to good quality education is still so determined by parental income.

Humphrys is both passionate and realistic about the issue. The statistics, he says without hesitation, are “a massive indictment of our education system, and our approach to equal opportunities.”

He spent nine months travelling country-wide, meeting pupils, teachers and researchers, exploring how education alone still doesn’t ensure social mobility: “If you are middle class, or better off, you are massively more likely to end up going to university, or to receive an education full stop. And that is wrong.”

The programme is bolstered by research from The Sutton Trust, a charity whose aim is to encourage social mobility through education. Research conducted for the Trust at Essex University suggests that children of degree-educated parents are five times more likely to get five A*-C GCSEs.

Isn’t there the problem of genetics, though? What of the inescapable fact that such individuals are biologically likely to have reasonably intelligent children? “I’m not arguing for equality of outcome because clearly some children are going to be brighter than others, but the state should offer every child an equal opportunity…[The fact is] that every single child should have the opportunity – and that’s the important word – that every other child has.”

When I suggest that poor standards might be the result of a lacking appreciation of education, I am rightly quashed, feeling like a grossly snobby and naïve Oxford student. The voice on the other end of the phone easily rebuffs me. “I’m not concerned with some of these slightly ‘airy fairy’ notions of the country losing an appreciation of education…we can’t talk about these things in grand theoretical terms: the only way to fulfil it is from the perspective of an individual child. This may sound like a counsel in perfection, but I don’t care – it’s the reality that every single child is entitled in a country as rich as ours to have…a decent education.”

Humphrys was educated at Cardiff High School in the 1950s, and refers to himself as “I suppose you’d have to say – one of the ‘lucky ones.’” The High School was “accepted to be the best grammar school in Cardiff” – this is not self-congratulatory, but instead highlights the problem of dividing the population at an “arbitrary age”, between those who passed and those who failed the Eleven-Plus: “We had selective education…it was all graded.” The divide between grammar schools and the Secondary Modern system was alive, but not so well, and is an insight into the 20th century’s less-than-shiny legacy.

He left school at the age of 15 – “I was desperate to leave” – to work on local newspapers, marking out how the biggest inequality came not from the grammar school itself, but the opportunities it held: “It enabled me to get a job on the local paper and had I not gone to that grammar school, I suppose… I wouldn’t have got that job on that local paper, so it did a lot for me in that sense.”

When you consider how that first step started the career of one of the country’s most renowned journalists…well, you see what he means about the doors the grammar school opened. But therein lies the problem: “I was the only kid in my street who did go to that school and there were other kids just as bright as me there who just weren’t terribly good at passing exams at the age of 11…. you can’t say ‘this is the age at which you must now prove yourself’ and if you have failed at that age, you have failed. The other kids in my street did not have the advantage that I had of going to a decent grammar school. By and large, they ended up doing manual labour jobs and didn’t have the opportunities that I had. …the approach of the grammar school system – it worked for me; it bloody well didn’t work for them.”

The solution lead to many of the problems that have caused parents with the financial means to consider private tutoring and the independent sector, another area that Humphrys explores in Unequal Opportunities.

“A comprehensive education was a good idea, in theory, but to make it work in practise we would have had to have a very tough and well organised streaming system and by and large we didn’t have that.”

Overwhelmingly, though, it was those who tinkered with teaching methods in the 1960s that Humphrys objects to: “We decided that ‘teaching’ children wasn’t a very good idea…children had to ‘learn,’ and somehow or other there would this peculiar osmosis that would take place [and information would be absorbed]…I’m sorry but that’s tosh.”

He makes no effort to conceal his contempt for “these so-called educationists,” particularly the “pea brain” who effected the end of grammar teaching: “It’s one of my bugbears…it was decided that the rules were somehow stunting their [the children’s] emotional development, when actually what you were doing was giving them a tool to help themselves.” Although many of these policies have now been reverted, it still stands that parents of today’s pupils were subject to ineffective teaching methods.

Humphrys’ words are a reminder that policy is pretty useless without effective action: “It’s no good saying ‘Ooh well, if we do x, y, z, in a few years’ time that school will be better.’” For all Tony Blair’s rhetoric – promising that ‘Education, education, education’ was to be his number one priority – and however much the coalition government promises to ring fence spending on education, money is no good on its own.

A report from The Sutton Trust demonstrates how offspring of higher-income parents benefit from peripheral activities that have a positive impact on a child’s early cognitive development. Such children are more likely to be taken to the theatre, concerts and library, and to be read to, even before they attend school. Children of parents who haven’t the means for such activities miss out.

“There are ways to deal with it. There are schools in some of the poorest areas that set out to create the ‘middle class experience,’ for want of a better phrase. I went to one particular school in Tower Hamlets, near a beautiful park called Victoria Park. What these schools set out to do is to create this experience for them. Bordering the park, there are high rise blocks of flats that house some very poor families. And in those flats there are children – two, three, four year old children – who have never set foot in the park. They sit in their flats – all day – usually single mothers, and never actually go to the park, let alone the theatre or even the cinema.”

I wriggle in my seat with guilt from all those Year 1 museum trips.

“The children aren’t just taught to add up, and read and write, which is obviously the main thing, but the teachers also try to introduce them to the kinds of things that richer children will benefit from. And that’s exactly what should be going on.”

The positive thing is this motivation to change does exist. Individual teachers are working to increase social mobility through education, such as the head teacher of the Tower Hamlets school – a “brilliant woman.”

Humphrys sees the Teach First scheme, which takes graduates from all disciplines and puts them into inner-city schools, as a big step in the right direction: “ I’m not an expert, I’m a journalist, but I spent nine months looking at these various schemes, and Teach First is working.”

All that over-enthusiastic graduate spirit is put to use where budgets are tight: “What [the scheme] can do is use the initiative of very bright, idealistic young graduates who admittedly have very little training – they do it on the job – but nonetheless bring something to the schools that they wouldn’t otherwise have…we should have more of it. Much, much more of it.”

But what about the big money question? Humphrys doesn’t deny the cost: “The problem is, obviously, that it is expensive.” Yet if the nation is ever to be able to claim with conviction that it is a socially mobile society, in which every child has “basic skills,” then action needs to be taken, with cost as a secondary concern.

“The only other thing we can do now is to spend an enormous amount of money improving our primary schools.”

The ability to read, to write and to add up still isn’t a given in Britain. We devote pages and pages to celebrating strings of A*s at GCSE and A-Level; the nation constantly complains that exams no longer stretch pupils. All the while, it is as if we have the shameful intention of forgetting those who haven’t been given the tools – that they are quite capable of picking up and using – to pass even one GCSE. It boils down to the earliest building blocks.

Characteristically, Humphrys summarises the issue in a few words: “There shouldn’t be a single school, a single primary school in this country, which denies children the opportunities that the best have. It’s that simple.”

Next time we complain about the quality of a lecture, we should perhaps look at the issue with our eyes open a little wider.

Unequal Opportunities will be broadcast on BBC2 on Monday 20th September