The government today published its social mobility action plan, Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential.
As education secretary Justine Greening acknowledged at this morning’s launch, many a government initiative over the years has aimed to improve social mobility.
The origins of this latest iteration can be traced back to 13 July last year, when new prime minister Theresa May, speaking on the steps of 10 Downing Street, pledged to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.
Had today’s document been published 12 months ago, it would have been the centre of burning controversy over plans it would no doubt have included to expand selective education.
Instead, with plans for new grammar schools having gone the same way as Theresa May’s Commons majority, we had a detailed 41-page document that brings together under one banner a host of existing DfE initiatives, formalises ideas that were previously floated by Ofsted and the DfE, as well as introducing some new policies.
For Ms Greening, the big difference between today’s plan and previous government efforts to improve social mobility is that Unlocking Talent puts “a structure, an architecture” around the complexities of tackling the problem.
'Much to welcome'
So, what has the reaction been?
Regarding the early years proposals, Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of the charity Early Education, said there was “much to welcome”, and said it was “vital” that the focus on language “runs through a broad and varied early years curriculum, and is not seen as a stand-alone”.
She added: “We regret that only a very small part of the funding here is directly targeted on initiatives to improve the home learning environment, which has to be the starting point for action – early education cannot alone be a panacea.”
She also expressed disappointment that the focus was only on schools, and “not on increasing graduate-led provision in PVIs [private, voluntary and independent settings]”.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association, said the DfE’s plan “sends out an unpleasant and unsupportive message to the PVI nursery sector”.
She criticised the decision to restrict £50 million of investment to nursery schools, warning “the government is threatening the sustainability of those businesses which are already struggling to deliver its current childcare offer to parents on stand-still rates”.
For Sam Freedman, a former policy advisor to former education secretary Michael Gove, the action plan has “a lot of really laudable stuff and a great analysis of the problem”, but did not do enough to address what he said was the priority for improving social mobility: improving teacher recruitment and retention.
Following Ms Greening’s speech, he said that persistent under-recruitment in key secondary subjects means schools are “having to take whoever turns up”, meaning their resources are taken up by giving them support, making it “much harder to do anything in the space of social mobility”.
He added: “If we really, really want to tackle social mobility we have to prioritise right now getting the best people into the profession and we have to really acknowledge that we have a real problem with recruitment and retention, and everything we do needs to have that in mind.”
'Setting back a generation'
Citing real-terms reductions in school funding and teachers’ pay, Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner told The Guardian: “Despite the rhetoric from the government, it is the Tories who are responsible for setting back a generation of young people.”
One of her predecessors, Lucy Powell, told today’s conference she welcomed the action plan, but said it “could have gone, and could go still, a lot further”.
For her, what was needed was a “cross-departmental, cross-cutting right-across-government strategy to tackle social mobility”.
Unions gave the action plan a mixed response. For Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, it “offers very little real in the way of meaningful action”, accusing the education secretary of being in “complete denial” over school funding and teacher recruitment and retention.
He welcomed the plan’s pledge that ‘coasting schools’ would only face enforced leadership change “in the rarest of cases”, but questioned why schools rated inadequate by Ofsted must still become academies.
And he put efforts to improve social mobility in a wider context, saying: “Today’s measures dramatically underestimate the impact of poverty on children and families. The government needs to address the problem of poverty and inequality at its root by reversing regressive benefit reforms and developing an industrial strategy to increase well-paid and high-quality jobs.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said Ms Greening “speaks with an encouraging depth of understanding of the issues and a very open desire to put things right”.
He added: “Rightly, schools are at the centre of the efforts that we make to narrow the gap. But they cannot do it alone. The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve. A joined-up approach is what we’ve been calling for, and today’s strategy is a welcome step in that direction.”