October 2011

The know zone

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  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Pericles the Olympian, John W Gardner, Sam Ewing, Joan Wallach Scott and Florence Nightingale More
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    Keith Sudbury spent 31 years in education, the last ten as head of two schools in Nottinghamshire that he successfully led out of special measures. His retirement plans were overtaken by a tragic family illness, however, and he’s back in schools again to inform teenagers about blood, stem cell and organ donation with the support of the Anthony Nolan charity. More
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  • Adding value
    On the piste? Check the smallprint... More
  • Concerns over 'free' status
    Is the government right to pursue its policy of free schools? Many in education have expressed scepticism but are there contexts in which free schools are beneficial? Leaders share their views. More
  • Nomograms: they're not what you think...
    Think spreadsheets are tricky? Bamboozled by equations? Sam Ellis has an old-fa shioned technique for calculating pupil-teacher ratios which just might help. More
  • Focussing on new benefits
    Social mobility needs to focus on more than getting disadvantaged students into university. Changes to curriculum and qualifications need to help tackle the problem and should draw on the experience of school and college leaders first and foremost, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Deal or no deal?
    The nerd? The idler? The incessant sniffer? Find out who’s coming with this game of student teacher top trumps. More
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Social mobility needs to focus on more than getting disadvantaged students into university. Changes to curriculum and qualifications need to help tackle the problem and should draw on the experience of school and college leaders first and foremost, says Brian Lightman.

Focussing on new benefits

The adoption by the coalition government of ‘fairness’ as a fundamental value attracted the unequivocal support of school and college leaders. We strongly believe that all young people, wherever they are and whatever their background, deserve to have access to an excellent education.

Fairness is at the heart of the government’s principal goal of improving social mobility. In the foreword to its strategy document Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg writes: “The true test of fairness is the distribution of opportunities.”

Since the entire raison d’ętre of school and college leaders is about improving life chances by raising aspirations and enabling all students to overcome barriers arising from the circumstances of their birth, it is no surprise that ASCL has warmly welcomed this direction of travel. Nor is it surprising that ASCL Council decided last year to use the criterion of fairness when evaluating the impact of government policy.

And during the last 12 months there is no doubt that the aim of improving social mobility has featured prominently in discussions relating to education policy. The strategy rightly commits to a long-term approach as deeply entrenched patterns of disadvantage take years to resolve. This is not an initiative invented after the 2010 elections and it will certainly outlast any government.

My assessment however is that the interpretations I often hear have not fully recognised the enormity of the task ahead of us.

Generations of unemployed

Providing access to university to young people from families which have never enjoyed this is obviously important and the often quoted statistics demonstrating how few pupils on free school meals progress to university are well known. However, I fear that the apparent single-minded emphasis on this aspect of social mobility is starting at the wrong end of the process for many.

The greatest challenge is where families have, often for generations, been unemployed and dependent on the welfare state. Whether the coalition government’s initiatives to encourage people back into work and reform the welfare system will help to break this cycle in most families is a topic for another day. However, the reality is that talking about university access in such circumstances is so premature as to be almost irrelevant.

Instead, we have to start with small steps. We need to change attitudes towards education slowly but surely so that the children from these backgrounds firstly attend school, and then rapidly experience enough success to encourage them to remain in full-time education and become prepared to enter employment. One of our most demanding tasks is to provide them with enough resilience to resist all of the external pressures that they face. In some cases, entering any kind of legal employment would be a major step forward on the ladder of social mobility.

These are issues that I and other ASCL officers have been raising in meetings with education ministers, top civil servants and, most recently, Nick Clegg’s policy advisers.

Back to basics

Once those small steps have been made we can look in more detail at the qualifications those people achieve. There is absolutely no question that basic skills such as literacy and numeracy are the foundation of any progress. Beyond that, we open up access to an increasingly broad curriculum, always building on each small step and encouraging them through increasingly challenging objectives, starting with basic skills, progressing to GCSE and beyond.

School leaders have a vast amount of experience in this respect and the government will ignore it at its peril.

Before detailed and very specific changes are made to the curriculum and qualifications frameworks, the advice of leaders of schools in our most challenging areas – not only in our cities but also in areas of rural and coastal deprivation – needs to be heard. It is not too late.

Just about every head who has really driven up standards from a low base has first achieved success by offering a combination of courses, including some of those often criticised vocational options, to engage and motivate students. Only then have young people been able to build on and achieve rapid improvements in more traditional academic subjects.

Planning of this kind is at the heart of our work as school and college leaders. Over the years we have used, with considerable success, many different interventions in order to help young people on their way up this ladder. Many of these have been heavily resourced by government funding. Some cost less and others have been jeopardised by recent cutbacks.

Undoubtedly the pupil premium will have a key role to play in our capacity to provide the intensive attention our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students need.

We all know that raising aspirations is something schools and colleges cannot achieve on their own. Close partnership between the school, FE and HE sectors with welfare agencies, the youth service, the health service and the police is essential.

But beyond these absolute basics, other aspects of coalition policy and the way they are being implemented do not seem to be promoting social mobility. Our challenge is to do everything within our power to ensure that they do so and, where we cannot achieve this, to ensure that government policy is influenced.

In that context here are three of the policies ASCL Council will be discussing:

Parental choice: The diversion of scarce resources into the creation of new schools in areas where there is no basic need for additional places is creating enormous turbulence and unfairness. The argument that competition will drive up standards rings hollow in those schools thrown into a spiral of falling rolls which prevents them from providing the curriculum and support the children in their mainly challenging contexts need.

Schools in challenging circumstances: Every school leader wants to raise standards and almost all have made progress in recent years. It seems to me however that the ever-increasing pressure to become an academy and an ever-intensifying accountability regime is at risk of creating a world of haves and have-nots.

Schools with ‘safe’ intakes and results which are clear of the floor targets are free to be creative in the curriculum and the design of the education they provide. Many of the others are pushed into a target-driven world where there is little choice but to focus on the C grade and to teach to the test to the exclusion of everything else. This will not incentivise our best teachers and leaders to work in schools in deprived areas.

Strategic planning of our education service: There are still many unanswered questions about how we will ensure that places are available for the most vulnerable children and those with special educational needs.

ASCL’s concerns about the potential fragmentation of our service have not been allayed in the last year. Any serious attempt to move our education service from good to great will depend on our ability to ensure that every child is able to attend an excellent school. That degree of ambition which we all share has no room for second best.

Social mobility is one of the cross-cutting themes that ASCL has incorporated into its public policy agenda for 2011-12. As we draw up a policy paper on the topic, ASCL Council will be debating it in full. Please contribute your views on the subject either via your Council representative (www.ascl.org.uk/regions) or by emailing headquarters directly at consultations@ascl.org.uk

  •  Brian  Lightman is ASCL general secretary.

Social Mobility