Political philosopher John Rawls proposed a simple test of whether we have achieved a fair society: if we put ourselves behind what he called the "veil of ignorance", imagining ourselves as a rational being before our own birth, would we feel safe to be born into an unknown context?
Unfortunately, as education secretary Justine Greening pointed out in her foreword to her plan to boost social mobility through education, “where you start still all too often determines where you finish”. Even after years of admirably intense focus on disadvantaged students, the attainment gap is still not closing. schools serving poor communities still perform poorly and privilege still trumps merit.
FE as an afterthought
Sadly, FE remains an afterthought in this plan. The effect of early years on disadvantaged children is rightly highlighted and a priority for intervention, but unfortunately there will always be schools that don’t deliver and obstacles for individuals that mean FE is the social mobility emergency service. Greening’s plan offers us no new funding.
The day before publication of the plan, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman acknowledged that until funding is increased, the FE sector “will continue to struggle”. Prior to the autumn Budget, leaders asked in vain for £200 extra per student. It was nowhere near ambitious enough. FE serves disadvantaged students; those that through key stage 4 attract almost £2,000 additional funding, each. I’m afraid I simply do not understand how students in a different stage of compulsory education and training are valued so much less than those a few months their juniors, except that FE has less emotive weight with voters than schools.
Justine Greening does argue that “if we could buy our way through these challenges, we would have done so by now”. I think the failure of past investment strategies should not be used to excuse current underfunding. The money might be used more effectively if there were proper evaluation and accountability attached. In my region, the Somerset Challenge ploughed cash and support into one of England’s worst-attaining counties. It had little effect. West Somerset is now an "opportunity area" and will attract more funding. I hope that there will have been lessons learned from the challenge that will ensure resources are now put in the hands of those with a proven record of excellence, rather than throwing good money after bad. Otherwise this attempt to tackle a regional barrier to social mobility will become just another example of trying to “buy our way through”.
The lack of genuine ideas here might be because, as Greening says, “there is no simple solution”. Social mobility is at the mercy of an almost incomprehensible number of variables. Education itself is complicated enough, but on top of that everything from postcodes to prejudices also present barriers to children’s success. However, she is wrong to dismiss the possibility of an idea, “a silver bullet”, because the disinterested, grey, back-turning of Conservative pragmatism will maintain the unjust status quo in perpetuity. If there were ever a time we needed ideology in education, it is now.
It is such a shame that when we had an education secretary with an ideology rooted in the liberal ideal of equality of opportunity, he belonged to the wrong party to be heard over the disappointingly partisan and tribal screeching of those controlling our profession’s discourse. He-who-must-not-be-named was so ideologically driven in the multitude of good, as well as bad, initiatives he began that his eventual successor, passionless Nicky Morgan, seemed to be chosen just to give everyone a break. Justine Greening, given the chance to see through some of the better, most socially-just policies of this decade and to prove her department’s integrity, has blinked.
The plan acknowledges that 56.9 per cent of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds “do not achieve good passes in English and maths by age 16”, compared with 40.7 per cent of their wealthier peers. But then it goes on to say that “we are reforming functional skills to provide a genuine alternative to GCSEs”. So the predictable Tory plan is to create an economic apartheid with a two-tier system where the attainment gap between rich and poor can be hidden by patronisingly bestowing an “alternative” on those who didn’t have the luck of birth enjoyed by the political class. GCSE and functional skills: separate but equal, right? It’s quite a confidence trick to propose such a reactionary attack on the opportunities of working-class children and label it a plan for social mobility.
The truth is that any difficulties presented by the resit policy; teacher recruitment, class sizes, exam logistics, could all be solved by properly funding colleges. If we ever have an education secretary who believes that a disadvantaged 17-year-old deserves as much support as a disadvantaged 16-year-old, then their commitment to “raise standards for all” might be more convincing.
A month ago, Association of Colleges' chief executive, David Hughes, addressed hundreds of leaders from across FE and challenged the habit of referring to our sector as a “second chance”. I know I have been guilty of it; as someone who moved into FE from secondary, I felt that phrase expressed my admiration for the professionalism, focus, and support that my new colleagues were offering those learners I had been unable to do quite enough for in the school system. But it was a lazy expression and I think David Hughes is right that, for many of our young people, colleges are “the only chance”. It’s not acceptable that we continue to be underfunded and undervalued by those whose privilege means they have the platforms to speak empty words on social mobility while we quietly get on and deliver it. If I were unborn, behind John Rawls’ "veil of ignorance", I wouldn’t be confident of a fair chance, but I would feel better knowing that colleges are there, offering those who aren’t so lucky “their first real chance, their best chance”.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720