Thursday, 18 October 2012

The fundamental unfairness in our society

So, here's the thing. I'm a student at a good university. I'm studying Electronics with Satellite Engineering and have every chance of graduating with a 2:1 or better MEng. I'm able to do this because, well, I'm fairly smart and well educated.

But the thing is, I know that my raw ability isn't that good compared to others. At best I can only claim to be average or slightly better than average. There are people far, far more talented than I am. And there are lots of people who work harder at their studies than I do.

But, because I went to good schools, had good teachers, had parents who encouraged me to do well, because I had a fairly stable home life, and because I generally grew up in an environment where it was easy to learn, I was able to do well in my GCSEs, do well in my A Levels and do well at university because of the education and support I received. My own ability helped but most of what I'm able to do comes not from my own ability but from being taught well.

As an example, maths is something I've never been naturally talented at. But I've had teachers who explained things well and who put the effort in to make sure that everyone in their classes understood the material. And, because there were small class sizes, they had the time to help out everyone who was struggling.

And that's the problem.

I've got a promising future ahead of me and I have every chance of having a successful career when I graduate. And, while that's partly down to my own work, it's mostly down to being born into a family and background where I was able to get a good education and support to help me learn and educate myself.

But the thing is, demographics tell me that there are plenty of people the same age as me who have far more raw talent than I do. Some of them are geniuses. But, because they weren't born into a moderately well-off background, because they were born into poverty, by the time I entered primary school I was already pretty much guaranteed to come out the education system somewhere in the top and they were guaranteed to come out somewhere in the bottom.

That's because the fundamental thing in our society which determines how well you do in school is not your natural ability but how rich or poor you are. If, like many people the same age as me, I'd gone to a deprived state school with crumbling facilities, out of date equipment, overworked teachers and massive class sizes I can guarantee that I'd have been lucky to have scraped a pass in five GCSES - let alone get the 9 A grades I got in real life. And, if the people who went to those schools had gone to my schools, had access to top class facilities and resources, been in small classes, and generally had a much better educational advantage, then they probably would have done much better than I did.

But, because our society is so unequal, because how well you do is determined by the lottery of birth, I, despite being less talented, have access to top quality education and opportunities and brilliant life chances while honest-to-god geniuses, Einsteins and Newtons, have come out of the education system with little to no qualifications and the best they can ever hope for is a life of minimum-wage jobs scraping by just on the poverty line.

And yet the people who end up with that kind of future include people who, if they had been born into a wealthier background, could have been visionaries, pioneers and intellectual revolutionaries. We have a truly massive pool of talent being wasted because, primarily as a result of inequality and deprivation, not even half the children in this country manage to meet the minimum standard of five pass grades at GCSE level.

How can we compete in the modern world when half the population have their life chances written off due to circumstance at birth? How can we progress and prosper as a country when we let so much talent and ability go squandered and unnurtured?

The answer is we can't.

I was born into relative privilege and as a result I have thrived. Meanwhile people far better and more talented than I were born into poverty and will remain trapped in poverty for the rest of their lives.

And because of this monumental waste of talent, because of the way our society is riven with unequal opportunity at birth, this country will never punch it's full weight. We will never be able to compete with more educated countries. Yet if every child had access to the opportunities and education I had then we'd have a 100% literacy rate and a workforce educated and equipped to be the most efficient and productive in the entire world and we'd be much wealthier, more crime free and happier as a society as a result.

It's the failure to tackle at inequality, the fail to give every child a fair chance, that is dooming this country to mediocrity, that is the cause of so many of our social problems, and we'll never progress properly until we do tackle it.

This government won't do it and neither has any government before it. Yet education is the silver bullet that could tackle most of our problems all in one go. We need to, no, we must, grasp that lesson. I don't want my children to grow up in a world as unequal and unfair as the world I've grown up in. But so far we're not doing anything to change that. And, until we do, our society will remain fundamentally rotten and tainted by injustice at it's very core.

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