Finding the time to read governmental reports is something I’m not good at. So I made a big effort over the break to get to grips with one that I’ve been carrying around with me since its publication last Autumn. It’s called Cracking the code: how schools can improve social mobility. Produced by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission it paints a bleak picture in terms of the life chances of those children who are disadvantaged. As a white British, free-school meal, summer-born boy myself who grew up on a council estate in a coastal town, I read with interest that I should at worse be in prison and at best living in Benefits Street. The fact that I’m able to write this now should merit much mirth and mayhem.
I was the lucky one it seems – the one in five. The report states that disadvantaged pupils (i.e. free-school meal eligibility) are twenty per cent less likely to achieve a combined Level four at the end of key stage two than their peers. This increases to 37% when it comes to achieving five good GCSEs. This comes as no surprise within the context of what we know about the impact of social mobility. What is surprising though is that teachers appear reluctant to want to come and teach them. According to the report, only fifteen per cent of teachers said that they would actively seek out a future role at a school that was more challenging than the one at which they already taught. This is particularly worrying for those schools (like ours) where deprivation is high; how do we go about recruiting the very best teachers?
The concept of social mobility has always fascinated me. It’s why I’m one of the fifteen per cent mentioned above, having only ever worked in challenging inner city multicultural schools, several of which have been in special measures. It forever infuriates me when I hear teachers and senior leaders blaming poor performance on the fact that their pupils do not speak English or are asylum seekers or claiming free-school meals. This deficit model is simply not good enough and should not be tolerated. As much maligned as it is, one good thing about Ofsted is that it pulls no punches when it comes to being critical about the leadership of such schools. Quite often, being placed into special measures is the best thing that can happen to a school if it means the children are to be dealt a fair hand. And that, I see is very much my role as an educator – to ensure that each and every pupil is given a fair pack of cards. The reality of life of course is that they are not (hence the concept of social mobility). What I must therefore strive to do is to see that their hand is stacked so as to give them an advantage.
This is essential in terms of meeting one of the two definitions of social mobility outlined in the report. It is what is referred to as ‘relative’ social mobility, or the likelihood of a disadvantaged young person getting a ‘good’ job when compared with others. This looks unlikely at the age of 11 for a child who is in the twenty per cent referred to above who did not achieve well at the end of primary school. The second type of social mobility is the ‘absolute’ variety. This occurs when a disadvantaged child goes on to get a job as an adult where their income is greater relative to that of their parents.
The report makes five main recommendations that it claims will increase the likelihood of both of the above scenarios occurring. Those of you working in outstanding schools are probably doing them well already:
- Strategic use of pupil premium funding
- High expectations that demand an inclusive culture
- Incessant focus on the quality of teaching
- Tailored strategies to engage parents
- Preparing students for all aspects of life, not just for exams
Any school that adopts the above themes as the basis for a school development plan would be well placed. I shall certainly re-visit our priorities to see if we can sharpen the saw in any way as they are as equally relevant for an outstanding school as they are for a school in a category. Where the report is particularly useful is that it gives examples of effective strategies that high-performing schools (referred to as ’code breakers’) have used to close the attainment gap. For example, introducing peer-mentoring programmes as a means of improving the quality of teaching. Unfortunately, the report fails to acknowledge who these schools are so we can’t go and visit them and imitate what they do. If you are reading this blog and are one of those schools, please do reveal yourself.
As well as not being good at reading governmental reports, I’m equally remiss at agreeing New Year resolutions. However, I am going to try to make an exception in 2015. I am determined more than ever to get to grips with the social mobility agenda and to try and crack it. I’m not sure how long it will take, or if indeed I’ll get anywhere near to doing so. But one thing I am convinced of is that as far as moral imperatives go, there can be none more compelling than cracking the code.