Developing an education system committed to promoting social mobility

 

 

Developing an education system committed to promoting social mobility

Education policy looks set to be one of the most controversial issues facing the new

coalition government. The Conservatives’ Swedish free school model, conflict over

higher education fees, and question marks over whether the Conservatives are willing

to make available the £2.5 billion investment in schools demanded by their coalition

partners, are all cracks that will take some papering over. Education is an area, however,

that must be prioritised. Despite sweeping to power in 1997 promising ‘education,

education, education’ Labour’s legacy is distinctly mixed and Britain continues to lose

ground to the rest of the industrialised world.

 

Demanding ever greater investment in education is no longer a satisfactory antidote,

especially as the new government seeks to address Britain’s huge deficit. Indeed, though

many have questioned its methods, few would belittle the financial commitment New

Labour made to state education. The biggest issue facing the new government is how to

improve standards and to create an education system able to promote social mobility.

Earlier this year a major report by the National Equality Panel concluded that rather than

being fixed at birth, inequalities related to family background widen through the years

of compulsory education. Seized upon by the Conservatives as a further sign of Britain’s

broken society the new Lib-Con coalition has already pledged to “close the attainment

gap between richest and poorest” as one its fundamental priorities.

 

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For both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats the answer is more targeted

funding through the ‘pupil premium’ that will ensure more money is allocated to pupils

from disadvantaged backgrounds. A policy of targeted funding has in fact existed in

all but name for many years. A recent research paper by CfBT Education Trust found

that on average primary schools are already allocated 71% more funding for admitting a

pupil from a disadvantaged background, a figure that rises to 77% for secondary schools.

Although this funding was to a certain extent flattened by Local Authorities it seems

that neither increased investment nor better targeted funding should be seen as the magic

bullet.

 

One of the few innovative policy initiatives in recent years that specifically pledged

to target ailing pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds was Labour’s £500 million

commitment to provide one-to-one tuition to all pupils aged seven to eleven years old

falling behind in Maths and English starting in September 2010. Had Labour gained a

fourth term it seems this would have become one of its flagship policies, offering a vital

safety net to catch those pupils who have the academic ability to do well but perhaps

lack the foundations of a stable, supportive family background. Although the Lib-Dem

manifesto envisaged one-to-one tuition as an important part of the pupil premium, the

Conservatives’ focus on the free schools initiative and the reluctance to provide extra

funding to the sector suggests it will soon be forgotten.

 

However, if the coalition is serious about reaching the estimated 300,000 pupils who fall

behind their peers every year it would do well to build on its predecessor’s ideas rather

than start anew. The greatest weakness surrounding current political debates on one-toone tuition is

the tendency to ignore completely the private tutoring sector. Labour was

determined to draw its reserve army of tutors from the ranks of current, former or retired

teachers and the failure of initial trials has been blamed on the shortage of willing recruits

and the over-reliance on existing teachers with already burgeoning workloads. Although

to some extent unregulated the private sector boasts a well-organised network of highly

intelligent and well-motivated tutors, perhaps better able to instil a passion for learning

than an exhausted teacher after a full working day.

 

By embracing the private tutoring sector the government has the chance both to utilise the

extensive network of existing tutors and to establish greater regulation across the tutoring

business. There is already talk within the sector of establishing an Association of Tutors

to regularise and improve standards and such an organisation could provide well-trained

tutors who have been carefully vetted. In return the state could consider setting up an

education resource bank containing teaching resources carefully tailored to the national

curriculum for tutors to draw upon. In this way the quality of tutoring and the teaching

materials used would be well safeguarded.

 

The promise of universal one-to-one tuition for those who are falling behind was an

ambitious pledge and one that could have played a major role in improving levels

of attainment amongst pupils of all social backgrounds. If the new government is

determined to improve educational standards then it may be an initiative it can ill afford

to spurn.

 

 

Patrick Meehan & Hamid Hashemi

Mayfair Consultants

23 Berkeley Square

London W1J 6HE

T 020 7665 6606

F 020 7665 6650

www.mayfairconsultants.co.uk

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