Social mobility: Action plan to target free schools at underperforming areas

New document pledges a 'specific focus' on 108 underperforming parts of England

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The next wave of free schools will have a “particular focus” on more challenging areas of England, as part of the DfE’s new social mobility action plan.

The plans to target free schools in disadvantaged areas, set out today in the Department for Education's document Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential, were first revealed by Tes last week.

Today's social mobility action plan also signals a greater emphasis on disadvantaged areas for Teach First and more support for teachers in the early years of their careers.

The plan has a "specific focus" on the third of the country with "the weakest educational performance and capacity to improve" – around 108 local authority districts – together with a continued targeting of the 12 opportunity areas, which have been idenfitied as social mobility cold spots.

Notable by its absence from the document is any mention of grammar schools.

This time last year, proposals to expand the number of grammar schools was at the centre of the government’s plans to “create an education system that extends opportunity to everyone, not just the privileged few”.

Today’s plan sets out a series of measures the government is taking to tackle three challenges to help it “close the attainment gap in school while continuing to raise standards for all”.

Challenge 1: Improving the quality of teaching in challenging areas and schools

The DfE wants to beef up support for teachers in the first years of their careers, by strengthening qualified teacher status.

A consultation will seek views on a “universal entitlement to an extended programme of early career support and development across core areas of practice”, with extra support for more challenging schools and areas.

The consultation will also ask about “clearer pathways” for teachers who want to remain as subject or specialist experts in the classroom.

The plan also signals a change of focus for Teach First, with a greater emphasis on more challenging areas, and more efforts to encourage its ambassadors in such places to take leadership positions.

The plan brings together a number of policies that have already been announced, including a targeted student loan reimbursement scheme, higher retention payments for maths teachers in challenging areas, and £30 million to improve recruitment and retention in schools with disadvantaged intakes.

The plan also contains ideas that have previously been floated as a means of removing barriers that prevent teachers working in challenging schools.

These include ensuring that Ofsted inspection judgements give “full credit” to what teachers and leaders achieve in challenging schools, and making sure that the consequences of accountability measures are not about “simply imposing punitive sanctions or structural change”.

Challenge 2: Improving the school improvement offer in more challenging areas

The plan recognises that free schools and academies have mostly been concentrated in London and the South East, while the coverage of teaching schools and national leaders of education “can be weakest in more disadvantaged areas”.

The document says the government will seek applications for a new wave of mainstream free schools early next year, but with a “particular focus” on more challenging areas.

And it reiterates calls for independent schools and universities to do more to sponsor academies and set up free schools. It says the DfE will “take a targeted approach to encouraging such partnerships based on local need for good school places”.

There is no mention of previous plans to link the ability of universities to charge higher tuition fees, or the charitable status of private schools, to work with academies or free schools. That had been proposed in last year’s Schools that work for everyone consultation, which the government has yet to formally respond to.

The social mobility action plan pulls together previously announced schemes, such as the £53 million Multi-Academy Trust Development and Improvement Fund, the £280 million Strategic School Improvement Fund – and the expansion of the Teaching for Mastery maths programme.

Challenge 3: Supporting pupils from less advantaged backgrounds of all abilities to fulfil their potential

While the first two challenges place the focus on geographical areas, the plan also recognises that disadvantaged pupils are likely to underperform wherever they live.

This is particularly the case for looked-after children, children in need and those with special educational needs and disability.

The document outlines plans for the DfE to review the support in schools and children’s social care for children in need – and carry out an externally-led review of school exclusion.

The social mobility action plan also reiterates proposals to reform alternative provision.

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