One mascot doesn’t equal social mobility

Posted: 29/09/09

Rivalry between schools can be unhealthy and nostalgia for grammars misplaced.

The architecture of education in my corner of inner London has been utterly transformed in recent years. Three new Academies are now up and running. Another school has just been selected for re-building as part of an extended school pilot, which will see primary and secondary education, health and child care integrated in one site. St George's school, which some time ago achieved notoriety as the place where head-teacher Philip Lawrence was murdered, is now praised for its achievements. Gateway primary, which draws its pupils from one of the most deprived wards in the country, has twice won outstanding progress awards. All this and more is reflected in steady and significant improvements in academic results across the board. Whilst we shouldn't understate the challenges of working with mobile, diverse and multiply deprived pupil populations, the stereotypes of inner city behaviour are very wide of the mark.

Social mobility is a tricky concept to pin down or measure but it is clear that schools are absolutely crucial partners in ensuring that disadvantages of birth do not mean diminished opportunities throughout an individual's life. Even the most motivated and aspirational parents will struggle to offer their children the same advantages that better off families can endow if they face conditions of extreme poverty, perhaps involving years of exile and homelessness.

How much harder for the children whose parents aren't up to the struggle - who themselves have been dragged down by mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency and so on - or who are trapped in that vicious circle where a lack of skills and ambition in one generation is passed on to the next. At their best, schools not only impart knowledge, a love of learning, self esteem and self discipline, but enrich children's lives and open their eyes to experiences and worlds they may never have seen before. Many schools still fall short of that ideal, but I am in doubt about the progress that has been made.

What we cannot forget is that schools thrive when parents are actively involved and supportive. Of course there will always be exceptions to the rule but in the main expanding life chances is dependent on parents and schools working together. Yet it is hardly a novel insight that the schools with the most deprived intakes tend also to have the lowest level of parental activity. Not always, but often.

How, then, to make a virtuous circle instead of a vicious one? And to what extent can even the best example of parent/school co-operation trump structural disadvantage?

Firstly, regardless of across the board improvements, we cannot ignore the signs of acute and possibly growing social polarisation between schools. Even with financial allocations weighted in favour of deprived pupils, as they already are, the advantage will inevitably lie with the school where, say, one pupil in ten is entitled to free school dinners, as opposed to six or seven in ten. Worse, there is mounting evidence which suggests that competition between schools increases inequality across communities; with high and low pupils more substantially segregated between schools that face more competition. A fair and decent society cannot be built on such polarisation, and we need to explicitly aim to ensure a more mixed intake in the most and least privileged institutions.

Second, we should not be distracted by the highly individualistic model of social mobility, which asserts that, if only a few more working class children could enjoy selective or private education, all would be well. Social mobility can't be premised on a leg up for the fortunate few, especially where this results in widening the gap with those left behind.

Third, the extended school model (including early intervention and child care) can play a major role in enrichment and aspiration. The government have invested substantial resources but there are still far too many children of middle and lower income families who do not gain a variety of life experiences - music, drama, public speaking, trips and travel - that presently supplement the formal education received by the most fortunate. A genuinely innovative and effective extended school may not be a guaranteed engine for social mobility, but it can help offset underlying disadvantages and so funding levels should be raised in order that more children can benefit.

Finally, we need to remember that the period we associate with the greatest increase in social mobility in Britain - the 1950s to the late 1980s - may have been shaped less by the education system per se than by the explosion of skilled and professional employment opportunities in the post-war world. Expanding numbers of white collar jobs, the introduction of Legal Aid, the establishment of universal healthcare free at the point of need, the growth of new industries may have been bigger - or at least equal - drivers of social mobility than the education system itself. School policy can help ensure that of two gifted children the more affluent does not necessarily carry all before them but we should always remember that we are still only dealing with a corner of a much bigger picture.