'Could the government’s quiet and understated social mobility plan prove to be a game-changer?'

The government's strategy displays a new determination to bring coherence to a broken system – and this is to be admired, writes one heads’ leader

Geoff Barton

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Writing in this week’s Big Issue, Darren McGarvey tells us all off. “Can everybody stop using the phrase ‘social mobility’, please?” he says. It’s not that he thinks social mobility doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist. Rather, he suggests we should talk about ‘social immobility’. Here’s why:

“To get a better idea of what social immobility means to someone near the bottom of the pile, living in conditions of poverty characterised by psychosocial stress, the ubiquitous threat of violence and constant financial insecurity, simply imagine a startled giraffe, languishing in a pool of quicksand. In this context, social mobility is keeping your head above the sand while politicians take credit for the fact you have a long neck, and socially ambivalent voters who think poverty is a personality defect point to your long neck as proof that society is fair.”

It’s a good point. Social mobility is easy to talk about but hard to enact; fashionable to mention, fickle to secure.

It’s why in recent years we’ve had so many soapy words followed by briefly dazzling centralised initiatives that then grind to a stuttering halt when they hit the ground in the communities they are supposed to transform.

It’s also why it so often feels as if schools and colleges alone are expected to be beacons of hope, compensating for the receding influence of families, religion, youth work and other once-robust institutions. The political mantra has too often seemed to be: when in doubt, look to – and then blame – education, driving our leaders’ behaviour through clunky accountability measures.

We can be pretty sure those schools that Ofsted this week said are stuck in a cycle of underachievement won’t have been short of outside "help" in the form of wacky wheezes, pundits and motivational platitudes.

What they really need is to be able to attract and retain more great teachers and leaders; more professionals who are on a long-term mission to rejuvenate communities, serving families who see success as something that belongs to others.

'It's tough to make social mobility happen'

This is the obdurate nature of social mobility. It’s grindingly, frustratingly, unyieldingly tough to make happen.

That’s because it’s a deep-rooted issue. These communities need us to restore local faith that a local school is more than just a local school; that its curriculum, enrichment opportunities and, most of all, its values signal a route to a life you didn’t think could be yours. They need that, plus home-grown role models to convert a new aspiration into a palpable reality.

But schools can only achieve this if they are given time and the right kind of targeted support and understanding; approaches with more nuance than the national strategies of so many years.

And so we have a new Department for Education report on social mobility, grandly called Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: A plan for improving social mobility through education.

And if it’s policy pyrotechnics we were expecting, there aren’t any.

Instead, we get something I don’t remember seeing before in this form, or in this detail. It starts to join things up.

We know that families are crucial to a child’s success, as are early literacy, attending a good school, informed careers guidance, technical qualifications that open up rather than close down life-chances. We also know that Doncaster isn’t Somerset, and Bradford isn’t Hastings – that places have their own distinctive needs and tailored solutions.

All this we know. And it appears that this report knows it, too – explicitly acknowledging that more of the grandiose schemes of the past won’t crack social mobility in the present or future.

Thus we get a strong emphasis on the distinctiveness of place, of community. We get an understanding of the life-limited impact of poor early literacy: “By the age of 3, more disadvantaged children are – on average – already almost a full year and a half behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.”

And we get solutions – such as “an evidence review of how family learning and adult literacy approaches can be used to involve actively parents in supporting their children’s early language development”, plus practical partnerships with Public Health England “to enable health visitors and early years practitioners to identify and support children’s early speech, language and communication needs.”

We get a commitment to developing teachers in the longer term; to reducing workload; and to improving qualified teacher status to keep more teachers in teaching. And for areas of disadvantage there will be “a new targeted student loan reimbursement scheme in 18 key shortage subjects”.

We also get a commitment that brings young people currently in the margins to the centre of education, with proposals on exclusions and alternative provision.

Paragraph after paragraph links barriers to costed solutions and anticipated impact. This is a blueprint for tackling social mobility at each phase in different ways with different agencies in different areas.

I read the report sceptically and found myself admiring the sheer relentless determination to bring coherence to a splintered system, to build on what works, to avoid ministerial grandstanding, to provide a template to enable school and college leaders to do just that – to lead.

Not everyone, of course, will see it like this. Some will assume yet another departmental plan destined for dust-gathering. Me? I’m not so sure.

In its quiet, understated yet astonishing ambition, Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential may just prove to be a game-changer.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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