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Reflections on the timeless quest for social mobility


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Written by Ian Piddington.    

It is a very long time since I carried out any real academic research. In the dim and distant past of 1985, pre- internet and with primary and secondary material hard to reach, my dissertation considered the ‘Renaissance Attitude’ and its influence on the sporting ethos and practice of the Early Modern age.

My research conclusion was that men (and women) could rise more easily through the ranks by displaying their virtues, knowledge and skills across a range of courtly pursuits, both academic and physical. This advancement brought patronage, status and wealth, which otherwise was difficult to achieve. Of course, it helped to be part of a family that already had these advantages by birth! We do know however that Ipswich’s very own Thomas Wolsey showed that social mobility was possible without such obvious advantage.

It seems that in the 21st Century we are still striving for this outcome. During this time, successive governments have introduced policies in England that have radically re-modelled the education system. These changes include an expansion of academisation and the introduction of a Free Schools programme. Such schools are funded directly from central government instead of via a local council. England now has a fragmented and sometimes conflicted system, but one which may prove flexible and open to change and innovation.

Multi Academy Trusts determine the direction of educational travel for their own institutions whilst local authorities have responsibility for statutory aspects and a less ‘hands on’ oversight of provision and quality. Various iterations of national curricula have come and gone and experienced teachers would say that the ‘wheel’ of assessment has turned almost full circle. Alongside this, Ofsted inspection frameworks continue to develop and pose schools and colleges challenges of interpretation and application.

In this national context, Suffolk County Council began its ‘Raising the Bar’ initiative in 2015 in order to improve the attainment and progress of all students. This project asked schools to reflect on the quality of their provision. Independently of this project schools were working to improve progress data.

In 2018, the local authority initiated the ‘Social Mobility’ project and allocated significant and equal funding to four secondary schools in the most deprived wards of the county. The overarching objective of the project is to raise attainment and aspiration and, as a result of this, improve the life chances of students. I currently work on this social mobility project as a Research Associate, working with Dr Olumide Adisa, in the Suffolk Institute for Social and Economic Research. 

A unique feature of this project is that schools were not asked to bid for the funding; the need for such assistance was established solely by the socio-economic and educational context in which each school found themselves. Neither were they expected to meet externally set targets; schools were trusted to understand their own needs and plan accordingly.

Three of these four schools are in Ipswich, the fourth in Lowestoft.The schools received their funding and then individually designed actions and success criteria. The success of the financial commitment will be determined by ongoing realistic evaluation, with a final report in 2020.

In my view, the plans as written understand the crucial role played by primary schools in providing the platform for students to achieve well at secondary level. Funding is therefore contributing to transition activity and to the purchase and roll out of specific reading, literacy and maths schemes throughout all key stages. These schemes in part are being used to identify those students most at risk and help them to ‘catch up’ with their peer group. Specifically, many students from migrant families require intensive support with language skills prior to mainstream integration. Trips, activities and parental engagement events also aim to inspire students to achieve well and raise community expectations.

Given that the broad objective of social mobility might be best assessed from an inter-generational perspective, the schools have designed a broad pallet of activities and interventions to engage, inspire and educate students towards better educational outcomes and enhanced choice post 16. From this point, social mobility is more likely. Already emerging from the evaluation is the close alignment of the school project objectives and the challenges set in the 2017 DfE document Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential.  A Plan for Improving Social Mobility Through Education. The success of these activities will sometimes be measured quantitatively by, for example, improvements in test scores, reading challenges, attendance or exam analysis. Alternatively, some qualitative aspects will require more nuanced consideration.

Schools are complex environments with many layered factors that may determine the progress of a student. Using the social mobility evaluation protocol, it will be possible to recognise where the funded activity has helped to raise attainment and enhance student engagement to some extent. Through the initial evaluation of some action strands, it is already evident that there are improved student outcomes.  In other strands, there has been less success and schools are refocusing. Throughout the process, schools are sharing their experiences with each other and learning from good practice.

It is often challenging to get a consensus on how best to achieve social mobility but there is at least one thing we might all agree on before the evaluation is complete -- better core skills, an increased engagement in learning and higher levels of attainment will provide students with greater life opportunity – just ask Thomas Wolsey!

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