Social mobility high on the agenda but what about FSM pupils and schools?


The Command paper released by the Government last  week ‘Unleashing Aspiration– was its response to the Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions” chaired by Alan Milburn, published on 21 July 2009.

Social mobility is high on the Governments agenda. But it is an area where the Government feels somewhat vulnerable, a fact ruthlessly exploited by the Tories.

The Tories have flushed out the fact that last year more boys from Eton sixth form gained three As at A level than all boys on free school meals in state schools.

So despite all the investment far too many children still do not get the results they need to have the chances in life that they deserve. Opposition parties through a series of PQs have established that FSM pupils lot has improved only a little since 1997, and poor working class white boys are bottom of the attainment pile. Just 22% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals, outside the inner London area, gained five good GCSEs (A*-C Grade, including maths and English) in 2007/8. This compares to a national average of 48% (50.9% of pupils 2009 provisional fig )

There is alarming evidence too, to suggest that pupils from deprived backgrounds may be less likely to experience good quality teaching.

Sammons et al. (2006), in an analysis of teaching practice in 125 year 5 classes, found that the quality of teaching tended to be poorer in schools with higher levels of pupils eligible for FSM .Differences were apparent in areas such as basic skills development, depth of subject knowledge, social support for learning, pupil engagement and classroom routines. Cabinet Office in 2008 cited evidence that teachers in schools with more than 20 per cent. FSM eligibility were more likely to be rated worse in their teaching, and less likely to have come from an outstanding teacher training institution.

Schools lie at the heart of any strategy to improve social mobility.

But the Government’s most recent proposals to aid mobility do little to acknowledge this.  When in doubt as to what to do, Governments tend to establish another agency or quango with an important sounding name. So, cue the Government announcing the establishment   of a Social Mobility Commission to be based in the Cabinet Office. It will give expert advice, we are told, to Government and report on progress towards a fairer, more mobile society. One wonders just how busy it will be.

Last year’s Government White Paper “New Opportunities-Fair Chances for the Future” (Cmd. 7533) set out its commitment to give everyone a fair chance to get ahead.  “Quality, Choice and Aspiration” the information advice and guidance strategy, launched by the Secretary of State for Children, School and Families,  aimed  to make it easier for young people and their parents to access high quality advice and guidance about education and careers.

What the Government didn’t mention though was the panel’s recommendation to abolish the Connexions careers service,  replacing it with a dedicated, professional and flexible careers advisory service in every school and college.

The Government set out a guarantee, building from the “New Opportunities” White Paper, for up to 130,000 of the brightest young people from low-income backgrounds to benefit from a structured package of support towards higher education from 2012.  It has also asked universities to take into account the context of educational achievement when assessing admissions.  And Ministers had already announced in the pre-Budget report £8 million of financial support for up to 10,000 undergraduates from low-income backgrounds to take up short internships.  This might all help on the margins. But if schools can’t deliver social mobility, then nobody else stands a realistic chance of doing so. Schools have to be the main catalyst.

In this respect the key radical recommendation from Alan Milburn, which was definitely not taken up by the Government, was the voucher idea. He believes that this, more than any other measure, could act as a catalyst for social mobility. The idea was that parents with children at a failing school should be able to remove their offspring and get a voucher for 150 per cent of the cost of a pupil’s education, which could be used at another school. Parents would have more choice, and schools get a financial incentive to take extra pupils, creating a virtuous circle, he argued, that would create a market and improve standards across the board.  Whether you like the voucher idea or not most will agree that schools  can make the difference. Higher attainment among the most disadvantaged is a prerequisite for improved social mobility.

Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions stated ‘ Today the chances of a child who is eligible for free school meals – roughly the poorest 15% by family income – getting good school qualifications by the age of 16 are less than one-third of those for better-off classmates. Attainment at age 16 is key to children’s future life chances. Without it, the likelihood of a professional career or progression to university diminishes’ (pg 65).

What more needs to be said?


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