'Most politicians have little idea what it is to be poor – and insist that it should be easy for teachers to boost social mobility'

23rd March 2017 at 13:08
Colin Harris on social mobility
Politicians blindly believe that all schools are alike and all children are the same – and therefore all schools should be able to achieve the same results. Until they realise that this is a fallacy nothing will change with social mobility, writes a celebrated educationist

Last week I found myself delivering a lecture at a local university. The title of the talk was "Deprivation and the Link to Social Mobility Within our Schools".

The audience was largely middle-class, with little or no understanding of the isses faced daily by the kind of pupils I used to teach – and yet they all bought into the government hype that education can truly influence social mobility.

But what is the reality...? 

As it stands, the social mobility data suggests that we are at best stagnant on this issue: we have seen very little movement since the end of the Second World War. We now have pupils entering the labour market with less favourable prospects than their parents or grandparents.

Successive governments have turned to education as the solution to the intractable social mobility problem. They have all adopted an adage that is simply not true: "All schools are alike and all children are the same – and therefore all schools should be able to achieve the same results."

Ministers ignore the fact that poverty has always, and will always, affect education. Children who enter school "wanting for something" – food, time or resources – have always done less well on average than others.

True, social mobility can only be achieved when we ensure that every child who lives in poverty is given the chances and choices that are open to their wealthier counterparts, but also when we accept that they do not choose to act differently: the fact is they have different pressures and different lives. And that it is very, very hard for schools to overcome these problems. 

And yet at present, as austerity bites, we see the resources designed to support many of those pupils who are wanting for something being withdrawn. Similarly, simply introducing a grammar school or a free school is exremely unlikely to help them. All the research suggests that grammar schools damage social mobility. (The truth is that having the brightest pupils in the comprehensive system raises standards for all – therefore increasing aspiration.)

It is not rocket science to suggest that we need to support and change lives by having well-qualified and experienced teachers working with our most vulnerable pupils. But who in their right mind is going to move to a school which serves an overwhelmingly poor catchment but is only judged on data?

'Stop comparing schools in different circumstances'

The problem is that most of the people who make the big decisions in education have never worked in such areas. Somehow we need them to stop comparing different schools in totally different circumstances. 

Our political leaders need to have only one ambition: to provide the best school possible in every community, with teachers who genuinely believe they can make a difference, and are judged and paid accordingly.

Until then it will be a fallacy to believe that we have a government which really cares about social mobility: teachers know the truth.

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsteds were "outstanding" across all categories

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