Maggie Jones on why sharp elbows in the school system are no cure for social mobility
When Education Minister David Laws appeared in front of the Select Committee recently he praised the role that sharp-elbowed middle class parents played in dominating the system and accessing school places, adding “pushy parents and those willing to pay for private schooling were worth emulating”.
One hopes Mr Laws colleagues in the Lords come up with a more coherent plan for improving social mobility when Peers debate the role that education plays in this later today.
So far, the trends are not looking good. Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility Commission has reported that “the ambition to end child poverty that the previous government set is going to be missed by a considerable margin, possibly by as much as two million children in relative poverty”. On education, his report finds that “the most deprived areas still have 30% fewer good schools and get fewer good teachers than the least deprived”.
Meanwhile, the government’s obsession with its flagship Free Schools programme has distracted attention and resources away from the most important thing – the quality of teaching. This has led, for example, to West Sussex County Council being forced to put aside £285,000 to ensure that pupils from the Discovery New School – a failed Free School in Crawley – can continue their education in the state system in the county.
What of the other great flagship policy – the pupil premium? While we welcome the additional funding it has delivered, there is not too much scope for celebration here either. A recent report from Demos shows that, in fact, the education attainment gap actually widened in 72 out of 152 local authorities last year. And in 66, the gap was larger than it was two years earlier – before the pupil premium was introduced.
This failure to bridge the attainment gap has been compounded by the Coalition’s decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, to constantly sideline vocational education, and to create a school based careers service which is widely acknowledged to be not fit for purpose.
Labour is determined to ensure that social mobility is based on improving access to good quality education for all pupils. We will start by recognising the fundamental importance of early years provision and expand free childcare for three and four year olds to 25 hours a week,
In contrast to the government’s obsession with school structures, we will concentrate on raising the quality of teaching by ensuring all teachers achieve qualified teaching status, are regularly revalidated and have new career routes to keep the best teachers in the classroom. This will prevent future scandals such as that seen in Goole High School, an academy employing numerous unqualified teachers, which has seen a spectacular fall from grace in its Ofsted inspections since 2011 and is now judged inadequate in all areas.
In addition, Labour will create a Tech bacc – a rigorous and accredited vocational qualification, on a par with academic qualifications, and which commands the respect of employers. We will also give young people hope and aspiration by introducing a compulsory jobs guarantee for young people combined with an expansion of apprenticeships.
Our education programme won’t be based on sharp elbows or financial privilege. Instead, it will reassert the importance of quality teaching in all schools, rightly hold all schools to account and, most important of all, give young people a future to which they can all aspire.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 13th March 2014