Social mobility? Ready whenever you are.

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Ability is nothing without opportunityNapoleon Bonaparte

So, John Major finds it “truly shocking” that the privately educated elite dominate the professions, and continue to dominate the government of this country.  A politician that has continued to promote and advocate a Government whose policies have pushed more people into need and poverty, and which removes the structures that support the vulnerable but also provides access to services for all, should not be surprised at the outcome. 

His criticism of the previous Labour Government may hold some credibility – there could have been an earlier and more comprehensive programme in support of “education, education, education”.  B those measures which might have the most direct and immediate impact on social mobility – redistribution of wealth – would surely be one John Major himself would have opposed.  The Con-Lib Dem Government boasts record numbers of people relying on food charity, has overseen growth of payday lenders and systemic youth unemployment.  All very well, this continuing airing of aspirations which lend to political commentary.  But in the still of everyday life, it is just political frothing unless accompanied by a commitment and movement for genuine change.

There are many contributory factors which impact upon social mobility including housing and health but education delivery and outcome are key measures. 

“Education is the best economic policy there is” Tony Blair

It is recognised in many studies the importance of early years support in terms of personal development, education, well-being and pro-social behaviour.  Researchers have found that by the age of 22 months children are already slipping behind their potential.  One of the greatest achievements of any Labour Government was the introduction of the Sure Start. Sure Start Children’s Centres provide integrated services for young children and their families.  This is not just pointed towards the vulnerable, although it provides an invaluable community access to essential services, it can also provide advice and resources to support individual and community needs.  Does it not therefore follow that any Government which moves away from these objectives, by removing resources, without a proven and sustainable alternative programme is weakening the advancement for social mobility.

“The truest characters of ignorance are vanity and pride and arrogance

Samuel Butler

I totally reject any suggestion that the policy of “Free” Schools does anything other than reduce limited resources to appease those again with special interest or “those who shout loudest”.  This is a politically motivated vanity project with the intention of disempowering local authorities and flattering a few that might hold influence and power.  This programme does not “free” schools, but as recent incidents have demonstrated does put pupils at significant risk through lack of control and accountability locally.  “Free” schools divert resources from the sum for the benefit of the few.  This is particularly the case, and a cause of concern, when used for the benefit of a faith driven school.  Schools should be open and the focus of the whole community; be transparent in their management and delivery, be striving to support those with need and be able to access resources and facilities to promote the able.

Grammar schools are not the answer. They do not open up any greater access to the best of education, neither do they remove the advantages of belonging to a lifetime club.  Last week the Sutton Trust, an education charity, reported that 2.7% of pupils are entitled to free school meals (FSMs) as against 17.5% in other state schools; 13% of entrants to English state–funded grammars come from fee-paying schools, more than double the proportion of 10-year-olds in private education; in areas which stuck with selection 66% of high-achievers at 11 who are not on FSMs get places at grammars; among those who are entitled to them, the figure is 40%.  That grammar schools are catering a group of children who are significantly more affluent than the average; and that for some reason their doors are shut to many bright children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.  The report also reported that the 6% of pupils at fee-paying prep schools provide four times more grammar school entrants than the poorest children in society.

The exams have become so competitive that children need to get virtually 100% to secure places in the best performing schools.  Moreover, the gap in academic success between children from the most and least affluent families starts to emerge many years earlier than this entrance exam.  That is why more and more people are pointing to early intervention as an answer – focusing on children achieving their potential from birth.  Of course the greatest irony, and offence against a child, is when parents send them to a funded place where performance is below that of the local State provided school – says all you need to know about the considered importance of the school as a status symbol over education.

Thought you were smart when you took them on,
But you didn’t take a peep in their artillery room
All that rugby puts hairs on your chest
What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?
The Jam

By promoting people into positions of authority, and allowing them to preserve and empower the very system which bolstered them, is undemocratic and counter to any notion of social mobility.  If you are genuine in the ideal of a free and open society then it must not be about glorifying only the few that fight the odds to achieve but encouraging and supporting all who have ability not resources alone.  No society with democratic ambition should tolerate such open and brazen abuses. 

If you were setting out to make a fundamental change in society, to promote social mobility and opportunity, then the first step might be to abolish the public school system.  At a swipe you would remove the very article which lay at the root of the problem, the vestiges of political and financial privilege swept away.  The tradition of such institutions, built upon political intrigue and patronage, hold little importance to myself but clearly many of these schools are some of the finest institutions in the world and do help produce some of our greatest thinkers and citizens, and they contribute greatly to the wider academic world. 

There will be numerous examples where genuine efforts have been made by many schools to make such outreaches, to share knowledge, advice and resources.  In itself this should be celebrated and promoted but in itself it is not enough if the end result is to lead to authentic social change.  I would advocate the trial of many partnership approaches, and very much see that social enterprise comprising of all stakeholders is the legitimate way to reach out to the community, and ensure there is local and accountable democratic control.  Perhaps a forward thinking local authority is already championing this approach now.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”

Nelson Mandela

All our children should have the same access to excellent education, for them to fulfil their full potential and for our nation to reap the benefits.  We must build and maintain the best of schools, train our teachers to the highest standards and invest in technology for our classrooms.  I would hope that in the spirit of partnership, the elite schools will innovate and identify a way which will share their resources and opportunities with the whole community; to ensure that more than tokenism is offered.   Otherwise it will require bold and committed political leadership to enforce the necessary change.

This should not be about settling political agendas, or the politics of envy but providing the same access to opportunity for all our children.  If there is a genuine desire for change, if there is to be a truly open and democratic society, then deeds are required.  As someone once remarked “Fine words butter no parsnips”.

You must be the change you wish to see in the worldMahatma Gandhi

Background reading at http://www.suttontrust.com

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