Addressing social mobility through education – is it enough?

School children raising hands. View from behind.

We looked at the issue of social mobility and education last October, highlighting that although there has been continued investment by successive governments, the rate of progress is slow:

“it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.”

Since then, it seems the situation surrounding social mobility has become even more precarious.

Key priority?

The issue of social mobility is an historic one and it is claimed to be a key priority for the current government, which is working towards addressing the issue through education via its recently published national plan and the work of the Opportunity Areas programme.

However, in December all four board members of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) resigned over the government’s lack of progress on social justice, and in January, Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who played a key role in both the Opportunity Areas programme and social mobility action plan, also resigned.

The resignation letter of the Chair of the SMC, Alan Milburn, praised Justine Greening for having “shown a deep commitment to the issue”, but noted that “it has become obvious the government as a whole is unable to commit the same level of support.”

The last publication of the SMC, published in November, highlighted the existence of “a stark social mobility postcode lottery” in Britain and substantial inequalities in educational attainment linked to social disadvantage and place. The derailment of the SMC and subsequent loss of an education secretary openly committed to the issue, can therefore only be cause for concern.

Nevertheless, the government continues to stress its ambition of ‘no community left behind’, with a continued focus on initiatives such as Opportunity Areas.

Opportunity Areas

Opportunity Areas are part of the government’s national plan for dealing with social mobility through education.

The programme targets £72 million of funding at 12 areas identified as the most challenged when it comes to social mobility. The first six areas were announced in October 2016, with a further six announced in January 2017. The aim is to bring together schools, colleges, universities, early years providers and employers to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

The 12 areas will also have priority access to other government support including the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund worth £75 million, focused on supporting teachers and school leaders in challenging areas to develop. And a new £3.5 million programme will support the creation of a research school for each opportunity area.

While the programme has been welcomed by many, it has also been criticised.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has recognised it as a ‘good start’, but highlights that there are numerous other areas across the country that are not covered by the programme where social mobility is stagnating or even getting worse. It also suggests that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

Concerns have also been raised over challenges facing the programme, which included capacity, including the risk of overloading the system.

Other concerns that have been recently cited have included school funding cuts, which could effectively cancel out the programme’s funding for some, and the criteria used to select areas, which could be an issue while there is a lack of clarity on the relationship between social mobility and disadvantage.

Education Datalab has argued that targeting through geography alone is inadequate and that both area-based and individual focused policies are needed.

Way forward

Much of the commentary on the social mobility issue has hinted at the need for a national, rather than or in addition to  a local focus. Indeed, the SMC recognised the need for a more wide-ranging government response in its assessment of policies on social mobility published last year.

And in its new report out last week, the Education Select Committee called for greater powers and resources for the SMC to enable it to tackle social injustices effectively. It also suggests, based on evidence from the former members of the SMC, that the government needs to co-ordinate the social justice agenda from the centre to ensure all departments are aiming in the same direction.

The government’s plan for addressing social mobility through education clearly acknowledges the scale of the challenge:

“this plan is only an important step in a long-term process to improve social mobility and spread equality of opportunity… To achieve this will take time, it will take an incredible amount of determination and focus, and it will take an unprecedented partnership. But, together, it is possible.”

But if the government fails to adopt a more wide-ranging response to promoting social mobility, as so many have advocated, perhaps it will take even longer to achieve than previously estimated.


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