I went to school in Lincolnshire where we still have the traditional Eleven Plus.
One of my friends at Primary School always wanted to work in TV. She failed the Eleven Plus. The next day I overheard in the Post Office: “She’ll never be able to work in TV now, she’s failed the Eleven Plus” – to murmurs of agreement.
This is what the Eleven Plus does. It carves society into winners and losers; it emburdens children with social judgement – and all before they’re old enough to watch a Bond film at the cinema.
The Eleven Plus is the polar opposite of what education should be about.
Education should stimulate, challenge and nurture every single child. It should be a vehicle for aspiration and hope.
It was experiences of the Eleven Plus which politicised me. But the more involved I’ve become in education, the more I realise that there are much bigger battles to fight.
Secondary education is obviously vitally important. But a child’s life chances are largely formed long before their age enters double figures.
Astonishingly, by the age of just 22 months, you can already accurately predict the educational results that baby will hold at age 26. You can accurately predict the entire educational performance of a child before they are even two years old!
A good secondary education gives kids a fighting chance to buck the overwhelming social trends. But the trends themselves are determined in the Early Years.
Connections, home-life and above all a stable, supportive and encouraging family are the determinants of success in life.
Tragically these determinants all favour the affluent. Talented children born into modest families may still succeed – but they will have to work many times harder. Statistics suggest that the majority will still fail to fulfil their potential.
Brilliant disadvantaged kids will achieve good outcomes. Good disadvantaged kids will achieve average outcomes. Average-ability disadvantaged kids will achieve below-average outcomes, and so on.
For affluent kids, the trend is reversed.
An education system delivering these outcomes is failing. Instead of liberating the aspirations of kids, it is perpetrating the inequalities of society.
These inequalities run so deep that they can only be overcome through the transformative power of Early Intervention and investment in the Early Years.
That’s aspiration. But education also needs to be about hope.
Aspiration is the power of individuals to build a better life regardless of background or privilege. Hope is the belief held by all of us, that through education we can create better citizens, and so, a better society.
The Early Years again are crucial. Early Intervention is not only transformative of young lives. Because it is family-focused it also addresses a wide range of adult problems. Wraparound family support is a route to better health, better housing and better employment.
This is embodied in Sure Start.
Sure Start was an historic effort by the last Labour Government to reverse our national neglect of Early Intervention and the Early Years.
Sadly Sure Start is now being progressively dismantled by the current Government. 401 Sure Start Centres have closed. Budgets have been cut by hundreds of millions of pounds. Childcare is now solely viewed as a back to work initiative, not as an opportunity to develop babies and strengthen families.
This is a battleground: the chance to change young lives and build a better community. I’m delighted to join the fray as Director of the newly-launched Labour Friends of Sure Start.
Labour Friends of Sure Start aims to empower communities fighting for their Sure Start services – and to develop ideas for the future of Sure Start.
It’s unfortunate that education discussion continues to be dominated by debate about schools, particularly secondary schools: Free Schools, academies, the EBACC…
I’m as guilty as anyone. I came into politics because of the social divisions created by the Eleven Plus and the injustice of experiences such as my friend who really wanted to work in TV.
But the truth is that in the education debate, secondary schools are of secondary importance.
Education has to be about aspiration and hope. And the only way to truly achieve either of these is by investing in Early Intervention and the Early Years.