Success is in the mix

22nd June 2012 at 01:00

Things are looking up for the Thrope family. While social mobility in the rest of the UK has become so stagnant it's attracting rusty supermarket trolleys and malarial mosquitoes, my family are rocketing through the social stratosphere.

Last week, I paid a bloke to sort out my garden, which is tantamount to appearing in Debrett's. Granted, it's only because my feckless husband sloped off to London, leaving me to tackle a knee-high lawn with an ancient mower that requires someone with a degree in mechanical engineering to fire up. But it's marked a change in our status. Since my mother's sole social ambition was that I married a man with a car, I feel that I've finally arrived.

My mother would also be made up with the news that my eldest son graduates next week and has a postgrad offer from Oxford. This catapults him from eating hot dogs in brine to passing the port to the left. Of course, I'd like to think his academic ambition was the result of my parenting skills (a daily dose of Sesame Street and broccoli with every meal), but this just made him say "zee" not "zed" and gave him an aversion to brassicas. What may have had more of an impact was his early schooling. He went to a rural Church of England school that was as socially inclusive as the flu. Between them the kids had nits, nannies, free school meals, individual education plans and shooting rights over most of Northumberland.

And this is where Ofsted and I part company; its notion of an outstanding school focuses inordinately on the teachers, whereas in my book, a school is outstanding when it offers a broad mix of benefits. In the commercial sector, a range of key variables - price, product, promotion and place - form the essential marketing mix at the heart of any successful campaign. An effective education also relies on a range of variables. In schools, pedagogues, parents, peers and place all help to determine whether pupils succeed or fail; but since the government threw the last three out with the bathwater some time ago, pedagogues are left carrying the can.

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw's recent shrewd insistence on a "no excuses" culture means we are not allowed to point out the glaringly obvious flaw in the plan: we can't develop a "world-class education system" with only one wheel on our wagon. A lone teacher standing in front of an intermittently working interactive whiteboard isn't going to get us very far; we need the rest of the catalytic mix, including the pushy parents and the precocious peers.

Unfortunately, these are being lured away by the free schools initiative. Not only does this free-market economy damage other schools' physical structures (we're Building Schools for the Niche Market rather than Repairing Roofs for the Future) but it also skews their social infrastructure by attracting the aspirational parents who want their offspring to become aficionados of the arts, gymnastics or conjugating Latin verbs.

Government adviser Alan Milburn's recent report on social mobility has already criticised schools for their lack of effort in raising aspirations and career awareness. So creaming off the most ambitious pupils and parents into the Toby Young School for Braided Blazers or the Derek Zoolander School for Kids who Can't Read Good but Whose Parents have Plenty of Sway is hardly likely to improve the common good. My son succeeded because of, not despite, a truly comprehensive education; would that all children could have a similar chance.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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