In late November the Social Mobility Commission published its annual ‘State of the Nation 2017’ report, which described a “stark social mobility postcode lottery” of patchwork inequality across England. The chief finding: that the chances of relatively poor children receiving a ‘decent’ education remains stubbornly conditional upon where you live.
In terms of the detail, London’s schools are performing relatively well with, for example, a little over half of children on free school meals achieving A* to C in English and Maths at GCSE. This figure drops to a third of pupils on free school meals in all other English regions. The reason? “A legacy of greater investment in recent years [in our capital] as well as … a supply of quality teachers” said the TES.
Let me be clear, it is hugely encouraging that the likes of Tower Hamlets, which is home to some of the most disadvantaged children in our country, ranks fifth best in terms of the report’s social mobility indicators. But many of the findings make for hard reading in Bradford, placed twenty first in the nation’s ‘coldspots’ according to the same indices, with Corby in the East Midlands ranked as worst.
A depressingly familiar pattern emerges again of poorer prospects at birth associated with former industrial and coastal areas. The report adds that children in the north “have substantially poorer access to quality secondary schools” than in other parts of England. This is hard to swallow sat here in a BD postcode when I know how hard colleagues in all schools our region, in our city, are working to provide the very best education and opportunities they can muster for the children in our classrooms.
Writing in a foreword to the report, Alan Milburn and Gillian Shepherd talked of “a fracture line running deep through our labour and housing markets and educational system” and “an entrenched and unbroken correlation between social class and educational success”. Correlation is a strong concept to invoke. The evidence, as far as I can see, suggests to a significant extent a spatial connection between patterns of social mobility and post-industrial economics, proximity to key urban nodes and the increasing pre-eminence of London. This dynamic appears to underpin the evident disparities in social mobility across England and the success of London schools, in receipt of greater resources, to make good. Alternatively, is inequality, much as suggested by Alan Milburn and Gillian Shepherd, a phenomena underwritten by social class, potentially unconstrained by locality? A familiar spectre is raised again.
As I mentioned at Bradford Grammar School’s Speech Day last summer, when it comes to matters of social justice and mobility the independent sector has “both supporters and detractors and everyone cuts their cloth in the national media to score points in the popular vote”. Many schools like Bradford Grammar believe to the core of their charitable foundations that they offer something positive to foster social mobility in their localities. This might be achieved, for example, through partnership and outreach work or means tested fee assistance.
Independent schools like Bradford Grammar undertake such work because it is part of our DNA.
We seek not to distance ourselves from those around us with whom we share a common purpose to provide a good start in life for the nation’s youth. Around the regions, as far as I can tell, local government seems to ‘get it’ and is broadly supportive of practical cooperation between different types of school, college, university and businesses. Partnership work between state and independent schools is flourishing as can be seen from the Schools Together website or the ISC Celebrating Partnerships document. Such arrangements work best when they are not dictated by policy from central government, but reflect instead the capacity of schools to work together in bespoke fashion, tailored to local opportunities and needs.
There was much talk before the general election of ‘forced marriages’ between the top 100 independent schools and the state system. Perhaps it’s a coincidence but following recent commentary on ‘postcode social mobility’, which has been linked to ‘social class’, parliament is set once again to hear that independent schools must do more to help.
Robert Halfin, MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee, will today, Monday 04 December, say to his peers that “the current social contact between government and private schools is clearly not working” and that “the government should radically redefine its relationship with them”. Mr Halfin will argue that the government should “set up a private schools levy to encourage the wealthier private schools to bring in society’s most disadvantaged pupils which may include free school meal students, children in need or foster children”.
We are careful not to doubt the good intentions of policy makers. However, let us work together, much as ISC have offered in our ‘Manifesto 2017’. No one size fits all – this must be the way forward.
Cooperation not coercion.
In so doing, we might just model those values we seek to nurture in our young people. Finally, perhaps as an aside, it might be pertinent to close with a Tweet by Mike Buchanan, former HMC Chair, that “Private school parents already pay a levy. It’s called taxation”.
“Many schools like Bradford Grammar believe to the core of their charitable foundations that they offer something positive to foster social mobility in their localities. This might be achieved, for example, through partnership and outreach work or means tested fee assistance.
Independent schools like Bradford Grammar undertake such work because it is part of our DNA.”