For two decades, successive governments have made the pursuit of higher levels of social mobility one of the holy grails of public policy. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is the latest politician to embark on the quest, armed with a vision of ‘revolutionising’ reforms that will “be transformative in terms of changing and improving the opportunities for young people”. What sort of task is he taking on? Are schools delivering the skills and the social mobility we need for a successful post-pandemic, post-Brexit economy?
The 2019 State of the Nation report from the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) drew the depressing conclusion that:
“Inequality is still deeply entrenched in Britain: there is a persistent gap in early literacy; the attainment gap at the end of secondary school has hardly shifted since 2014 and the better off are nearly 80 per cent more likely to end up in a professional job than those from a working class background”.
This is despite the fact that, as a 2017 SMC report reminds us, “For two decades, successive governments have made the pursuit of higher levels of social mobility one of the holy grails of public policy”.
Post-pandemic and post-Brexit: schools and social mobility
As described by the SMC, social mobility is about “ensuring that a person’s occupation and income are not tied to where they started in life”. Upward social mobility is about ‘fairness’: it depends on people of all backgrounds having equal opportunities to achieve their potential.
Obviously, this is desirable because it ensures the national economy remains robust, dynamic and strong, so it’s in all our interests to get it right.
For some, social mobility can be achieved through the status and financial rewards of specific aptitudes they’ve been born with, such as a talent for sport or for music. However, for most of us, our future life chances and economic success will depend on how we fare in the general education system.
Social Mobility Commission report
In this regard, the SMC’s 2019 report makes uncomfortable reading. Among its depressing findings:
Gaps that exist between children’s attainment at the start of school continue to widen in subsequent years. Some 18 percent of all pupils (98,799 pupils) leave school without reaching Level 2 qualifications (at least five GCSEs at Grade 4 or above or the equivalent technical qualifications).
The report makes no bones about the main factor driving attainment gaps. This being the relative advantage or disadvantage of the background into which a child is born:
“Child poverty has an important influence on social mobility, as children living in poverty can often have worse health, worse education outcomes and start school developmentally behind their more advantaged peers.”
The education gap and social inequality
Children on free school meals start with a 14-percentage point deficit in phonics attainment at the age of six. By the age of 11, only 46 percent of these children will have reached the standards expected for reading, writing and mathematics. Only 16 percent will finish school with two A-levels (compared to 39 percent of other pupils).
Thus, disadvantage causes social mobility barriers to kick in early. This makes the fact that 500,000 more children were found to be in poverty in 2018 than in 2012 very problematic.
Apprenticeships and social mobility
Apprenticeships should be a “powerful vehicle for social mobility”. But this is undermined by the fact that comparatively higher numbers of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are found in “lower-returning and lower level apprenticeships”.
In addition, the fact that apprenticeship placements at levels 2 and 3 have dropped since 2016/17 means that the benefits gained from even a low-level apprenticeship have become less available.
Social inequality and the pandemic
The situation has unfortunately been made worse by the closure of schools during the pandemic. This has led to major inequalities in access to learning.
The government’s response has been to appoint a ‘catch-up’ tsar. It has also announced £1.7bn funding for ‘education recovery’. And Williamson spoke recently about extending the school day and the school year to make up for lost time.
But even Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s appointee driving this strategy, is cautious:
“The recovery needs to be long term, sustained and far-reaching. Catch-up is not the language I’m using. It’s much more about recovery over time. We need to go much further, with a more fundamental and long-term piece of work.”
Educational reform for social mobility
Other voices seek more fundamental, long-term reform. They think this may be a good time to ring in major changes, for example to exams and assessments.
Rethink Assessment is a growing movement that seeks fundamental reform of our current system. The organisation’s advisory group is especially critical of GCSEs – “high stakes national exams”, taken at a vulnerable stage of adolescent development – which they regard as no longer making any sense, given that students are now locked into the education system until they are 18.
Social and economic equality
One theory of social mobility holds that individual mobility simply entrenches societal distinctions. What we should instead aim for is “the achievement of social and economic equality for all”.
Within the education system, a good start towards this would be to raise the profile of further education. If the 14+ curriculum were to be reformed, it could, for example, give pupils many more opportunities to start Level 2 and Level 3 apprenticeships whilst still at school. This would greatly enhance the kudos of skills training, boost the further education colleges’ role in secondary education provision and help to raise the social status (and perhaps ultimately the financial rewards) of skills-based jobs.
Funding for education provision is, of course, a fundamental issue. According to the Independent Schools Council census 2019, on average, the cost of sending a child to a private day school is £19,206 per annum. State schools receive £5,000 per secondary pupil and £3,750 per primary pupil. Rectifying this discrepancy is long overdue.
Can policy change make a difference to social mobility?
It is certainly true that, as Gavin Williamson suggests, improving the opportunities of all young people will require a revolution of sorts. Whether it is entirely within the capacity of schools to bring it about is questionable.
However, while there are societal barriers to mobility, schools have a huge role to play. In this period when change does seem to be possible, it will be interesting to see whether the education secretary is able to bring us any closer to attaining the holy grail of high social mobility than his predecessors did.