Last week the highly intelligent UK Universities Minister, David Willetts, made an interesting speech in London where he argued that bright students from poor-performing schools should be admitted to university with worse exam results than other pupils. For those of us interested in a stronger society this makes absolute sense: a state helping individuals fulfill their potential to the benefit of society.
If there is both evidence and acceptance that going to a poor-performing school disadvantages your life chances (i.e. from university entrance to future job prospects) surely the state could go further in correcting that disadvantage by pricing it in from the start. The UK has recently introduced a pupil premium (extra money for the most disadvantaged pupils) but according to the Independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (The pupil premium: assessing the options – March 2010) it is nowhere near big enough to equalize the life chances of a bright child from a disadvantaged background in a poor performing school with that of an average child from a middle class background in a high-performing school. Researchers from the University of California found similar results based on US funding data back in 2005 (Equalising opportunity for Racial and socio economic groups in the US through educational finance reform)
Of course it would be great to turn around all poor-performing schools, and a lot is now being done in the UK (by parents, teachers and politicians) to push through transformational reform, but turning around poor performing state schools is often done over years not over night. For all of that time pupils are still flowing through poor-performing schools limiting their life chances in society, relative to pupils in other schools. This is unfair and makes society weaker.
The state should compensate pupils who have to attend poor-performing schools, perhaps by factoring it into future tax rates. Say for pupils today entering one of the bottom 10% ranked state schools in the country for that year, they could be guaranteed exemption from ever having to pay the top-rate of income tax over their lifetime. This provides a more proportionate state reward for those pupils in society who have to take on the greater risk of a poor education but still go on to achieve success in the labour market.
Perhaps such state compensation could have positive externalities for society. Firstly this mechanism may incentivize disadvantaged pupils to really push on if they get a break in life and work that bit harder than their peers from better schools to achieve an income that qualifies them for the tax exemption. Secondly this guaranteed compensation scheme may just encourage entrepreneurial parents to both send their child to the poor-performing school and then to get actively involved, and investing, in turning around that school with the teachers so their child gets a double advantage (a guaranteed lower tax rate for a life, and a rapidly improving school to improve your later earning potential).
Could you see those competitive and highly driven middle-class parents in the UK, many of whom pay for private education or simply move out of the area with a poor-performing school, now choose to invest their time and money in turning around their local poor-performing school because it could favour the long term life chances of their child?