John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
Last week’s leak of the government’s intention to appoint Katharine Birbalsingh, headmistress of Michaela Community School as Chair of the Social Mobility Commission is very good news. With Sir Michael Wilshaw, who got significant numbers of Mossbourne pupils into Cambridge, and the late Sir Rhodes Boyson, who got substantial numbers of GCE O Level passes in a secondary modern school when this was thought impossible, she is among a tiny handful of people who have actually made an impact on the problem.
The biggest driver of social mobility in living memory was the second world war, which opened opportunities for people to gain technical skills, for example as radio operators, followed by the expansion of grammar schools in the 1944 Education Act. Most grammar school places went to the children of middle-class parents, but there were enough for others to give them access to universities and polytechnics. This in turn led to higher salaries and the move from rented housing to owner-occupation, which remains the bedrock of the Conservative vote. Small wonder that Corbyn’s Labour abandoned social mobility, as incompatible with its goal of imposed equality.
Birbalsingh – @Miss_Snuffy on Twitter – will have a more difficult task. Labour’s reckless over-expansion of universities has created a graduate glut that requires careful navigation for new entrants. A friend’s granddaughter has just gone from Oxford to a £60k traineeship with a city solicitor, but for too many others the main return on their investment has been a debt that makes it much harder to save a deposit for a house. Mobility in these conditions requires excellence, and most of the education sector is still dominated by people who see excellence as elitism, and do their best to fight it.
The response of the progressives and woke to two excellent Conservative-led reports earlier this year illustrates the problem. Dr Tony Sewell’s report on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and the Select Committee’s on the underachievement of White working-class pupils, identify issues and pinch-points clearly, and offer practical ways forward. Among the most important are the DfE’s Family Hubs, designed to offer integrated support to families who most need it at the earliest possible stage, and the Sewell Commission’s proposal for “Safeguarding Trust” groups to increase community involvement with the police.
Both reports hit hard on the real issues facing disadvantaged people, and neither will make comfortable reading for the government. But the Sewell Commission, all but one of whose members is from a minority ethnic background, has been hammered by the woke for its specific rejection of its agenda, while the Select Committee, whose chair, Robert Halfon MP, is often seen as an ally of government opponents, suffered a rare negative vote on its report, because Labour members wanted to pin everything on austerity.
Both responses are bunkum. Sewell’s point that Black and Minority Ethnic people do not constitute a homogenous group is confirmed, both by his report, and by the woke’s reaction. The Select Committee’s view is also sustained by facts. White working class pupils are by far the largest disadvantaged group, and so cannot be seen as privileged. By insisting that they are, the woke repeat the errors of Marx and Engels in the 1850s, who assumed that the working class was a single entity. The Labour Select Committee members, who were defeated on a wrecking amendment to the report, are merely repeating a mantra – austerity, austerity, austerity.
In essence, we have a conflict between carefully targeted action and angry slogans. Above all, on the conservative side of the argument, we have Michaela, which remains the government’s most important achievement in education and a beacon of hope. Katharine Birbalsingh is a winner, and must be backed.