Diane Abbott Versus Disadvantaged Pupils

Trevor Fisher writes:

On June 11th, Diane Abbott underlined the problems progressives have in combating Gove’s reactionary politics by endorsing one of the worst. She argued for the narrow grammar school curriculum Gove is trying to bring in, suggesting the core curriculum would help disadvantaged children get to top universities as she had done. Gove was delighted, as were his supporters in the Lib Dem and Blairite Labour camps. And it embarrassed Stephen Twigg, who had to rush out a statement to cover over potential cracks.

No one pointed out that Abbott and Gove are factually wrong to argue the limited core curriculum proposed for GCSE (and A level) exams helps disadvantaged students, particularly BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) pupils. This is a variant of the old argument that grammar schools help social mobility, whose proponents are attempting a come-back. The facts show that this was never the case despite the successes of a small number of working class children, mostly boys – the eleven plus hindered girls of all classes, since there were far fewer girls grammar schools than boys grammar schools. This has not stopped the Sutton Group hinting that the return of grammars would help social mobility.

However the consensus at Westminster realizes that the eleven plus cannot come back but it is moving to endorse a grammar school curriculum for nominally comprehensive schools. This is what Gove is trying to do with his exam reforms. The specific point that Abbott does not grasp is that this will particularly disadvantage BME students. A few will of course succeed, and Abbott herself argued in both the Commons and the Guardian that she succeeded, so the policy is valid. She said

“The children who need academic rigour and ‘gold standard’ qualifications the most are precisely those who are the first in their family to stay on before the official school leaving age… It was my academic qualifications, and the confidence they gave me, which made everything possible for me later in life”.

It is always a weak argument that x or y worked for me, so it can work for everyone. But in this case, the problems with the poor representation of BME children in top universities, which is a national scandal, are precisely down to the allegedly ‘gold standard’ qualifications Abbott and Gove favour. This is not a left wing argument, and certainly not an argument against rigour and high standards over a broad range of qualifications, the truly progressive case. It is simply to state what the Russell Group of elite universities have said – that the limited range of options taken by BME candidates is a factor in making most of them fail to get accepted by top universities.

They said this in responding to a report on statistics showing poor acceptance of disadvantaged pupils at top universities. Russell Group CEO Wendy Piatt said (March 26th – the report is on the Russell Group Web site) “we know some groups of students are more likely to apply for the most oversubscribed courses. For example, Oxford’s three most oversubscribed courses…. accounted for 43% of all BME applicants compared to just 17% of all white applicants. Clearly the more applicants per place the greater the level of competition”.

There is more to the bias in elite universities than this, but the point is obviously valid. If the BME students apply to the most competitive courses then they will be exposed to intense competition and most likely fail to get in. Since the most popular courses are the biggest taught in schools, maths being an obvious example, the fewer A Level subjects that are taught in schools the more BME pupils will be channeled into limited options which offer only intense competition. And they will largely fail to get in, though there will always be the exception like Diane Abbott who gets into a university like Cambridge.

The danger of the Gove agenda, and it is operating at both 16 plus through Ebacc and 18 plus as Abacc, is that it limits school options to what Abbott regards as the ‘gold standard’ qualifications and thus the options of BME students applying to elite universities. No wonder Gove was delighted with her support, though whether Gove is deliberately making it harder for BME kids to apply is impossible to judge. Abbott clearly does want to help disadvantaged children. But she is taking a course which makes it harder for them to succeed.

Abbott’s intervention unwittingly underlined the consensus across the main parties backing Gove. The Liberal Centre Forum made Diane Abbot its Liberal Hero of the Week #39, in a blog which should be read by the widest possible number of people. The  choice was made by the Co Editor of Liberal Voice Stephen Tall, who had recently chosen Michael Gove to be a Liberal Hero of the week. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

He was beaten into print by the self- proclaimed Blairite Dan Hodges, who claims that he “writes about Labour with tribal loyalty”. Tribalism is not what it was. On June 12th over the Abbott issue he wrote a particularly bilious attack on Ed Miliband while supporting Diane Abbott. He argued that Miliband should follow Abbott because otherwise we would have “the ludicrous spectacle of the Labour leader and his education secretary being outflanked on the Right by Diane Abbott.”. Obviously the conclusion is that Labour should not allow itself to be outflanked on the Right, it should head off Michael Gove before he secures Education for the Hard Right permanently. Hodge blogs on the Daily Telegraph site and should be studied at


The line up behind Gove is becoming increasingly wonderous. And it has nothing to do with improving social mobility or helping Black and Minority Ethnic Students, even if Diane Abbot may have good intentions.












3 Comments on “Diane Abbott Versus Disadvantaged Pupils”

  1. Temi Ladenika says:

    Although I am not a supporter of Gove’s ideology or ‘reforms’ to the greater extent, I am interested to know the basis on which these ‘facts’ about a grammar school curriculum limiting opportunities for BME students particularly girls are made. When was this research done, how and by whom?

  2. Diane Abbott seems, in this instance as in so many others, not to understood that having good intentions is not a sufficient ground for making political judgements: one has also to study the issues along with the arguments surrounding them. But then, to be fair, one should add that she is far from alone in this and that something similar might be said of Labour’s entire Shadow Cabinet.

    I agree that Gove is smuggling concepts appropriate to grammar schools into all state-funded schools and that Diane Abbott has foolishly supported him in this. But I think that to frame the issue in terms of the percentage of this or that group getting into the “top universities” is to implicitly accept an elitist framework for the debate. My concern would be about the participation of all social groups at university level (with perhaps a look also at the distribution of the groups across the different disciplines). If there are universities that are not ‘good universities’ then it is that which is the national scandal and not the issue of the participation of various groups in the “top universities”.

    I think that socialists should reject the whole elitist framework for discussion about universities in the same way that they reject it in discussion about schools. We are against selection either by exam or by parents or by schools because we believe that the arguments based on the right to select “good schools” is predicated on the existence of bad schools. All schools must be good schools and the same goes for universities. When all universities are demonstrably good then the old elitist hierarchy will weaken and eventually breakdown. It is not for us to accept it as a benchmark.

    I am not at all convinced either that Labour should try to avoid itself being “outflanked on the Right”. I think that it should open up its own front where it fights on the ground of what is best for the great majority in a way that can command majority support. There are plenty of reasons for believing that this can be done. Then the right-wing manoeuvres of Gove (and his Labour supporters) will become increasingly ineffective. There is no need to try to occupy the positions that the right sets out for itself.

  3. Debbie says:

    Wasn’t the increase in social mobility due to the expansion of ‘middle class’ jobs and the decline in ‘working class’ jobs rather than the education system of the time