The turnaround of education in London during the last 20 years has been an incredible success story. However, the same improvement and success has not been exported beyond the M25. If leaders in education are serious about social mobility and tackling the lack of achievement and aspiration in rural and coastal communities, they need to emerge from the London bubble.
The Somerset Challenge, inspired by its big-city predecessor, has not prevented part of that county languishing at the bottom of the national Social Mobility Index. Context is everything, and it has to be acknowledged that raising aspirations in an international city, surrounded by success and exciting opportunities, is different to the job that needs to be done in regions where creative and professional jobs are almost non-existent, where the traditional social-mobility release valve of the public sector has constricted due to reduced budgets – and where there is no university.
Led from London
Education is led from London. Obviously, the Department for Education's headquarters is located there, housing the policymakers and consequently so are the offices of the numerous professional bodies that lobby on our behalf. Education charities and foundations are also based in the capital, for the same reason. Education’s top magazine is based there. In short, if you want to make, or influence, or even comment on education policy, you need to be in London.
I don’t believe this is pre-meditated exactly, but it is nonetheless harmful and it could be avoided. Teaching is one job where you really need to be in the same space as those you’re working with, but our politicians, lobbyists, and journalists are not teaching. They are not tied to a classroom. I manage my large English team across a dozen buildings and go weeks without physically seeing some of them, so I do not believe that there’s a need for these other jobs to be anchored to London.
I’ve been working with the charity SHINE Trust on a project to support disadvantaged learners in GCSE English resits and I have been extremely impressed with their genuine commitment to social mobility. Last year, they moved their headquarters to Leeds. Fiona Spellman, chief executive at SHINE, explained to me that it had been “heartening to see the successes achieved by London schools in recent years, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, we now know that the attainment gap is biggest outside of the capital – and that more work is needed to help improve the educational results elsewhere. SHINE has recently relocated to the North of England, where we have the opportunity to target specialist expertise and partnerships, and to really understand what works outside of the London context.”
Finding out what really works is key and the concentration of power in London excludes many whose expertise in provincial contexts is what is needed to address the persistent gaps that we should be closing. Dual-income couples who respect each other’s careers as being of equal value might not want to uproot both for one job that is arbitrarily based in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Families might not want to sacrifice their beloved homes for a cramped and overpriced bedsit, as London-bound teacher friends of mine have had to do. Those with strong roots in family and local communities might not wish to sever ties. Deeply unfashionable as it may be to say so: for some of us, our bond with the soil – or in my case, the sand – of our homes, contributes to our sense of self and purpose and would be lost in the capital.
Guilt nags at me
My college is fortunate to be based in one of the fastest-growing cities in Britain, with a Russell Group university and many exciting employers. Yes, hard work and skill have contributed to us being the only outstanding college in the county, but there is also a symbiotic relationship: the success of the city feeds into the college’s success and vice versa. The coastal town where I live, in contrast, is in one of the most deprived districts in the country and that deprivation is rising. A guilt nags at me as I drive to work that the young people living on my estate will have to follow me out of town to my college to receive a decent 16-18 experience. Perhaps if I were working from a London office I would be far enough removed to lose that sense of guilt. Perhaps that is why not enough is being done for our students in rural and coastal communities.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South West college. He tweets @Education720