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We need a new approach to social mobility

 To ‘fix’ social mobility, we need sharper tools than selection, says NAHT deputy general secretary Nick Brook 

At this week’s Sutton Trust twentieth anniversary event, Education Secretary Justine Greening recognised that despite the improving standards in schools and two decades of effort, we’ve struggled to shift the needle on the social mobility dial. In her view, Britain faces a social mobility emergency.

It was a heartfelt speech, illustrating a depth of understanding of the issues and a very open desire to put things right. ‘I believe now we absolutely need to fix social mobility, and make sure it happens,’ she said.

‘Fixing’ social mobility is a big task. If the Conservatives had done better at the ballot box last month, I suspect that the Education Secretary’s speech would have included a large section on how Grammar Schools would become the engines of this endeavour. Political inconvenience rather than smart political thinking has put this misguided approach to bed – hopefully for the final time. I do worry though that the argument in favour of more selection at age eleven will keep coming back and we’ll have to keep killing it off like a stubborn weed in the patio.

What is abundantly clear is that to ‘fix’ social mobility, we need sharper tools than selection.

Opportunity Areas’ are the latest in a long line of location based interventions aimed at raising standards in disadvantaged parts of the country. Many of us will remember the fanfare that welcomed Education Action Zones in the 1990s. They too aimed to leverage business sponsorship, at that time to ‘stimulate innovation’. Instead of becoming test-beds for innovative thinking, EAZs became bogged-down in mindboggling bureaucracy and made little impact overall. By 2001, one of the loudest voices condemning this area based experiment was, interestingly, the then shadow education secretary, Theresa May. How times change.

Since then, numerous local initiatives have been and gone, with varying degrees of success, but more often than not failing to deliver on the promises made at launch. This time, however, might well be different.

In announcing Kevan Collins, head of the Education Endowment Foundation, as ‘Evidence Champion’ the government has someone who truly understands the challenge of social mobility and combines this with unique insights in how to use effective practice to drive improvement. Rather than looking for magic bullets, I hope the Opportunity Area Research Schools with which Kevan will work, can provide more forensic insight into the characteristics of successful practice and, critically, the conditions required for that success to be realised. One thing we have learnt over the last few decades is that one size really doesn’t fit all.

I’m also encouraged by the announcement of targeted involvement of business, not to interfere in the running of the education system, but to do what they are best placed to do - providing exposure to the world of work and preparing young people to successfully pursue their ambitions. In recent years charities, such as The Girls’ Network, have helped transform lives by broadening horizons and raising aspirations for many young people living in the poorest communities. They are opening doors to work that would have otherwise remained firmly closed, and in doing so are making real, practical difference to equality of opportunity. Yet their reach has remained comparatively small. There are many more young people who can benefit, but currently don’t, from high quality mentoring and support such as this.

And, as Opportunity Areas develop further, I hope to see clearer in-roads to primary schools. We know making an early link between school and the world of work could make such a crucial difference to so many young people, as NAHT’s Primary Futures programme has so powerfully demonstrated.

Let’s commend then the work of The Sutton Trust and others on improving social mobility and the equality of opportunity. There does seem, at present, to be a freshness to the language from the Education Secretary, and a desire to stop blaming schools for societal failure and instead focus on generating better understanding and support. There’s much here that school leaders will feel that they can get behind. Only through a genuine partnership between schools, politics and business will we stand any chance in the next two decades of ‘fixing’ the problem.

Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of NAHT
First published 07 August 2017