Nick Clegg’s “Fairness Premium” – is it fair?

Nick Clegg wants to blow several billion pounds on what he’s calling his “Fairness Premium”.  This will provide extra tuition, from a very young age, to children from poorer backgrounds, as a response to the observed phenomenon that such children frequently perform poorly at school.
 
At one level, this is part of the Coalition’s news management ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review, due any minute,  and is designed to show that “We’re all in this together”, we’re sharing the pain, we’re hitting the comfortable middle classes and reaching out to the poor.  As such, it sits alongside the cuts in middle class child benefit (right in principle but badly handled) and the new pension contribution ceilings.
 
But at another level, it embodies the tired Socialist nostrum that all children are created equal, and that if one group performs less well than another, that can only be the result of disadvantage – or even “discrimination” (remember when to be called discriminating was a great compliment?).
 
Now of course if one child is born to feckless, drug-addicted parents and raised in a squalid and disorderly council flat, while another is raised by educated and responsible parents, surrounded by books and intellectual stimulation, in a five-bedroomed detached house in a leafy suburb, the second child has a clear advantage.  But that is exactly why we have universal state education, to ensure that every child has access to an adequate and (ideally) equal level of opportunity, mental stimulus, and book learning.  That’s fair, and I doubt that anyone would argue with it (though we may argue about the quality of the state’s delivery of education, which Michael Gove is addressing).
 
But the fact remains that academically gifted adults tend (usually but not always) to have good qualifications and to achieve good progress in their chosen career, while the less academically gifted tend (usually but not always) to do less well.  It is also evident, both from sociological studies and common experience, that academically gifted parents tend (again, usually but not always) to have academically gifted children.  That is why the children of the academically gifted tend (same caveat) to do well in life and become higher earners, while the less academically gifted tend to do less well and earn less money (unless they become pop stars, footballers or lottery winners).  This is called heredity.
 
It is arguably unfair to take any group of pupils and put additional resources behind them.  But putting that aside, the question remains, if we do decide to favour a particular group, which group do we choose?  And let’s remember that ”favouring a particular group” is almost a text-book definition of discrimination.
 
Of course if we merely have a short-term political objective, to be seen to be compassionate to the poor, we may choose to spend extra resources on those who are less academically gifted and less likely to succeed.  But we are constantly told that the West can no longer compete in basic manufacturing, that low-skilled jobs are moving abroad, and that we must make our living in future by our wits, our skills, our innovation.  So if the objective of spending public money on education is to ensure that Britain can thrive (or even survive) in a globalised economy where our success depends on brain-power, surely we should put extra resource behind the gifted and talented, to ensure a future stream of entrepreneurs, innovators and Nobel prize-winners?
 
I think we should do better to promote excellence rather than broad-based mediocrity.  And if schoolchildren are leaving school unable to read and write, that is an argument for better discipline and better teaching in school (dare I mention phonics?), not for squandering resources where they are less likely to show any return.
 
P.S.  Throughout the above, you can substitute “intelligent” for “academically gifted”.  But this seems to make the egalitarians, socialists and levellers even more apoplectic than usual

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