Grammar Schools are the mountebank of social mobility. But we will have no impact if we leap into an entrenched position and stay there. Placard waving rallies make people feel good, but they rarely change policy. We need to be in the uncomfortable chair of decision making, rather than wrapped in the cosy duvet of vocal opposition.
If grammars do have any positive impact on social mobility, that impact will be most welcome. More disadvantaged pupils attending Cambridge is undoubtedly a good thing, but it will do little to tackle the deep-rooted issues our society faces. A genuine plan for social mobility needs to be bold, politically savvy, values driven and evidence based.
So I propose the following priorities:
Tackling the language gap we see in our disadvantaged pupils at risk of underachievement. This gives virtually every other education policy a better chance of success. The language gap and the evidence for it can be described below.
‘The landmark Hart and Risley study in 1995 identified “remarkable differences” in the early vocabulary experiences of young children. Researcher and author Betty Hart described the results of their observations: “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour)” (Hart & Risley 2003, 8). This is important because vocabulary development during the preschool years is related to later reading skills and school success in general.’
In all my experience, school-led solutions are best placed to help tackle this issue. Reading hubs, where schools are responsible for working with children and their families to make a better start to early reading.. The hubs should work with families in the summer term prior to year R. Schools would be expected to reach a fixed proportion of disadvantaged and vulnerable children as part of the hubs.
Maximising the Impact of Early Years.
Kathy Sylva’s EPPSE 3-16 project shows that 2-3 years of high quality pre-school impacts on outcomes at least to 16, particularly for disadvantaged learners.
A quick glance online shows that Early Years professionals, who need to be educated to degree level, can expect to be paid between £22,000 and £33,000 (about the same as a bus driver). A well-known recruitment website lists the requirements for an Early Years professional as follows:
- excellent communication skills;
- good listening skills;
- the capacity to learn quickly;
- excellent organisational skills;
- the ability to inspire and enthuse young children;
- energy, resourcefulness, responsibility, patience and a caring nature;
- an understanding of the needs and feelings of children;
- ability to work independently, as well as being able to work in a team;
- a sense of humour and the ability to keep things in perspective.
I’d argue that subject knowledge, a fundamental understanding of research and how to apply it are the gaping omissions here, along with the highest ambitions for all, regardless of background or barrier to learning.
Better opportunities for young people with learning difficulties
6% of adults aged 16-64 with learning difficulties are in paid employment. Of those surveyed, 65% want to work. The Social Mobility challenge is at its most glaring where the people concerned are the least likely to be heard.
Maximising the Curriculum.
In too many cases, the Key Stage 3 curriculum remains a rather desolate place. A few weeks back, I was told about pupils with excellent reading outcomes at KS2 going into year seven and been given a recommended reading list with Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl. These suggestions sadly lack challenge and imagination.
A chasm in the DfE’s business plan is the lack of a challenging, high esteem technical education pathway. This should have literacy and numeracy at its heart which doesn’t narrow opportunity. We should learn from other countries about how we could do better. It remains an afterthought.
Oracy as standard
If it were measurable, I suspect that one of the greatest achievement gaps we see in our schools is oracy and articulacy. Peter Hyman’s work at School21 is an exemplar of how we can improve the life chances and life choices of disadvantaged and vulnerable learners.
Good oracy, coupled with cultural literacy should be at the heart of the social mobility agenda.
The Power of Multi Academy Trusts.
We are only starting to see the potential with Multi Academy Trusts. With support, I believe we will see some diverse and innovative models evolving that produce excellent, long term outcomes for pupils of all backgrounds.
One of the true drivers for genuine, sustainable collaboration is shared accountability. Through MATs, we can create an education system which enables the very best teachers and expert support staff to work with the most disadvantaged pupils.
The quality of teaching has a significantly disproportionate effect on disadvantaged pupils. Pupils in the poorest communities are more likely to be taught by unqualified or inexperienced teachers. They are more likely to experience high teacher turnover. They are more likely to be taught by a teacher without a degree in the subject they teach. High quality teachers are more likely to move out of the most disadvantaged communities.
In some communities, such as rural North Yorkshire and Northumberland, Local Authorities need to be empowered to support this agenda too.
The Pupil Premium.
This has also been a very powerful vehicle for improving outcomes for disadvantaged students.
We should further improve the use and impact of the funding by ensuring schools have the highest of expectations, high quality teaching and cultural literacy. The policy itself should not change. The expectations of its impact should continue. Better designations data would help inform the use of funding. Good GCSE results only open a door for disadvantaged pupils. They need to have the expectations of themselves to step through it.
The Progress Problem.
Progress is one reasonable accountability measure for schools. But for individual pupils it is attainment that matters. ‘Expected Progress’ has been one of the most limiting factors for disadvantaged Pupils. As George Mallory said: ‘We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.’
Aiming for the bare minimum means missed opportunity and wasted talent.
Leading the way.
I have yet to hear any argument for additional grammar schools that stands up to scrutiny.
But we need to be proactive too. If we let it, this gloomy green paper could become the Gavrilo Princip of a new and completely unnecessary education divide. The School-led system should be at the forefront of the alternative.
Marc Rowland, September 2016