Our society is stuck in a rut on social mobility – or rather, immobility. For decades, governments of every persuasion have sought to improve social mobility, to narrow the gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. But that gap – in education, income, housing, health – continues to yawn. It is time to think more radically.
Recent months have seen a steady flow of research evidence documenting this problem. Two reports published this summer are good examples. Closing the Gap: Trends in Educational Attainment and from the Education Policy Institute, reveals that the most disadvantaged pupils in England are now on average more than two full years of learning behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the end of secondary school.Annual statistics published by the DFE on the same day showed no improvement in the gap in university entry between those who received free school meals and their peers in the seven years from 2008-9 and 2014-15. In the most recent year, 24% of FSM pupils entered HE, compared with 41% of the rest.
Earlier in the summer, the independent Social Mobility Commission’s important Closing the Gap report examined the impact of government policies across four life stages during the 20 years since 1997. Although successive governments made the pursuit of higher social mobility levels a ‘holy grail’ of policy, Alan Milburn and his commission colleagues were unable to give the top rating to any life stage. They warned that without major reform, social and economic divisions within Britain’s society will widen. Government commitment has waxed and waned, they said, and resources have not been aligned sufficiently with goals.
At the excellent Sutton Trust summit on social mobility last month, my panel was asked to set out one policy change each of us would make to bring about change in educational outcomes. My response was that, in the field of education, the answer has to be: to find ways to support and incentivise the quality of teaching in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
We know that much of the gap in HE participation exists because children from lower social groups are less likely to get good GCSE results. And when you look only at the impact of school itself on children’s achievement it is teaching quality that makes the biggest difference to their outcomes, especially for the most disadvantaged. Comprehensive studies from the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) have highlighted both these issues, and this evidence is supported by findings from Sutton Trust and others.
Unfortunately, we know a lot about what doesn’t incentivise teachers to take jobs in disadvantaged areas and struggling schools, but very little about what does. For example, cash incentives don’t seem to work because people don’t go into teaching for the money. So we need to look at different approaches. For instance could we offer more help with housing in city centres? Travel funding in rural areas? Or what about a boost to a teacher’s CV?
The other glaring area of potential is in the early years. In spite of the many initiatives and structural reforms in secondary and primary schooling (and their generally mixed or scant results), it is in the area of early years provision that evidence consistently shows impact in narrowing early gaps, with ongoing impact for children’s futures. The large-scale British Cohort study of people born in 1970, based at the IOE, found that most of the link between social origins at birth and social class destinations in mid-life is accounted for by cognitive scores up to age 10 – though secondary education can still make a difference. And the prestigious government-funded EPPSE programme, based at the IOE, demonstrated that the effects of high quality early education lasted throughout schooling, especially for children from deprived backgrounds. It showed that:
- Children who had early years education gained higher English and mathematics GCSE results and were more likely to achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A*C.
- Children who had experienced high quality pre-school settings were more likely to follow a post-16 academic path.
Quality of provision is key. The Nutbrown Review pointed out the importance of high quality teaching in the early years, but recommendations went largely un-implemented. Current policy foci appear to be on quantity of provision rather than quality. And in spite of the strength of international research evidence of the difference high quality early years provision can make, there seems to be a degree of policy fatigue on this issue – and it’s of course an area needing substantial resource to make an impact.
We also need to recognise that social mobility requires downward movement as well as up. In other words, we have to address loss aversion and the various ways that more affluent families work to secure their advantage.
In a time of austerity, the gap is likely to get worse, because there is less to go around. Middle class parents will always tend to seek advantages for their children. More than ever before, financial advantage is working with social and cultural capital to secure further advantage (unpaid internships and university personal statements being just two illustrations of this phenomenon). We need redistributive funding and measures that prevent or penalise access via cultural and social capital. In short, social mobility demands greater focus on equity – and this needs to be wide-ranging, both within and without education.
As CLS’s 2014 Primary and Secondary Education and Poverty Review concluded: “The social mobility chances of individual children may well be best increased via educational attainment. However, the overall level of poverty in society is driven by structural inequalities in our economy and society which clearly cannot be addressed simply by reforming schools.”