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Conservatism is an immensely broad church, but one thing it is united on is a fundamental belief in fairness of opportunity. There is also agreement that a knowledge-rich education, grounded in skills and practical understanding, is the greatest driver of opportunity. Education is therefore at the core of the party’s values: supporting individual initiative, empowerment, progress with an appreciation of the past, and an economy fizzing with talent and innovation. Education is conservatism in action.

There has been significant progress in education since 2010 – academies, free schools, apprenticeships, higher standards, and greater discipline, to name a few – but the claim of being the natural party of education can never be taken for granted. A decade into government, the Conservative Party’s ideas on education need a jolt of energy to keep them fresh. As we emerge from the pandemic, giving substance to what levelling up means in education is an opportunity to do just that.

As the 2019 Conservative manifesto states, “talent is evenly spread, but opportunity is not”. The reality behind this is 16 year-olds entitled to free school meals are, on average, 18 months of learning behind their friends and peers not on free school meals through no fault of their own, but because of their circumstances. This varies dramatically across the country, from just half a month behind in Westminster to just over 26 months in Blackpool, according to the Education Policy Institute. This is known as the ‘disadvantage gap’. To be clear, this was the situation before the pandemic. We should be braced for a brutal widening.

While the disadvantage gap has been very gradually closing until recently, we cannot escape the reality that we have an education system where a gap of this scale has become normalised. At the current rate of the gap closing, we are centuries away from opportunity being levelled up. This gap feeds through into people not being able to go to university or start a degree apprenticeship. It also translates into lost scientists, entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders of the future who don’t get the grades they need because of their start in life, not their talent.

The Government’s own research from 2017 shows that if the rest of the country levelled up to London – where the disadvantage is smallest, but still large – around 125,000 pupils would achieve five or more GCSES or equivalent at A*-C, including English and maths. As a result, their lifetime earnings would on average rise by roughly £110,000, boosting our economy by approximately £20 billion. This illustrates the scale of lost opportunity.

If the party is to say to the country, and the ‘Red Wall’ in particular, that opportunity has been levelled up, the disadvantage gap must have closed by the time of the next election. The party should be open about this – and every education policy or spending decision should be guided by the objective to close the gap.

There should also be a public sense of impatience in every ministerial speech at the injustice the gap represents. Any instinct to slip into defending the past should be resisted – the party should unashamedly say tackling the gap drives policy making. Speaking about the disadvantage gap isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of honesty and substance.

Some call for grand change and ripping up the system. I disagree – we largely know what works, and the areas that need improvement.

For example, evidence that the gap opens up well before children even go to school is clear, making the case for funding high quality childcare, early literacy, and numeracy in the early years up to age four obvious.

The Pupil Premium already focusses funding onto the most disadvantaged schools, and was delivered under a Conservative-led government. We now need to look closely at how well that money is being spent, using the evidence provided by the Education Endowment Foundation. This needs to be combined with better teacher professional development – after all, without teachers a school’s just a building.

We should acknowledge, and better fund, the reality that schools and colleges have become so much more than places of learning. As a school and college governor, I’ve seen first-hand how, more than ever, educators have become community anchors: supporting fractured families, mental health first aid, food poverty, or ‘wrap around’ care.

Excellent initiatives like the free online Oak National Academy that is helping students catch up after lost learning in the pandemic should become permanent and focus on closing the gap. This will require addressing Ofcom’s estimate that 1.8 million children have no laptop or other device to use at home – a digital gap cannot be allowed to compound the disadvantage gap.

The Government’s Skills White Paper must deliver the necessary ten-year plan that breaks down the artificial barriers between HE, FE, and apprenticeships, so young people can choose the high-quality option that is best for them. This should include reversing the more than 50% collapse in part-time learners since 2010, and following through on the ambitious ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ so more adults can access training.

These are just some of the ingredients needed – there are many others. Most importantly though, it’s time for the Government to say loudly: there is an enormous disadvantage gap, it’s not acceptable in a fair society, and this Government will be the one that finally tackles it head on.

John Cope is a Conservative Party member and a leading education thinker. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine The Great Levelling?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Images: Pennie Withers]