Today, the government published its ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’ report, which echoes many of the points made by the National Association of Head Teachers in recent years, particularly the focus on early-years education.
The problem is, that despite the good and improving system that we know exists, and was noted by Amanda Spielman in her annual report just yesterday, we’ve struggled to narrow the gap between rich and poor students.
We just can’t let this happen any longer. That is why I believe that today’s announcement is a very welcome step in the right direction.
We also have a hard deadline to focus our minds on the problem: March 2019.
This is when the UK leaves the European Union, and regardless of the deal that gets done, young people will be faced with an uncertain future. We can’t solve social inequality by then, but we should at least be able to get a consensus amongst schools, employers, young people and the government that we are moving the right direction and at a greater pace than we’ve seen up to now.
Right from the outset, schools try to show children that their dreams can come true. But, for too many, life can get in the way. Whilst we make every effort to make the biggest positive impact for all the children in our care, equality is still pretty far out of reach for too many young people.
The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates
As the NAHT has said many times, if we’re serious about solving the social mobility conundrum, we have to invest and prioritise education in the early years. This is where the most impact can be made. This is where the foundations for future success are laid. The focus on early years in today’s social mobility strategy from the DfE is a welcome acknowledgement that the profession knows what it is doing.
Schools are at the centre of the efforts that we make to narrow the gap. But they cannot do it alone. The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve.
Cuts to local authority budgets have greatly reduced the sources of support for families on low incomes. Some of the areas where it is hardest to be socially mobile have suffered from decades of underinvestment and shrinking opportunities for well paid and highly skilled work. If we’re serious about improving equality in the UK we’ve got to look at all these factors.
A joined-up approach is what we’ve been calling for, and today’s strategy looks like a strong step in that direction.
School leaders at the coalface know all too well what the problems are and have the desire to make a difference. Primary and secondary schools in and around London have been able to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students that buck the national trend. Additional investment and focus on projects like the London Challenge appear to have had an impact. We should be looking for ways to spread this to areas of the country that still need support.
Schools try to show children that their dreams can come true. But, for too many, life can get in the way
As well as funding, another area of focus must be recruitment. Our Leaky Pipeline report, showed that the recruitment crisis continues unabated and that school leaders in areas with low social mobility have always struggled to attract teachers. Only a national strategy for teacher recruitment that recognises teachers as high-status professionals and guarantees enough teachers for every school will solve this problem. You can’t deny that a highly skilled and well motivated team of teachers is essential if you’re going to stand a realistic chance of improving equality for pupils.
I mentioned Brexit at the start of this piece. It seems that the domestic agenda has been pushed to the margins by the huge effort needed to exit the EU. But in this case, perhaps we can say that the deadline, at least, will drive things along more quickly where social mobility is concerned.
Our current education secretary speaks with an encouraging depth of understanding of the issues and a very open desire to put things right. While school leaders are all haunted by memories of children who they haven’t been able to reach, that desire and understanding has always been present in our schools.
Although we can’t do it alone, there’s still no one like a teacher to open up a young person’s eyes to the possibilities that life could hold, so long they’re able to make the leap.
We can end inequality once and for all. The clock is ticking.
Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers
Read more on the social mobility action plan