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politics

On The Attainment Divide: An Essay

One cold winter morning in 2017, I was a 15 year old student who sat, barely awake, in my Assembly Hall. The teacher who was conducting the assembly was talking about a story that had a moral and no one was listening. As we walked out to drudge along to our next lesson, I remember the teacher playing ‘Hall Of Fame’ by The Script on the loud speakers in the hall.

“be students, be teachers, be politicians, be preachers….

Be believers, be leaders
Be astronauts, be champions
Be truth-seekers”

No one was listening. We walked out.

You see, achieving at a low attainment comprehensive school is a rarity. Our culture is not of ambition no matter what the school walls may decorate or what the school slogan will be. As students at low standard school, we do not see the end goal of school which is to move on to the next part of our journey and flourish in the field that we are passionate about. Our horizons are not broadened and we do not realise what might be in store for us.

We are conditioned to believe that the people we seen and hear about on TV will never be us. The ones who achieve and stand outside their school or workplace smiling into the camera will never be us. We are quite simply from ‘that school’ or, in students terms, ‘that dump.’ No one has ever achieved highly before and there is no example to follow. We know the drill by now as past generations have before. We could never achieve like that because we were born in here and that’s where we will stay. This is the destiny that by being born has been conditioned for us. Meritocracy may be real for liberals who went to well performing schools and were helped to flourish. For the large part, many students from low attainment schools do stay in their hometown for the rest of their lives. For the large part, that’s all life has to offer. Although the school promises that we can achieve anything in their institution, this is only to reassure the parents if they’re looking to be reassured.

Subjects are taught as a nuisance. They do not express any enlightening way of learning, to get a student really interest in their subject. Instead, it’s a rite of passage: all students have to be taught the exam content in time and that is all it is reduced to: an obligation. It is rarely fun and encompassing. It’s something that the teachers have to do and that’s it. This makes the learning process boring and disengaging, minus the odd teacher who treats it as something other than the obligation. The teachers are tired, underpaid and overworked with their marking, and the students are disengaged, bored and do not want to learn. As Paul Willis found in his important study among working class students, all these factors lead to a priority shift to get out of school early and focus on work, which is largely all life will amount to for these students from low attainment schools.

I am not saying the low attainment students are silly and deserve this treatment that goes on everyday. In fact, it makes me feel ill that working class students do not get the opportunities that they deserve. How many doctors, musicians, poets, journalists, teachers, architects and so on have we lost due to the lack of nurturing and the culture of underachieving within these schools? As far as we know, this is our only life and we are told to always make it the most of it. How can so many children and teenagers make the most and live a life that is fulfilling if the education system is divided as it is? It makes me feel sick when many of the wealthy know this is happening but refuse to say or do anything due to the fact it’s their decisions. The same reasons and excuses are always pulled out from the wealthy parents: it is their choice, they are doing it for the benefit of the children, they have to their children to these schools so they can achieve. Such reasoning is custom within the richer classes, but it also explicitly shows how unequal the school system really is. It may be a choice for wealthy parents to avoid to comprehensives and to send their children to fee paying schools, but for the working classes, the parents who worry about where their next meal is coming from, it is not a choice. The parents incomes combined will go towards a year’s worth of private fees. They cannot help their children in this way. How can that possibly be fair in our so called meritocracy?

I hear very little political commentators and politicians, both on the left and right wing, talk about the school divide. It’s very unlikely that they haven’t given it much thought; I just imagine they don’t speak about it because they know how much they’ve benefitted from it. They went to a moderately high achieving grammar or private school, perhaps not the best institution but still one that helped them flourish, and were able to go to a brilliant university. The culture of not achieving is alien to them. Perhaps they’ve witnessed it while talking to a few people from different backgrounds, but for the most part, it is alien. How can there be schools where the culture is not geared towards high achieving and helping students flourish? What do you mean that some students only have career officers that come in once every two months on a quick visiting trip for an hour? Why are these students not guided to try and achieve their dreams?

When I talk about this subject, people often assume that I hate private schools and all students that come from there. That’s not the case at all. The students are not enemies- they have taken the opportunity to flourish and have done so in so many wonderful ways, and so many will go to change the world. Their achievements are remarkable. It is only the divide of inequality I despise and want to change. It is the fact that these privileges of high learning and flourishing are on purpose limited to the privileged few. It makes a child’s life chances dependant on the wealth of their caregiver; how likely they are to realise their potential depends on who they were born into. If you say to this to many people, they will think you are talking about British society from 200 years ago where inequality was explicitly rampant. Inequality among the education system is still a reality today, it is just accepted and it is the norm so it doesn’t grab the headlines. It suits those who are in the higher classes to keep it this way, thus it is not talked about.

I can still imagine the students I saw each day in my high school and sixth form days switching off and turning away from the wonders of the education system. I can still picture them not taking an interest in school and not realising the opportunities that were out there for them. This was not their fault. It has never been their fault. No matter who they were, what they were interested in, and what they would like to be in the future, their disengagement is the result of the inequality within our education system and how it is structured. If we abolished fee paying schools and established a national school system for all in which high learning could be spread across the system and accessible to all regardless of their parents income, we would be making the first steps towards achieving a truly meritocratic system.