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The social mobility challenge for school reformers is to educate, not to equalise

    CPS Research Fellow Kathy Gyngell argues that despite the focus of politicians on schools as agents of social mobility, evidence points that whatever the 'radical change' made, they actually have little effect. 

    In the furore over Professor’s Ebdon’s appointment to Offa (or OffToff as it has now been indelibly named) one question didn’t get asked. If it did, it got lost in the supposedly ideological row within the Coalition over the Liberal’s overt preference for crude social engineering.

    It is this: can education really improve social mobility? What’s the evidence for it? If it did, when and how?

    This is not the question usually asked, such is our “indoctrination” that education per se is the answer to everything.  Education is the unquestioned Holy Grail for ironing out social differences and eliminating disadvantage. Who, after all, can argue with the new head of OffToff’s sister quango, Ofsted, when he bemoans our mediocre schools? Who can do anything other than applaud his demand for radical change? Who today would question his thesis that “without radical (educational) change we will see more social and economic division in this country”?

    No more did anyone demur 14 years ago when Tony Blair proclaimed, ‘Education, education, education’. For we are all too well aware that our state schools are under par, that school standards are, as Sir Terry Leahy warned two years ago, woefully low and failing to meet the needs of business and industry, let alone of university entrance requirements.  Few of us, outside the NUT and the more Marxist elements of our educational establishment, can doubt that education has lost its rigor and ambition.

    So it is all too easy to assume that it is our rotten schools that are entirely to blame for the dramatic fall in social mobility in this country in recent times or that, once they are made to pull up their socks, the differences in advantage will begin to flatten.

    In fact  politicians across the party divide are united in believing that better education, whether through academy development and new buildings, smaller classes and standards, or via the reintroduction of sport,  the three R’s, after school clubs and discipline, will and can do the social engineering trick.  Such is our belief in ‘education’ alone can provide the chances all children need.

    But it is not quite so simple. And it is not just that history tells another story. It is not just that the two major UK exercises in educational social engineering had perverse effects - the comprehensive school experiment levelled education down not up and the expansion of higher (university) education was largely taken up by the already advantaged.

    For underlying this is that the ability of the school system to overcome a child’s background, however good the school, is poor. This is the startling revelation of a novel statistical analysis of pupil performance by background and GCSE score at different thresh holds, that Chris Cook, the FT’s Education correspondent published yesterday.

    The received wisdom has been that bad schools tend to serve poorer children and that that is the problem. ‘Sponsor an academy’ is meant to deal with just this – for schools that are below par through new school takeover and management. But what impact does this actually have on wider social mobility? Not much, Cook concludes, despite some evidence of improved results. For even if all schools with pupil performance under a 45% target for English and maths GCSE A to Cs were ‘stripped out’ (i.e. through transformation into improved academies) the number of disadvantaged children in poor schools does not change much. With only some 400 schools would drop from the sample making hardly any difference across the board.

    Interestingly, reaching the 46% target is exactly what the 166 sponsored academies did achieve, with results in both 2010 and 2011, for pupils getting five plus A*-Cs, including English and maths. Though double that of maintained schools, according to Chris Cook’s analysis, this is not nearly enough to make any real difference overall and across the board.

    So with that approach pretty much doomed to failure Chris hypothesized another approach – that of dispersing all the children in the bottom sixth of all secondary schools into/across the rest of the school system. But here again the statistical effect, he found again, was weak. Though the coefficient linking poverty and academic performance fell less, it did not fall much less.

    His explanation for the failure of either of these ‘interventions’ is that the problem is more than one of poor schools having a disproportionate share of poor children in them. It is that, “poor children tend to do badly even when they go to good schools”. The graph illustrating this he says “should haunt the dreams of every school reformer” (or every social educational engineer one might add).

    His depressing conclusion is that for poor children the majority of England’s schools are pretty bad.  Possibly they will remain so however many academies come on board.  No wonder Les Ebdon and his ilk turn to manipulating university rules of admission to fatten out that curve of growing disadvantage.

    The trouble is that it is not just Les Ebdon who has come to thinking about education the wrong way. Nearly everyone has got used to it being used as a necessary social tool. Of course this of course is exactly what has gone so wrong with it.

    While politicians are rightly wary of destroying the best universities - the only 'class' part left of our state education system - they also risk rushing from the frying pan into the fire. For they need to be just as sceptical of early intervention as they are of university entrance manipulations.

    But resisting the received wisdom that ‘direct means’ are required to meet the target of equalising educational opportunities, the siren calls of early years education, is a tough call in today’s 'politically correct' political world. Yet it has already proved fraught with problems and unintended consequences.  Sure Start’s “universal non stigmatising approach”, aimed at preventing social exclusion, raising educational standards and promoting opportunity” is just the other end of Ebdon’s scale. It hasn’t worked, as the CPS’s analysis pointed out. It has imposed a uniform, unimaginative curriculum - one that is insenstive to cognitive development and emotional need.  Despite targeting 250 deprived areas unsurprisingly it’s been an expensive failure. The government's own expensive impact assessment showed that children in workless households as well as those with single parents, whether teenage or older, were found to have less verbal ability if there was a Sure Start project in their area than if there wasn't.

    This should not just be a lesson for Professor Ebdon but also for any of those enraged Tory MPs who think social mobility can be addressed at the opposite end of the spectrum instead.

    It can't. It will only happen when the goal of education it to educate; when positive discrimination is replaced by proper selection on the basis of merit (not money) to selective schools (whether academic, technical, sporting or creative); and when the competition this provokes drives standards up.




    The blogs promoted by Centre for Policy Studies are the opinion of the author only and should not necessarily be taken to represent a corporate view of the CPS. 

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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