06 May

Policy Exchange Conference: Alan Milburn – Education’s Role in Promoting Social Mobility – a focus for the next five years and beyond


Hobsons recently attended a Policy Exchange conference on education and social mobility, where Rt Hon Alan Milburn, who chairs the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and is widely respected as the government’s social mobility champion, gave a speech to outline the part that education has to play in improving these respective elements of society over the next 5 years.

As argued by Mr Milburn, though over the course of time we have “become a far wealthier society…we struggle to become a fairer one.” This thought is demonstrated by facts and statistics which further support the required drive towards continued improvement and facilitation of improved social mobility in the UK:

  • Children in the most deprived parts of the country are still over 20% less likely to attend a good or outstanding secondary school than those in the least deprived areas
  • Less than half of children who are eligible for free school meals (children in the bottom 1/6 of society), achieve a good level of development at age 5, compared to over 60% of their better-off classmates
  • Two-thirds of pupils who are eligible for free school meals don’t achieve five GCSEs which include English and Maths, compared to around a third of children as a whole
  • If poorer children getting level 5 in English and Maths at age 11 followed the trajectory of similarly attaining children from better-off families, over 2,000 more would go to an elite university each year in the UK

These statistics serve to reinforce the new public consensus that “unearned wealth for a few at the top, growing insecurity for many in the middle and stalled life chances for those at the bottom” is neither an acceptable nor viable social proposition for Britain.
So what can be done to lessen the gap between the better-off and poorest children in society? There is no single level which will make a nation more socially mobile, but when considering the global evidence, the most important determinants in social mobility are education and employability.
Education’s role in improving social mobility
Mr Milburn argues that although some of the reforms that this government and the previous government made can be viewed as steps in the right direction, overall progress is too slow. He listed four key areas for the next government that the government should focus on in order to ‘level the playing-field,’ whichever party prevails.

  1. The narrowing of the attainment gap must be a higher priority – previously there was a drive to ‘raise standards,’ but focusing only on this means it could take 30 years before there’s an even playing field. There should not be a concentrated effort to focus on either raising standards, or narrowing the attainment gap, but rather both.
  2. We should help schools collaborate in order to improve and close the attainment gap. We should allow for the pooling of expertise so there can be area-based school improvement.
  3. We should help schools do more to prepare pupils for the world beyond school; careers advice is currently seen too often as an after-thought, and more should be done to improve this offering to pupils. Need to use the Pupil Premium strategically in order to break barriers to attainment. We need to seek to prepare pupils for life, not just for exams.
  4. We must do more to improve teaching quality in disadvantaged areas. Excellent teaching has a stronger positive advantage on disadvantaged poorer pupils, and so we should ensure the best teachers can be recruited to teach in the most challenged schools.

Though there is much to be done in terms of these four key areas, there is proof to suggest that change is possible with revised and focused policies.

The London Challenge showed that improvements really could be made. As Lizzy Pitman from Tribal Group noted, The London Challenge was the first time that data proved that change was possible, and in turn it generated a sense of optimism and urgency around this fact; while the divide between the rich and poor is at its widest in London, this gap has been successfully narrowed when it comes to education. In other words, there’s a potential model here for a more equal, socially mobile society. Pitman’s opinion was that there is a need to revitalise the sense of urgency that was created by The London Challenge in the years it ran up until 2011.

Lesley Davies speaking on behalf of Pearson also commented on the HE Sector’s part in improving social mobility. In particular, we need to ‘take the blinkers off’ the admissions process in Higher Education to ensure students who don’t go down the traditional academic route also have opportunities to study at university.

In the case of recognition of BTEC qualifications as another route into Higher Education, we are not starting from scratch; 100,000 BTEC students apply to study at university every year. Further, a quarter of the people starting at university in any given year will do so with a vocational qualification and UCAS predict that this could rise to a third very quickly. That being said, the number of vocational student dropping out “remains too high.” Davies notes they are working on this currently with universities and colleges.

Overall, there is a responsibility to improve social mobility on the behalf of schools, colleges and universities in order to address and improve the statistics listed above. We have to be honest about the problems in the system and obtaining and ensuring a level playing field of opportunity for all must be, according to Rt Hon Alan Milburn, core business for our government, regardless of who wins the next general election.

By Lucy Adams, Sales Associate.


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