'Social mobility is going backwards in Britain – and schools have to fight this lack of social justice every day'

How can the new education secretary help schools? A good starting point would be to not tear up his predecessor’s social mobility action plan, says this educationalist

John Dunford

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In his 2013 blog on social mobility, Damian Hinds emphasised the importance of starting young. “The point of greatest leverage to equalise opportunity is the very earliest years,” he wrote. So perhaps we can hope for a rise in the pupil premium for early years. It would be good, too, if the new secretary of state continues his interest in social mobility and builds on the work started by his predecessor, Justine Greening.

The Department of Education’s pre-Christmas paper on social mobility – Unlocking talent, fulfilling potential – received wide praise for its emphasis on the need for policy coherence, its recognition of the need to address issues in communities, looking beyond short-term fixes, its discussion of barriers to learning and what can best help to overcome them, not leaving it to schools alone to bear the brunt. Its four sensible ambitions are joined up with policies on social care, looked after children, SEND and mental health. Furthermore, it proposes two welcome shifts in the government’s approach: a focus on identifying and disseminating what works, and an aim to build lasting success through partnership between government, business and the education service.

Time and again, the paper strikes the right note – on the need for action in the very early years of disadvantaged children; on closing the vocabulary gap; on the importance of learning at home in the early years; on the primacy of the quality of teaching for disadvantaged children; on an accountability regime that gives more credit for work in challenging circumstances; on the link between accountability and support; on teacher recruitment in disadvantaged areas; and so on. Damian Hinds will surely see that this paper provides the right starting point for his work in this field and for putting into action his words of five years ago.

And yet, the sub-title of the paper is A plan for improving social mobility through education, which is fine as far as it goes. But social mobility is a subset of social justice and it is this wider issue that schools face on a daily basis. And social justice can crop up in a variety of ways.

Take the example of 60-year-old Anthony Bryan. He has spent the last 52 years in the UK, without ever going back to his native Jamaica. He attended school and worked as a painter and decorator, paying national insurance and income tax. His reading skills are poor, so he tries to avoid anything that requires him to fill in forms, such as opening a bank account or registering with a GP.

Although Anthony’s length of residence here means that he has a legal right to stay in the UK, his lack of documentation means that he cannot prove how long he has been here. His treatment by the UK immigration authorities has been shocking, especially their arrival at his home early one Sunday morning with a battering ram to demolish his front door. His only hope appears to be a letter from his primary school confirming that he started there in 1965 and enclosing a photocopy of an admissions register. Careful work by his school may well have saved Anthony’s place in the UK. Where the present government and its executive arms represent harshness and insensitivity, schools represent hope in so many ways, large and small, deeply important and sometimes apparently insignificant.

As a headteacher in 1992, in the middle of the summer holidays, I had a battle with the immigration authorities over their decision that a boy in Year 12 could not continue at the school, disregarding the facts that he was halfway through his A-level course and that he had travelled alone from Iraqi-invaded Kuwait, through Jordan and many other countries to live with his uncle and aunt across the road from the school. With the help of the local MP and others, we won that fight.

For every one of our disadvantaged pupils, schools must do all they can for social justice.

Anthony Bryan’s treatment is just one of several examples of ways in which England has become less socially just in the last few years, making the job of schools harder than it should be. The bedroom tax, changes to working tax credit and other benefit cuts are further clear examples of a lack of social justice in government policy. In education, there has been the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, changes to vocational qualifications, first entry only accountability, decoupling AS from A level, cuts in the careers service and, especially, cuts in other local support services for disadvantaged young people – all of which have had an adverse impact on children and young people who grow up in poverty, in which there has been an increase of 400,000 since 2012-13, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 

It is significant that all the members of the Social Mobility Commission have resigned, citing, as Alan Milburn indicated in his resignation letter, the government’s failure to deliver on the prime minister’s promises on her first day in office.

The social mobility of the 1970s is much reduced 40 years on, partly because of the government’s failure to deliver on policies that would help social mobility, but partly also because the economy is no longer expanding as it was 40 years ago. The number of highly skilled jobs, to which working-class pupils might aspire if encouraged by their teachers, is static. For every working-class child who becomes a doctor or a company executive, a middle-class person will, now and in the foreseeable future, be taking a more menial role. Many commentators believe that Brexit will make this situation even worse.

While we should continue to encourage our pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to have high aspirations and we should maximise their expectations – and the expectations of their parents and teachers – of what they might be able to achieve in education and in life, that is no longer the main task of socially committed teachers. Social mobility remains important, but social justice – for Anthony Bryan and for all our disadvantaged pupils – should be at the top of our priorities in the first quarter of the 21st century, just as it should be a driving force for Damian Hinds. The government’s paper on social mobility is an excellent start, but it is not enough.

For disadvantaged children, school may be their only hope. We must do all we can not to let them down.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. His book, The School Leadership Journey, was published in 2016. He tweets as @johndunford

For more Tes columns by John, visit his back-catalogue.


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John Dunford

John Dunford is a former headteacher, general secretary of the Associaiton of School and College Leaders and was pupil premium champion from September 2013 to 2015. 

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