What I’ve learned about social mobility and schools

As his three years on the Social Mobility Commission come to an end, Sammy Wright reflects on the challenge in schools
20th October 2021, 1:00pm


What I’ve learned about social mobility and schools

The Disadvantage Gap: What's The Truth About Schools & Social Mobility?

Three years ago I got a letter from the prime minister.

It was a bit of a surprise.

I’d applied for a post on the Social Mobility Commission, without really having twigged that this would be a government appointment. I just thought it would be interesting.

I certainly didn’t expect to end up speaking to the BBC before gate duty and telling my A-level literature class to be quiet while I presented to a group of MPs.

Now, though, my three-year term is up and it’s got me reflecting on the whole process, what we achieve and what the key insights are for the future that schools should be aware of.

More by Sammy Wright: 

The most obvious insight is one that I think all of us in education know: we are in a moment of generational crisis.

This was the case long before Covid hit. Don’t believe the helpless “who could have predicted this?” statements about a decade of progress being undone that have come out over the past year.

Our research shows clearly that the progress gap at key stage 4 has widened every year since 2016.

Social mobility: Closing the disadvantage gap in schools

The fact that we only found 11 schools in the country that had succeeded in closing that gap pre-pandemic, none of which were remotely representative (or famous in education circles for their successes), was for me a perfect illustration of the fact that our issues with the underachievement of disadvantaged children are systemic.

Put on top of that the collapse in alternative provision, children’s services and SEND support that has been driven by the vast cuts in local authority budgets, and we have a situation where, increasingly, our schools fail those they should help the most, and where the numbers of those they should help the most have been swelled massively by the pandemic.

So what should we do? Silent corridors or restorative conversations? More exams or fewer exams? Soft skills or academic rigour?

Call me naïve, but three years ago I didn’t even know edutwitter was a thing, and I certainly wasn’t into debating the finer points of prog vs trad.

So after I dutifully plunged into this world, it has been instructive to see the way that we, as teachers and school leaders, accept the burden of responsibility that the government (and society) places on us.

We get sucked into heated debates that frame the proportion of teacher talk in a lesson as more significant for a child’s achievement than whether or not they ate that day. To be blunt, we love the narrative that paints us as having the power to save.

But it isn’t all down to us.

Looking beyond the school gates

Simply put, we are facing the wrong direction. In the world of education, we spend our time looking into school and arguing over the mechanics, when the real debate is about the structure of the society beyond our school gates.

People often refer admiringly to other countries and their education systems as avatars of a particular approach - Singapore as the exemplar of the knowledge-rich approach, Germany as excelling in technical education for the workplace, and Finland as offering a child-centred, creative, self-actualisation approach.

But, of course, Singapore is a technocratic society heavily dependent on knowledge-rich jobs, Germany is a major manufacturing centre and Finland is a sparsely populated, high-tax, high-welfare state.

The uncomfortable truth in the UK is that we are increasingly a country of vast inequality, and a split between a minority of well-renumerated jobs that demand high levels of education and badly paid jobs that don’t.

And we have an education system that fits perfectly with this - one marked by high-stakes assessments, limited opportunity monopolised by the privileged, and an obsession with gatekeeping credentialism.

Whether we focus on teaching Latin, vocational education or creative problem-solving in the classroom, we need to acknowledge the interplay between schools and the society they sit in.

Our research found that in some areas of the UK a disadvantaged young person who beats the odds and gets the grades will end up on a par with his non-disadvantaged peers - but in many other areas those grades are not the gateway we promised they would be.

This is the big lie of British education. We say school is a path to future success - but it is a path too narrow for the numbers setting out on it.

And it is freighted with an immense weight of psychological baggage that says, “If you don’t fit this academic template, you’re second best.”

Making progress on social mobility

So what needs to change to tackle this?  

Let’s start with post-16 - the sector currently catering for those in most immediate need after the exam disruptions of the past two years.

It needed attention at the start of my term, but now the need is desperate.

We need to equalise funding, tying it to an increase in teaching hours, and to top up that funding with an extension of the pupil premium - because disadvantage doesn’t stop at 16, and for young people without the support at home, this is the crucial time that defines their later careers.

Then let’s work to reform our qualifications, collaborating across party boundaries, so we address the “forgotten third”, as the Association of School and College Leaders puts it - the students left behind at 16.

And if we do that, maybe we can create a qualification system that builds on previous educational revolutions, without dogma, and focus on all that children need -knowledge, of course, but also the friendships, the happiness, the sense of purpose that the best schools (trad or prog) always provide.

And now I sign off, into the next phase - still teaching, but now writing, too. My first novel, Fit, tries to do what I find so hard to achieve in a 30-minute Zoom policy round table. It tries to explore the ambiguities, compromises and failures of social mobility. Wish me luck.

Sammy Wright is a school leader and a Social Mobility Commission commissioner. He tweets @samuelwright78 

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content. Or register to get 2 articles free per month.

Already registered? Log in

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content.

topics in this article