Where is Social Mobility Heading and for Whom?

Levelling up may have been a phrase that tripped off Boris Johnson’s lips more than other politicians, but whether or not the phrase is politically dead, the concept is as important as it ever was during his prime ministerial tenure. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, certainly thinks so, having said recently

“I’ve always been clear since I came into this role that in the end Greater Manchester’s devolution will be judged by what it can do for Oldham and Rochdale. This is us levelling up Greater Manchester ourselves.”

Parts of Manchester are wealthy;  many other parts – such as Oldham and Rochdale – are anything but. Trying to bring new jobs, industry and money to these deprived areas will be a challenge, which the Innovation Accelerator funding, announced in the Levelling Up White Paper should help, but there is only so far the allocated £30M will go in transforming the local economy.

Inequality does not just exist in major urban settings though. Whereas my home city of Cambridge may look like a booming economy, possibly even overheated and certainly reaching the limits of expansion unless its infrastructure is urgently sorted out, it is hardly uniformly wealthy. Marked out as the most unequal city in the country, according to the Centre for Cities, there is much that needs to be done. However, unlike Burnham in Manchester, its devolution deal lead to a mayor responsible for the three utterly disparate regions of Cambridge, Peterborough and the fenland surrounding rural areas. It is inevitably hard to find solutions that fit all, and its transport links between these different constituent regions are woeful. World-class research within the University of Cambridge and the many research institutes, may seem a world away from the lived experience of the 14-year-old in the fens. Or even from the experience of a 14-year-old in one of the further flung council houses within the City, who may never have set foot in a Cambridge college, or visited one of the city’s wonderful museums. Social mobility across these societal divides needs to form a central part of levelling up.

How well is the Government addressing these issues? This brings me back to Oldham, with the Principal of Oldham College (a further education college), Alun Francis, taking over from Katherine Birbalsingh as (Interim) Chair of the Social Mobility Commission (he was formerly Vice Chair). In their joint response to the autumn statement, the pair have previously said, with concern at the lack of attention directed towards the issues,

“How early years [education] is delivered and how skills are taught are both extremely important areas of interest for us.”

So they should be. Middle class children may get to school already familiar with the idea of books as a source of pleasure; those less advantaged may barely have seen one. Early years are crucial in getting a child onto a firm footing to traverse the subsequent education system. A child who falls behind then may never catch up.

Birbalsingh herself may be head teacher of one of the most academically successful secondary schools in England, one in a pretty deprived part of London, but she came in for a great deal of flak (not least from me) when she pronounced, to a Commons Select Committee, that

“From my own knowledge of these things, physics is not something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it. They don’t like it….There is a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do.”

She later admitted this was ‘a guess’. To my mind, and I would suspect to many in the STEM community, probably including the Institute of Physics, attitudes such as these should disqualify someone from being responsible for social mobility. By casual statements such as these – ones not based on evidence – she is condemning some of her pupils to feeling their dreams are unattainable, shutting down avenues for their future study and careers. (The title of the IOP’s 2013 Report, Closing Doors, says it all. And, as the report spells out, doors can also be closed for boys in other subjects due to a school’s culture reinforcing outdated stereotypes.)

Those skills, that Francis and Birbalsingh stress in the comments I quote above, may well require the numeracy and grasp of physical concepts that an A Level in maths or physics (or equivalent BTECs or T Levels) could confer, even if a student has no intention of studying the subject at University. To be a qualified electrician or machine shop operator, helping to rebuild a manufacturing hub in Manchester, as Burnham aspires to, or to support the thriving technology industries around Cambridge, needs this kind of numerical and conceptual competence and confidence. A head teacher who closes doors to 50% of the population by out-of-date attitudes may well be ‘doing more harm than good’ coming with “too much baggage to be as effective as I would like to be as Chair”, as she put it in her resignation letter. Her comments regarding girls and Physics would seem to confirm this, although she will also have been referring to many other of her outspoken views.

So, Alun Francis, principal of an FE college in one of the left-behind parts of Manchester, now has the opportunity to shape social mobility and to facilitate local and national levelling up. His task will be all the harder, for the very reasons the pair stated in the autumn: there is little cash or attention being directed towards either early years’ education or FE and subsequent skills development for young adults, and upskilling for adults. Whereas the last Labour government put money into Sure Start, to try to overcome the early years’ hurdles for the less advantaged, this government has lost that focus and cut that programme right back. FE has been the poor relation in the education system for decades and, as a recent Sutton Trust report on apprentices highlighted, the fall in apprenticeship starts has been much greater in the more deprived regions compared with the better off and, in the total number of starts, there has been a shift towards degree apprentices for the latter group.

Social mobility remains a challenge. Cash for the education system overall remains a challenge. There is much to be done to enable cities across the country, not just Manchester and Cambridge, to thrive, but if our economy is to recover and thrive in the long term, that cash needs to be found.

This entry was posted in Education, Equality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.