In a week of significant surveys, there’s good news and bad news.
First, there was this week’s findings on education in the British Social Attitudes Survey. Carried out annually since 1983, the survey tells us what the British public thinks. And when it comes to schools and colleges, there’s a fair bit to celebrate.
Some 80 per cent of respondents have confidence in the British school system, with 83 per cent saying state-funded secondary schools teach young people basic skills – such as reading, writing and maths – "well" or "very well". This is up from a figure of 56 per cent in 1987. Similarly, the proportion saying that secondary schools bring out students’ natural abilities well or very well also increased over time, from 35 per cent in 1987 to 60 per cent in 2016.
At a time when it doesn’t always feel as though we live in a society brimming over with respect for anyone or anything, we should also welcome the fact that teachers command a level of respect that puts us third in the league behind doctors and members of the armed forces. Over half of respondents (53 per cent) said they had a great deal of respect for teachers with a further 39 per cent saying they have some respect for teachers.
So, as the days grow shorter and the wind turns colder, I think we should cling on to that scrap of praise.
Social mobility gulf
Meanwhile, also this week, there was the annual State of the Nation report on social mobility. Spoiler: there wasn’t much good news here.
As the opening sentence put it, pithily: “Britain is a deeply divided nation.” Here’s what Britain now looks like:
“The Social Mobility Index reveals a growing gulf between our country’s great cities – especially London – and those towns and counties that are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially. England is a small country with a large and growing gap between those places that offer good opportunities for social progress. What we have called social mobility hotspots – and those that do not – the coldspots.”
For some of us, 30 or more years into a career in education, the report makes almost unbearable reading. Some of its language is different of course. "Hotspots" and "coldspots" are newish terms. "Narrowing the gap" has morphed into "social mobility". The "postcode lottery" is replaced by sentences like this: “The chances of someone from a disadvantaged background getting on in life is closely linked to where they grow up and choose to make a life for themselves.”
But the essential message is the same.
Despite all our efforts, all that work, all those strategies and initiatives and high ideals, we aren’t making the impact we hoped for in those entrenched, vulnerable, fragile communities where poverty of expectation is deep-rooted and inaccessible.
So what do we need to do? Based on nothing other than talking to teachers and school leaders, on reading a lot about education and simply having been around for a long time, here are three thoughts.
First, education is, of course, a major driver in raising aspirations, opening new worlds of opportunity to young people, supplementing what children may not have received at home. But the engine room of social mobility is the family. What we do at home with our children – making eye contact, laughing, reading, eating together, going out, arguing and demonstrating how we resolve arguments, eating well, sharing family experiences – these are the bedrock experiences for our most successful young people. Without these foundations, young people will always be at a disadvantage, schools always playing catch-up.
In her speech to the Conservative party conference in October, education secretary Justine Greening made a passing reference to boosting literacy in the early years. We need to be bolder in finding ways – even when we fear patronising some parents – to make sure that the parenting practices that many of us take for granted become normalised, ubiquitous, the entitlement of every child. How we do that is, of course, another issue.
Teachers must commit
Secondly, we need teachers at different stages of their careers to want to commit to the coldspot areas. Student loan forgiveness, bursaries, and pay boosts may form part of the answer. But more important is to create a sense of local mission, with our best leaders and best teachers wanting to work with and in those communities, uncowed by accountability measures. This is where high-quality teaching in the classroom needs to be surrounded by the arts, sport and enrichment activities in vibrant and extended school days.
Finally, we must join things up more. Joint strategies on housing, health, social care, education and – urgently – mental health must become the default way of working. None of us will solve social fragmentation by working in fragmented ways.
All of these approaches are already happening in some places in some forms. But it too often feels a bit piecemeal, a bit managerial. This week’s surveys show us that people in the UK have faith in education, in its teachers and its leaders. We should have the confidence to make the case to government – constructively, positively and relentlessly – for the joined-up strategies, and the resources, which are vital in improving the life chances of the communities that need us most.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton