Social mobility requires teachers

Living and working as I do in Oxford, I am not surprised about the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission findings, published today, about the importance of private schools in the education of those at the top of many career ladders. These universities, and others in disciplines not addressed by Oxford and Cambridge, will always turn out those likely to become the leaders in their chosen fields.

The debate sparked by this fairly commonplace research, but nevertheless worthwhile as a reminder of the real world, has been mostly about how to create access to these universities for a wider group of students? Both Oxford and Cambridge are now creating schemes to take more pupils from a wider range of backgrounds than when the present leaders in society were heading for university all those years ago.

However, for me, the key issue remains the need to provide enough teachers all of whom are inspiring for all pupils in our schools. To further the Oxford theme, BMW don’t want to produce any sub-standard cars at their Cowley plant, and they put in place quality assurance mechanisms to prevent that happening. Politicians on the other hand don’t view schooling in the same way. Parents are required to educate their children, but if they trust the State to undertake that education, there is no guarantee of quality or even, as recent data about pupils with special education needs has revealed, a guarantee of a school place.

One issue that I have raised consistently over the past two decades is that of the credentials that teachers need in order to teach. For teachers in the secondary sector, subject knowledge, a knowledge of pedagogy, and the ability to marry the two together, are, in my view, vital in allowing teachers to teach their subject, especially as it become more complex to understand and explain.

However, governments of all persuasions have continued to remain satisfied with a minimum standard that allows those with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) to teach anything to anyone of any age in schools. Indeed, thanks to Michael Gove, you don’t even need to have that basic qualification to teach in most state-funded secondary schools these days, and teachers trained in a range of different countries have automatic right to obtain QTS.

Is this minimum standard, with no requirement to keep it up to date during a teacher’s career, still acceptable in the 21st century? Well, it allows Ministers to talk of record teacher numbers, not of record shortages of teachers equipped to teach physics, business studies or many aspects of design and technology.

This lack of respect for parents and children by a state system that is not staffed by teachers knowledgeable in their subject lies behind a large part of why some children, however able, cannot reach our top universities.

A labour market based upon open competition, with schools increasingly setting their own pay rates, favours schools with access to more funds. These nearly always aren’t the schools in the most deprived areas: those schools also lack access to the same degree of parental funding and support, whether through direct monthly cash payments or by parents paying for private tuition that help keep up a school’s outcomes.


We cannot ignore those left behind

This post was prompted by two event. Firstly, someone reading my post of the 15th June 2017 on this blog, entitled Class rules: not OK, about a report issued by the Social Mobility Commission, and secondly, by some recent data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported in the Oxford Mail. That data revealed that in the area of North Oxford I represent on the county council women can expect to live up to eleven years longer than women living in some parts of the east of the City.

Both of these facts reminded me of the issue of deprivation, and the role that education can, could and should play in helping improve the life chances of everyone in society. Over the years, since fresh thinking began to appear after the paralysis of the Second World War, and its aftermath, there have been various schemes aimed at reducing the effects of deprivation on schooling. These have included, Education Priority Areas, Schools of Exceptional Difficulty; Education Action Zones, and currently, Education Opportunity Areas. In the same time period funding for schooling has shifted from a local matter, topped up by grants from Westminster, to a national formula assisted by the Pupil Premium for some children, with different arrangements for those designed as SEND pupils.

Have any of these interventions made much difference? The interesting point about all the schemes listed in the previous paragraph was that they were determined at a national level. There was also a time during the period when the market was seen as the dominant narrative in policy-making when there were few schemes specifically aimed at the disadvantaged areas of England.

So, what would I do if I had the chance? Teachers are important. For without teachers both determined to work in these areas of deprivation and with an understanding of the children and their families that live there, no progress will be made. When there are teacher shortages, challenging schools find staffing difficult and turnover a real problem, as those that do come to work in these schools often don’t stay very long. Well-designed local training programmes crafted between schools and higher education can help, and will certainly reduce the lack of preparation some new teachers feel when joining these schools that are so unfamiliar to them. Good leadership is also very important, and I worry about the development of both middle and senior leadership for these challenging schools in the present climate. But without staff, no changes are possible.

Then, of equal importance, there is the curriculum. Yes, reading and writing are important, but so is a balanced curriculum, especially in the secondary school. We need a curriculum that increasingly involves the learner in choosing rather than being told what to learn. Of course, you cannot choose to learn to break the law, but you may want to learn a more practical set of skills than the current EBacc permits. To demotivate and even alienate from learning young people both now, and probably in the future, through an inappropriate curriculum is a as great a failure of our politicians than the current shambles over Brexit.

Finally, we need to engage the parents that the system failed. Unless we do, they won’t help break the cycle of deprivation. As an earlier post showed, the relationship between persistent absence and deprivation is stark. If education for all really is important for our future as a society, then we have to break down this cycle that is repeating itself between the generations.

All this takes cash, and with rising pupil numbers and a lack of political will to increase taxation, it is difficult to see where the resources will come from. Perhaps, through greater use of modern technology?

Class rules: not OK

The Social Mobility Commission is an advisory, non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England. Today it has published a report which finds that nearly half of people (48 per cent) believe that where you end up in society today is mainly determined by your background and who your parents are. This compares to 32 per cent who believe everyone has a fair chance to get on regardless of their background.

The Social Mobility Barometer uncovers feelings of deep social pessimism among young people with half (51 per cent) of 18-24 year olds agreeing with this statement compared with 40 per cent of those aged 65 and over. The full report can be accessed at and is based upon data collected in March, well before the announcement of the general election, although during the period when campaigning in the shire counties for the county council elections was already underway in some parts of the country.

Although the report makes depressing reading in many aspects of its conclusions, there are some interesting and more optimistic observations on which those that believe in greater social mobility can use to build. It is clear that the country almost certainly did feel at the time the data was collected for this report that austerity had gone too far in hitting the poor. 49% thought that those ‘who are the least well off’ did not receive enough government support and this rose to 61% for ‘those just managing’, whereas 58% thought that ‘those who are the most well off’ received too much government support. I am sure that those sentiments played out in the voting patterns in the general election. What, because of my age, I call the 1945 effect. That was the election when the population was finally able to express an opinion on the 1930s decade of hardship and ignored the win in the war voted for Labour and social justice.

Anyway, back to the Social Mobility Commission’s report and a few other interesting nuggets. There are clear regional divides, with London and the South East being seen as the area of opportunity and the North East being seen as a part of the country where you may have to leave to seek opportunities elsewhere. Wales and Northern Ireland are also seen as ‘go from’ areas, something the DUP will no doubt be discussing with the Prime Minister in terms of the price for supporting her government.

The fact that 64% of respondents said that they had received a better education than their parents is encouraging and something we do need to preserve for the future. The supply and recruitment of teachers is absolutely key to achieving this goal. Respondents placed education as the future outcome where prospects were brightest over the next ten years with 40% expecting the next generation to receive a better education. There is a lot of trust being placed in us as educators by society.

It was also interesting to listen to the Oxford Dictionary representative on the radio this morning talking about the level of understanding of the use of language among primary school children. The fact that ‘Trump’ is their word of the year is also very reflective of how engaged young people generally are in what is going on around them.

Of most concern in the report is the fact that there is still general acceptance that educational opportunity is still shaped by background, with those from poor backgrounds having least opportunities and that the level of opportunity deteriorates between school and university.

I have written about the education divides locally in Oxfordshire in previous posts, this report reaffirms what we need to do. Recruit the best teachers and properly fund the schools in areas of least affluence and motive the parents to understand and support the benefits of education.

For government, spread the wealth from London and South East by opening up opportunities elsewhere or continue to see a southward shift in the population that could be accelerated after Brexit.




Congratulations and commiserations

Congratulations to everyone awarded an honour in the Queen’s Birthday honours list announced earlier today. Governments always seem more likely to honour those working in the policy areas that they favour and the latest list doesn’t appear to have bucked that particular trend. Sure, there are governors, crossing patrollers and those working in school meals awarded honours, but many of the top honours have gone to those working in the academies or free schools areas.

The honours’ list comes at the end of a week where UCAS have published some detailed data on offers made by individual universities that show some have different offer rates for different groups when analysed by race, class and gender.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the soon to retire Chief Inspector, also added his voice to the debate on how well pupils from poor backgrounds do at school and, according to the BBC report of what he said, he highlighted how gifted children from poor homes entitled to pupil premium money were still lagging well behind. He said, “The most recent statistics paint a bleak picture of underachievement and unfulfilled potential.”

Social mobility appears to have stalled in many schools. Even among the ‘best in class’ schools, whose heads are honoured today, there may still be some under-achievement of disadvantaged and among the poorest performing pupils.  Of course, parents may be partly culpable by not helping instil the value of education in their offspring, and it can be a real challenge to educate children in care whose lives, by the very fact they have been taken into care, are often among the most damaged and who present some of the greatest challenges to educators. It would surely be encouraging to see the head of the school that does best for these pupils rewarded with an honour and also some recognition of the virtual school services across the country that help coordinate the education of these often seriously challenged young people. How they would operate in a fully academised education service is another interesting question for the future.

So, commiserations to those pupils still not receiving the best possible education they could. They may also be affected by the other news story of the week, the debate in two parliamentary committees – the Education Select Committee and the PAC – about teacher supply and the role of government. If there are insufficient teachers in some subjects the ‘low attainers’, to use the DfE terminology, may study at Key Stage 4, such as design and technology, business studies and IT then perhaps it isn’t surprising that they don’t fulfil their potential.

I am sure that the in-coming Chief inspector, assuming her appointment is confirmed, with a background in leading a charity whose academies are aimed at developing the potential of all their pupils, will want to make the part schools play in helping achieve social mobility a key priority for the period in office.  Our aim must be to be able in a position where it is possible to congratulate every school on achieving the best possible outcome for every child.




Social Mobility Index

The government has drawn together a range of evidence about social mobility and come up with an index for each of over 350 local authorities. The key headlines are the widening north south divide and the fact that London and parts of the Home Counties are the place where social mobility is most apparent. Coastal areas and industrial towns are becoming real social mobility cold spots.

What is interesting are those areas where mobility is high but education performance is poor for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This seems to be areas in the south where the adult labour market is strong. Oxford is one of these places. The education outcomes of schools in some parts of the City are amongst the worst in the country, yet unemployment is amongst the lowest as measured by those on benefit. The two universities, a large health service presence and a major car-making plant all no doubt generate significant employment opportunities servicing their needs that doesn’t yet require significant levels of education. How long that will last is open to question. I recall the adage that the porter of yesterday is the fork-lift truck driver of today and the operator of the robot staffed warehouse of tomorrow. It is clear that a porter may need fewer educational skills than the console operator, although driving robots might need far fewer people to do the same job.

Even more worrying is the statement that ‘Many of the richest places in England are doing worse for their disadvantaged children than places that are much poorer’. Civic pride has been replaced, at least in education, by a governance system devoid of ties to local areas. The report concludes that, ‘It is notable that local areas in the East Midlands and the East of England are significantly are over-represented in areas that do significantly worse than expected given their level of deprivation, together making up half of the lowest performing 10 per cent of areas on this measure.’

I would urge anyone interested in the issue of social mobility to look at the full report and perhaps to challenge some of the assumptions behind the data. For instance, social mobility might seem good in London, but who can afford to live in the city these days and does that affect the outcome of reports of this nature?

The importance of communications is one of the features that can affect social mobility. It is interesting to look at Banbury in North Oxfordshire as a case study. Not only does the M40 run pas the town with a junction handily placed for commuters but the rail link to London now takes less than an hour. As a result, the town has relatively low unemployment, but still has areas of disadvantage second only to Oxford in the county. As the town grows so it attracts more affluent incomers, but at the risk if leaving behind a group of under-performing long-term residents that have received some benefit from the growth, but not as measured by this Social Mobility Index. .

Grammar schools to combat ‘elitism’?

Before writing this piece I must declare an interest; I attended a local authority grammar school during the early 1960s.  Indeed, it was one of the first Co-educational grammar schools that were founded after the Balfour’s 1902 Education Act. I then went on to attend the LSE, and only to Oxford University for my advanced degree sometime later.

The recent Sutton Trust research about the social backgrounds of those pupils that win places at grammar schools shows why just increasing the number of such schools would probably have little effect on combating elitism in English society. The middle class would pay through the nose for primary education to secure the prize of a grammar school place knowing that secondary education would then be free. There would be a devastating effect on the secondary private school market, as it would largely be redundant. You have only to look at the distribution of independent days schools in relation to the remaining selective state schools to see how this trend might develop.

It is far better to develop a high quality comprehensive and local state funded school system as the alternative to those parents that want to pay for private education. There are some Conservatives that want to go the other way and force the State to pay for all education, but it is difficult to see how that end could be achieved without a serious hike in general taxation, something these same Conservatives often strenuously oppose.

Still, it is time to return to our discussion about grammar schools. The DfE Performance Tables show that 69% of pupils in Kent, where there are many grammar schools, made the expected progress in English to Key Stage 4, with 70.8% making the expected progress in Mathematics. In total, 61.3% achieved %A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths. By contrast, Hertfordshire that although it has two schools called grammar schools in Watford is technically a county of non-selective secondary schools, achieved 70% progress in English, about the same as in Kent, but 75% in Mathematics, significantly better than in Kent. Overall, 65.8% of Hertfordshire pupils met the 5A*-C target; again better than in Kent.

If we want our schools to work for all pupils, and not just future elites, then perhaps the Sutton Trust shouldn’t give up so quickly on the issue of whether grammar schools should remain. Their advocacy of blind admissions as the solution might ameliorate the situation, but would probably just inspire the middle classes to work harder at finding a way around the system.

The key issue is how to persuade middle class parents that their children will do as well, or possibly even better, in a non-selective secondary system. But, perhaps we cannot, since it isn’t just about academic outcomes but is about many other factors as well. However, I celebrate the fact that the Oxfordshire Orchestra playing at the School’s Prom this week will be largely comprised of pupils from comprehensive schools.