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Snakes and ladders: thoughts on social mobility and education

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Blog - Snakes and ladders: thoughts on social mobility and education

Tuesday 5 February 2013

A priority for this government, as for the last, is to improve ‘social mobility’.  The problem is this: it is much more difficult for people in this country to move up through the social ladder, than it is in other comparable countries.  And the situation for those who start out at the bottom of society has got worse over the past 50 years.  Children born now into less advantaged families are far more likely to stay at that level in society throughout their lives.

Of course, the flip side of this is that people born into advantaged homes are also much more likely to hold on to their position in the upper strata of society as they go through life, going from relative privilege as children to the best educational opportunities, good universities, and the best jobs. Because they are less likely to move ‘down’ the ladder, there is less space in the top jobs for people who are moving up. However, as society as a whole becomes more educated, then there can be growth in the number of jobs available at the top as higher level activities increase, so it is not just a game of snakes and ladders.

Nobody thinks this is a good situation for us to be in as a country.  Not only must it be morally wrong to structure society in a way that holds people back or which allows the best opportunities only for the ‘lucky ones’, but also it is profoundly corrosive to our sense of community.  People become disillusioned and embittered, and ultimately their loyalty to what we share as a country is jeopardized.  The long term consequences of this can be disastrous in all sorts of ways.

Education and schools obviously have a big role to play in addressing the problem, though education is far from the only factor causing it.  Clearly, though, over the past 50 years, schools have not managed to enable children from less advantaged backgrounds to access the best opportunities, or not in sufficient numbers anyway.  Tackling this problem is one of the priorities of Michael Gove, the current education secretary.  How successful one deems him to be will depend to some extent on one’s political standpoint.

In our own area, Kent, we often hear advocates of grammar schools arguing that grammar schools enable poor children to be given a ‘leg up’, lifted out of their disadvantaged circumstances and enabled to flourish against the odds.

I was struck recently by some research done by Chris Cook of the Financial Times (a right-leaning newspaper).  Cook set out to see whether it is possible to demonstrate that in fact poorer children in grammar school areas of the country do better than poor children in other (non-selective) areas.  In fact, precisely the opposite turned out to be true.  The average GCSE score for children on free school meals in the main grammar school areas of England, including Kent, is 17.7, which is fractionally higher than for the north-east and Yorkshire, but lower than every other (non-selective) region of England.  The score for London’s free school meals children is 23.5. For those of us who know a little bit about the lucrative (well, for the tutors anyway) tuition industry in many selective areas this is scarcely a surprise.  Poor families simply cannot compete with the more advantaged in this game.

Now, I am about to say something quite surprising.  I have no problem whatsoever with grammar school education.  In fact, I think it is, in good grammar schools (and not all are good, according to Ofsted) an excellent thing.  Grammar schools can be excellent in the sense that they offer for example a traditional academic education, good teaching with highly qualified teachers, good discipline, smart uniforms, a good range of sport and musical activities, Latin, traditional separate sciences, several modern languages for all, traditions to bind the school together as a community, high aspirations for all and good progression on to good universities.  Nothing wrong with any of that – in fact, it is so good that we do exactly the same at Bennett.

What I do have a problem with, rather than grammar schools, is the 11+ test.  And that is because I think that everyone should have access to the kind of school I have just described.  This for two reasons.  Firstly, because I am certain that it is impossible to predict at the age of 11 (or 10, even) who is going to benefit from a traditional academic education and who is not.  It might be easier at 14 or 15, but it certainly isn’t at age 10.  Secondly, because the 11+ test and its accompanying tutoring industry tends to filter out precisely the children who could most benefit from the traditional kind of schooling that grammar schools, and Bennett, offer.  You only have to look at the ‘free school meals’ numbers in grammar schools in West Kent to see this: basically, there aren’t any. Or many, anyway.

So a grammar school education – or, to put it another way, a traditional, rigorous academic education – for everyone.  Now that would be a way to improve social mobility.  Because the people from the less advantaged backgrounds could access the same top quality opportunities as the more advantaged without having to cross the obstacle of prepping for the 11+ first.

Why, you might justifiably ask, have schools in other parts of the country where there is no 11+ not managed to achieve this social mobility already?  Well, remember that they have certainly been no less successful than we have been in grammar school areas.  In fact they have been slightly more successful, and in the case of London much more successful.

But the main reason why they have not managed it as well as they might is perhaps partly because traditional schooling, as I have described above, disappeared in the 1970s at the same time as (but not necessarily because) the 11+ was abolished in those areas.  The new comprehensives in those areas tended not to model themselves (with some notable exceptions) on the traditional grammar schools and their values. Many of those who could afford to moved their children into private schools or, indeed, to the few schools which were still educating on traditional lines.  This made the emerging social mobility problem worse.  Ever heard of the so-called ‘Matthew effect’?  It goes something like this: To those who already have, more will be given; to those who don’t have much, what they do have will be further diminished.

So I am (surprising comment again) totally in favour of a ‘grammar school education’, and the traditional approaches which underpin it are exactly what we do at Bennett, like many other successful schools, including many of the superb schools in places like London (Mossbourne Academy, where Sir Michael Willshaw was the head, being one).

However, I am adamantly opposed to limiting this to children who pass a test at age 10 or 11, because I think the range who can benefit from this kind of schooling is far, far broader.  I am utterly proud of the work Bennett does in bringing this traditional education to all its students.  The results speak for themselves, and Ofsted recognized it, as did the Minister of State for Schools only last week (see the letter from David Laws on the school website).  Educationally, this is exactly what we set out to achieve, and we will go on doing so, better and better still each year.  We will not make the mistakes made by so many schools in the 1970s, and ‘dumb down’ the curriculum or teaching, or jettison our values and traditions.  But neither will we take the easy way out and only offer this top quality education to those who are able to pass, or be tutored to pass, a test at the age of 10 or 11, which relies on the total fiction that ‘intelligence’ is somehow fixed at this age and can be easily measured.  We will offer high quality traditional education to all, and we will continue to succeed with all.