As his spectacular fall from grace has made clear, the world Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak inhabits is one far removed from the reality experienced by millions of people in this country—a country he hopes, or until recently hoped, to one day lead as prime minister. After plunging an additional 500,000 children into poverty through his refusal to offer even the most basic help during the cost of living crisis, Sunak jetted off to his £5 million pad in California, where his priority was asking the Royal Mint to create an NFT.
Rishi Sunak is the product of both our system and his experience: an elite private school education, Oxford University, a lucrative career as a banker, a marriage to a tax-avoiding billionaire, and election as a Tory MP. Many find it no surprise that a cabinet full of individuals whose lives look similar is quite so out of touch.
The political black hole that made up the recent Spring Statement—a fuel duty cut and a change to the National Insurance Contributions threshold, which together still leave the average family £1,000 worse off this year—was only one example. Last week, it was also revealed that the Chancellor and his wife had donated more than £100,000 to his elite former school, Winchester College, which costs £43,000 per year to attend. Sunak and his wife used Winchester’s charitable status to justify the donation, saying that the money would be used to fund bursaries and scholarships for children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to go to there.
Private schools may have charitable status, but they are really engines of inequality. Only four percent of private school turnover is devoted to bursaries, and only one percent of private school pupils get to go for free. Bursaries and grants are relatively low in value, and distributed to only one in five families of pupils outside the wealthiest ten percent, according to research conducted by UCL’s Institute for Education last year. In reality, Sunak’s donation does more to strengthen a socially segregated system of education than fight educational inequality.
This is all the truer given that state schools, meanwhile, have not benefited from the largesse of the Chancellor or the party he represents. According to IFS figures, state school spending per pupil in England fell by nine percent in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20, the largest cut in over forty years. The most deprived secondary schools saw a real-terms fall in spending of fourteen percent. The same time period has seen the gap between private school fees and state school spending per pupil more than double: on average, a private school pupil had £6,500—or ninety-two percent more—spent on them during the 2020-2021 academic year than a state school peer.
In his capacity as one of the country’s most powerful politicians, then, there are things Rishi Sunak could do to improve the levelness of the playing field. Besides undoing the state funding cuts above, which are forcing public sector teachers to pay for teaching resources out of their own pockets, he could also bring in a pay rise for those teachers, who, according to analysis of data from the House of Commons Library, are also individually £4,000 worse off after a decade of Tory cuts. The conditions in which state school teachers work are the conditions in which their pupils learn, and ninety-four percent are now facing a further real-terms pay cut after Rishi Sunak opted to freeze public sector pay for those on more than £24,000. It’s no surprise that one in three plan to quit the classroom within five years.
Beyond the school gates, too, Sunak could reinstate the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, which kept an estimated 400,000 children out of poverty, and which his government slashed in October last year. And he could take steps to ease the cost of living crisis, including levying a windfall tax on the obscene profits of oil and gas companies and an increase to the minimum wage. Analysis from the New Economics Foundation earlier this year found that nearly half of all children are now living in families struggling to afford replacing clothes and shoes or putting food on the table. Cold, hungry children do not learn well.
Rishi Sunak is ultimately free to spend his obscene private wealth how he likes, but his attempt to justify that spending on the basis of meritocracy and equality of opportunity while instituting a brutal policy programme that punishes the poorest families proves just how hollow those notions really are. The route to educational equality is not through a Dickensian model of charity that might benefit a tiny few, and leaves the rest behind. It’s through a system of properly funded schools, staffed by teachers who are supported and valued in their work, and accessible to every single child.