Tristram Hunt: Inequality is a problem schools alone can’t fix

Writing in the Guardian, former shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt says that in what he calls the Tories’ ‘austerity era’ a new approach that goes beyond schools is needed to ensure disadvantaged pupils are not left behind.

…The combination of the Conservatives’ austerity agenda and accelerating socioeconomic trends means inequality remains the defining political issue of contemporary Britain. But since the general election, both the Labour frontbench and government ministers have been far too quiet on the subject.

Instead, the agenda is now being driven by the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, whose remarkable book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is being consulted by Republican leaders in Congress as well as Hillary Clinton’s leadership team. It is time we took seriously his account here as well. For what Our Kids shows is the desperate need to move discussion of disadvantage and social mobility beyond the school gate into the much more vexed territory of family, parenting, community and economic injustice.

With a mix of hard data and personal narrative, Putnam brings to life – with an anger and critical analysis matched by few other authors – the terrible social consequences of runaway inequality and how, with it, the US has lost a sense of shared responsibility…

As Putnam argues: “Once we account for non-school factors (such as family structure, economic insecurity, parental engagement and even TV watching), school quality and school resources themselves seem to contribute relatively little to class gaps in test scores.”

The lesson is that schools work as part of a much broader social ecology of churches, clubs, sports leagues and work placements. A rich network of civic capital offered “our kids” trusting interactions with non-parental adults that socialised them and ensured failure did not have to be fatal. It provided the conditions for that holy grail of current education policy: the development of character, resilience and grit.

So, what can be done to reverse the trend? An early-years policy focused on affordable, high-quality, centre-based day care for low-income families is essential to tackle disadvantage. Rather than closing Sure Start centres and sacking community nurses, the government should be focusing on improving the skills and reach of the pre-school sector. And a Scandinavian-style universal childcare [pdf] system would be a fine progressive ambition for a Labour party keen to flex its radical muscles.

Second, as Labour argued at the election, high-class technical and vocational education is a social justice calling. Low-income students should never be forced down a non-academic pathway, but we need to do much better in providing teenagers who find mainstream schooling a challenge decent alternatives. Rather than closing further education colleges and giving university technical colleges the cold shoulder, the government should set about renewing their entire purpose.

Finally, extracurricular activities. Putnam is adamant on this. The teamwork, self-discipline and leadership that come with arts, sports and drama result in “higher grade-point averages, lower dropout rates, lower truancy … higher educational aspirations, greater self-esteem, more civic engagement”…

More at: Inequality is a problem schools alone can’t fix


Sounds like a very interesting book – anyone else read it yet and care to share their opinions?

What do you think of the central idea presented here that in discussing inequality we need to address issues far beyond the limits of schools? And do you agree with the importance seemingly given to the importance of extra-curricular activities?

Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter…

Are you a trainee teacher, NQT, teacher, headteacher, parent or  just someone who cares about education and has something to get off  your chest in a Schools Improvement Guest Post? Follow this link for more details at the bottom of the page.

Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our daily email bulletin (around 7am) with all the latest schools news stories. Your details will never be given to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any stage. Just follow this link.

We now have a Facebook page - please click to like!


Nick Clegg: Pay teachers more to work in underperforming areas
David Cameron: Teachers unions 'dismissing the life chances' of children by saying they can look up times tables on mobiles
Categories: Overseas and Policy.


  1. Bedtonman

    SchoolsImprove why is he suddenly talking about education? He did nothing but cheer on Gove as shadow education secretary

  2. StephenG41HR

    SchoolsImprove I’m pleased to see that reality begins to dawn on the decision makers. Not read book but if this is central tenet, I agree.

  3. Davehmorgs

    SchoolsImprove To be honest, that’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard him say. Pity he said nothing positive when in position.

  4. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove All of a sudden, no longer Shadow Ed Sec, TristramHuntMP pipes up on edu. The words: “guard chocolate fire” spring to mind

  5. clivetaylor915

    Usual fatuous statement of the obvious from a bankrupt and universally derided politician. What doe he believe in?

  6. Kathfanderson

    SchoolsImprove A persuasive & rational analysis that chimes with my professional & personal experience. Labour sh’ld claim this with gusto.

Let us know what you think...