Social mobility: A puzzle the government has no desire to solve

For those who believe the UK government cares about addressing inequality or promoting social mobility these must have been a disappointing past few days.

Justine Greening resigned as education secretary in the midst of a botched cabinet reshuffle, only a few weeks after launching a ‘plan for improving social mobility through education’. Explaining her decision to turn down a lesser role and leave the government, she tweeted, ‘Social mobility matters to me and our country more than my ministerial career. I’ll continue to do everything I can to create a country that has equality of opportunity for young people’. It is a depressing footnote to the story of the Conservatives’ dreadful and ongoing mismanagement of the education sector that Ms Greening felt this was something she was better placed to do outside government.

A new education secretary, Damian Hinds, was appointed, a politician whose chairmanship of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility appears to have done little to blunt his enthusiasm for selective schools. Mr Hinds’ appointment is widely seen as an attempt to get the Prime Minister’s plans for the education sector – derailed by her colossal misjudgment in calling a snap election – back on track. Notably, Mr Hinds shares Mrs May’s enthusiasm for grammar schools, frequently styled by Mrs May as an engine of social mobility when, of course, they are nothing of the sort.

One of Ms Greening’s most endearing qualities as education secretary was her lack of enthusiasm for this strand of Tory thinking. She has also resisted the dismal spread of free and faith schools. Her scepticism is well founded. A 2016 report on grammar schools and social mobility by the Education Policy Institute found that the gap between children on free school meals attaining five A*–C GCSEs, including English and Math) and all other children is wider in selective areas than in non-selective areas – at around 34.1 per cent compared with 27.8 per cent. The report also found that high-attaining pupils perform just as well in high-quality non-selective schools as in selective schools. And while faith schools can boast greater exam success, this is largely down to social selection.

But, of course, the Prime Minister knows all of this, as I am sure does Mr Hinds, who has called for an ‘elite’ grammar school in every major conurbation and has advocated the expansion of faith schools. Despite this, they seem set to continue defending ideologically driven interventions, which do nothing for the life chances of the poorest children and help ensure privilege is passed on from generation to generation, as levers to address the very social problems they help cause. Evidently, this is not what Ms Greening had in mind when she wrote of ‘putting social mobility at the heart of education policy’. And that helps explain why Ms Greening had to go. Her genuine commitment to social mobility posed a threat to Mrs May’s own regressive, dangerous and evidence-free plans for education.

The challenge of social mobility, of course, is huge, as Ms Greening admits in the foreword to her plan. The Social Mobility Commission’s last state-of-the-nation report noted ‘a stark social mobility lottery in Britain today’, arguing that the country seemed ‘to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division’. A week later, of course, the Commission resigned en masse over the Prime Minister’s failure to make progress towards a ‘fairer Britain’. This should have been a very public disaster for the government, particularly as it has repeatedly pledged to make Britain fairer and ensure no-one is ‘left behind’. But, in the context of a still supportive, Brexit-hungry media and in the absence of well-organised, effective opposition, the government has continued to function in an almost frictionless way, despite lurching from crisis to crisis, propelled by its own internal dysfunction.

Against this backdrop, Ms Greening’s plan was an opportunity for the government to seize the social mobility agenda and demonstrate its commitment to it. And while the plan does not live up to its promise to provide ‘a framework for action that can empower everyone – whether educators, government, business or civil society – to help transform equality of opportunity in this country’, it nevertheless offers welcome recognition of the need for a radical shift and for greater policy coherence in our approach, and of the ‘vital role’ of education in delivering meaningful change. But instead of backing the plan, and placing social mobility at the heart of education policy, there is every indication that the government will return to the ancien régime of free and faith schools and selection, which benefit the already advantaged at the expense of the rest, while pursuing its ongoing programme of cuts to state-maintained schools and FE colleges, which have resulted in plummeting learner numbers and a crisis in teacher recruitment.

While the ambitions of the plan are radical – there really is no ambition in politics greater, or more important, than to ensure that where a person starts in life does not determine where they end up – the recommendations are not. There are some good ideas and welcome recognition of the potential contribution of technical and further education to improving social mobility (though it neglects adult education), but the scope of the plan is too narrow and, of course, there is no new money to deliver on its ambitions to ‘reverse these negative spirals and generate a virtuous cycle to unlock talent and fulfil potential’.

One point on which Mr Hinds and Ms Greening agree is that social mobility interventions should focus on early years. This is essential, of course, but it cannot be the whole story. We need a much more joined-up and comprehensive plan to begin to address these issues, and we need to realise that education can only do so much and that widening inequality makes social mobility much more difficult to achieve. The gap between the rungs on the ladder make failure to difficult to countenance and gaming of the system far too tempting.

That said, while education cannot address all of these entrenched issues, it still has a big role to play but we need to be much bolder in thinking across the education system. We need to boost early-years provision, but we also need to ensure parents have the skills and capacities to support their children’s development, and that means investing in adult education and the millions of adults who left school without decent basic skills. We need strong, diverse higher education sector, with fair access, diverse providers and flourishing part-time provision, but we also need to reshape the system so that the range of routes to a good career and decent life are as diverse as people’s aspirations, and that means improving technical and vocational routes and taking some of our eggs out of the academic basket. It also means focusing not just on the talented few but on how to create a system that offers opportunity for all, a system that is properly fair and comprehensive.

To do that, we need to think about the education system in the round and not in silos and ensure that opportunity is evenly spread and is open to all, ensuring place and community are at the heart of the education agenda. No community should be considered ‘left behind’ when it comes to education. As Ms Greening’s plan urges, effort and resource should be directed ‘towards the places and people where it is most needed to unlock talent and fulfil potential’. And we need to recognise that a culture of constant reform, cost-cutting, poor pay and escalating workload, as we have seen for many years now in the further education sector, is not conducive to improving educational performance. None of this is possible without a flourishing, well-funded further education sector. Nor will it be possible while educators are underpaid, overworked and overburdened with the demands of accountability.

What, perhaps, we need most of all is to talk, really talk. Never has British politics been more in need of dialogue. Labour has some good ideas on education but it needs to convince voters and that means talking to people who do not agree with them. Stable government is only possible through the effort to find common ground with our opponents. It is also through dialogue that we can begin to change mind-sets, overcome echo-chamber politics and dispel some of the myths of the instinctive, kneejerk populism of the right. A big problem, from national to neighbourhood level, is the loss of public spaces where we can meet and reduce the gap between us. Flinging brickbats from behind the barricades just widens that gap. Until we begin to close it, find our common ground and develop inclusive, evidence-based policies that command wide support, we will a struggle to find stable solutions to the problems that haunt us.

 

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