Nicky Morgan is a former Education Secretary, and is MP for Loughborough.
Last Thursday, in a Commons chamber sparsely attended for understandable reasons, MPs debated social mobility. In particular, we looked at the conclusions that the Social Mobility Commission reached last year: it is headed up by former cabinet ministers Alan Milburn and Gillian Shephard.
Its opening paragraph says:
“Britain has a deep social mobility problem. In this annual report we present compelling new evidence that for this generation of young people in particular, it is getting worse not better. Low levels of social mobility are impeding the progress of not only the poorest in our society. We identify four fundamental barriers that are holding back a whole tranche of low- and middle-income families and communities in England: an unfair education system, a two-tier labour market, an imbalanced economy and an unaffordable housing market. Taking down these barriers will require a new, long-term approach. It will also mean challenging some long-held assumptions that have held sway for too long in public policy. There are no easy fixes when it comes to cracking Britain’s social mobility problem. Change will take time. The next decade should be one of deep-seated social reform.”
I was chided for saying recently that last June’s referendum vote was about more than just the EU. But I remain convinced that it provided an opportunity for many people to vent their frustration, in a forum other than at a general election, with the way they perceive our country to be heading. Many people feel that Britain’s social contract – in other words, the confidence that each generation will start from a better point than the last – has broken down.
Amidst Brexit I know, from her words on the steps of Downing Street when she first entered it, that the Prime Minister wants to tackle this problem. It should be a Conservative Government, with our belief in opportunity and aspiration, which enables people to be more socially mobile. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent empty rhetoric about a staircase for all and not a ladder for a few points towards the typical equality-of-outcome-left-wing worldview which Conservatives instinctively disagree with.
But, as I said in the debate, I do worry that the growing use of the word meritocracy isn’t going to get us to our destination either. I think what is meant by it is that Britain should be a place where people make progress based on their ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth. Quite right. But this itself relies on the unlocking of people’s ability and talent, and this has to happen early in life, before the chance is lost. As the Commission’s reports says:
“The early years of a child’s life have a lasting impact on their prospects for social mobility. At the age of five, around half of the gap in outcomes can be explained by children’s prior ability at age three. From this point onwards, prior attainment continues to account for the majority of the gap in results at each stage of the schools system. By the time that students receive their GCSE results, around 32 per cent of the variation in performance can be predicted on the basis of indicators observed at or before age five.”
Education is the great driver of social mobility. And my experience in the Department for Education tells me that all children, in order to unlock their innate ability and talent, have the right to expect to have their aspirations raised through an excellent academic and knowledge-rich curriculum.
Even after seven years of Conservative education reform, there are still too many places in the country where aspiration is not only in short supply, but is positively discouraged. I have heard too many dismissive comments along the lines of “these children won’t amount to much because of their background.” But I’ve also seen some incredible teachers and schools who won’t accept that their pupils deserve anything less than the highest aspirations, and who don’t buy into excuses about backgrounds.
Some of the schools in which poor educational performance has been entrenched are schools in coastal areas. In 2015 the Future Leaders Trust published a report on why such schools struggle, and how headteachers are turning them around. Working with parents was a key feature of this work. As the headteacher of Great Yarmouth Primary wrote: “Shifting the beliefs of the staff and of parents – some of whom had received a poor education themselves – was the first task. I did this by showing them research about children who fail to achieve at primary school and the profoundly negative impact on their GCSEs and beyond.”
A great deal of research points to the educational underperformance of white working-class boys. Since last week’s debate, I’ve been criticised for agreeing that white pupils are often outperformed by pupils from ethnic minorities, because the latter’s families are incredibly aspirational and value education more. But the best response to this is neither to criticise this truth nor to resent those from ethnic minorities, but to follow the Future Leaders Trust’s work to encourage all parents and pupils to value education, and make them realise that without good qualifications we stand no chance of repairing the social contract.
If low expectations are not challenged early then a child’s ambition and talent, captured by the use of the word merit, withers and fails, so their chances of progress are extremely limited. A Conservative response to the problem of low social mobility is to shine a light on some difficult areas, such as low aspirational parenting and teaching, and to provide very specific remedies to address it – including requiring all schools to set universally high expectations and stretch every child, from the lowest attainer to the most able.