In December 2016, Alan Milburn, chair of the government’s social mobility commission since 2012, resigned, stating that Downing Street did “not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure the rhetoric of healing social division matched with reality”. At the same time, the three other commissioners on the panel, including the former Conservative education secretary Gillian Shephard, also resigned.
In his resignation letter, Mr Milburn said he had no doubt the prime minister believed in improving social mobility, but added: “I see little evidence of that being translated into meaningful action. The worst position in politics is to set out a proposition that you’re going to heal social divisions and then do nothing about it.’
At the time, it was suggested that education secretary Justine Greening had supported Alan Milburn’s continuing in his role. Her frustration with the government’s lack of commitment to this issue was reflected in her resignation during the cabinet reshuffle of January 2018 – only weeks after the launch of her plan for improving social mobility through education.
It had become apparent that her progressive, evidence-based approach to improving outcomes for students clashed with the prime minister who had even revived the argument for grammar schools. In her resignation statement, she said: "Social mobility matters to me and our country more than a ministerial career.’’
Notwithstanding a variety of policy initiatives, the key drivers of social mobility through education are funding and the curriculum. The arguments regarding funding have been well-rehearsed. The government protests that it is continuing to increase education spending but as student numbers rise, the unit of resource has been allowed relentlessly to fall. The post-16 sector is the most egregious example, with per capita funding for sixth form colleges and school sixth forms being 20 per cent less than for younger secondary pupils.
Less often discussed is the negative impact recent curriculum changes will have on social mobility. The demise of the AS and the steer from the government towards a 3 A level programme has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum. Many students from less affluent backgrounds were able to pursue an interest and broaden their education by continuing to study a subject such as art, drama, music or a language at AS.
No longer available
The enrichment opportunities this gave them are not always available without the support of being included in their academic programme. Those from higher socio-economic groups are able to access these experiences in other ways. The devaluing of music and drama in curriculum terms, driven by misguided accountability measures such as the EBacc, has aggravated the impact of cuts in funding, evidenced by the near monopoly for the independent sector of places at our music colleges and drama schools.
This year, two courses will cease to be available to be offered in sixth form colleges and schools – critical thinking and general studies. The latter provided a qualification which allowed students, regardless of their main study programme, to learn about and engage with a range of social, political, scientific and cultural issues broadening and enhancing their knowledge.
It enabled those from less affluent backgrounds to acquire the cultural capital that is part of the normal discourse in middle-class families. The same argument applies to critical thinking at a time when it has never been more important to develop the skills of analysing and evaluating arguments or to distinguish "real" from "fake" news.
Those supporting the development of thinking skills range from the CBI to the erstwhile government mental health champion, Natasha Devon. Writing in Tes in October 2017, Natasha Devon said: "In the modern age, it is not-so-much what children know, it's how they think that will, I suspect, prove to be important. Bearing in mind that the curriculum favours those who can remember and regurgitate information, parrot style, is it any wonder young people are susceptible to gullibility.
Policymakers need to understand that critical thinking skills require time and space to nurture and develop. Filling every solitary second available in the school day with a barrage of information has left children ill-equipped to question and decipher reliable information when they encounter fake news."
Although universities have adopted an ambivalent stance towards critical thinking, many not acknowledging its Ucas tariff, a significant number of the most selective use the BMAT and LNAT tests to select applicants on the basis of their thinking skills.
Students applying for these courses from the very groups from whom widening participation is sought will be disadvantaged when critical thinking is removed from the taught curriculum.
Obviously, sixth-form colleges and schools could continue to offer education programmes containing elements of critical thinking and general studies but with funding based on delivering accredited courses and the value of these subjects being devalued in curriculum terms, the odds are stacked against them. Sadly, two key drivers of social mobility will disappear at the end of this term.
Jonathan Godfrey was principal of Hereford Sixth Form College from 1996-2017. The college was the inaugural winner of the Tes Sixth Form College of the Year Award