“Is the coalition government doing enough to encourage social mobility?”

social-mobilityThat was the question I was asked to answer for a new magazine, The New Idealist (available online here). Here’s what I said…

Social mobility: it’s a phrase much-beloved by politicians from all three parties. Who, after all, can possibly disagree with the fine sentiments of Nick Clegg in his social mobility strategy paper, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers (April 2011)?

In Britain today, life chances are narrowed for too many by the circumstances of their birth: the home they’re born into, the neighbourhood they grow up in or the jobs their parents do. Patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next. The true test of fairness is the distribution of opportunities. That is why improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Coalition Government’s social policy.

Let me ask you another question, though: when did you last hear anyone unconnected with the Westminster Village — an ‘ordinary voter’ — talk about social mobility? It doesn’t even rate a mention in Ipsos MORI’s polls tracking the issues of concern: unsurprisingly, the economy comes top.

This chasm between how the Government talks about the principal goal of its social policy and the concerns of the public is in itself a problem. But perhaps more telling is the way all parties are happy to engage with social mobility as a smokescreen for the debate that still matters more: how is inequality best tackled?

Before we address that question, though, let’s be clear about our definitions. The extent to which you’re able to do better than your parents were — what’s termed absolute social mobility — may simply be a function of economic growth or technological change. How likely it is you’ll be able to move up (or down) the social or income ladder compared to others is what’s known as relative social mobility. The political focus is on the latter measure, as Nick Clegg’s white paper makes clear:

For any given level of skill and ambition, regardless of an individual’s background, everyone should have an equal chance of getting the job they want or reaching a higher income bracket.

In other words, the Coalition’s priority is delivering equality of opportunity. The drive has been, therefore, to improve the education of the poorest in society. The reason why is not surprising. A five year-old child living in poverty today is already the equivalent of eight months behind their better-off peers in terms of cognitive development. And this gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds increases throughout their time at school.

One of the Lib Dems’ top priorities at the 2010 general election was the introduction of what’s known as the ‘pupil premium’, significant new funding targeted at low-income pupils. Implemented by the Coalition, it will be worth up to £1,300 for each eligible child by 2015. The aim is clear: to reduce the attainment gap and enable everyone to get on in life.

But equality of opportunity cannot stop at 18. The Coalition’s higher education reforms in England, though undoubtedly controversial and politically costly to the Lib Dems, mean the poorest 30% of university graduates will pay back less overall than under Labour’s fees system while the richest will pay more. Potential students seem to have noticed: application rates from disadvantaged areas hit their highest level ever in 2013.

Vince Cable has also emphasised the critical importance of adult education citing his own family experiences:

My mother’s escape from domestic drudgery and isolation occurred at adult education college when she was 40. Our family was fortunate to have these opportunities and want the present generation to have the same.

And beyond formal education, apprenticeships have been expanded, with almost half-a-million created in 2010-11, two-thirds more than in Labour’s last year in office.

In its own terms, then — delivering equality of opportunity — the Coalition is doing a lot. The big question is whether improvements to the education system will be enough to advance relative social mobility, the Coalition’s stated aim.

The evidence suggests not. As Oxford professor John Goldthorpe has highlighted, relative social mobility remained broadly static for most of the twentieth-century despite all the changes thrown at the education system. And in his neutrally scholarly way he had laid down a serious gauntlet to politicians of all stripes:

… [if] the creation of a more fluid and open society is a serious goal, then politicians will need to move out of the relative comfort zone of educational policy and accept that measures will be required, of a kind sure to be strongly contested, that seek to reduce inequalities of condition.

This, at last, gets to the heart of the issue: inequality.

There has long been a tension between the liberal goal of equalising opportunities and the social democratic goal of equalising outcomes. The Coalition has explicitly prioritised the former, both through its education and training measures and by preferring to incentivise work through cutting taxes for the low-paid rather than increasing benefits for low-income groups. These policies may well deliver on promoting absolute social mobility, stimulating economic growth and ensuring the next generation can live a better life than their parents.

By themselves, however, they are unlikely to deliver the relative social mobility Nick Clegg promises: your background will still continue to exert an unfair influence on what you’re able to do in life. To paraphrase the deputy prime minister: “Patterns of inequality will continue to be imprinted from one generation to the next.”

The Coalition Government’s focus on education — in particular the education of the poorest — is to its credit. But if it wants to encourage relative social mobility it is going to have to tackle an issue it prefers to skirt around: delivering a more equal society. There really is no alternative.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Helen Tedcastle 23rd May '13 - 10:13am

    Stephen, this is a very thoughtful piece and I agree with the comment that inequality is the ‘big’ issue we need to tackle. However, the following sentence caused me to laugh out loud:

    “The Coalition Government’s focus on education — in particular the education of the poorest — is to its credit.”

    This is laughable, not because of the sentiment that ‘we must focus on the poorest and disadvantaged’ but the assumption that the policies being forced through by Gove and his group of cronies will deliver what we, as Lib Dems aspire towards – a society where poverty and ignorance are scourges of the past.

    Please explain how you think Gove’s education policies ie: the curriculum changes being rammed through; a History curriculum packed with facts on the glorious history of Kings and Queens, which extends until the election of Margaret Thatcher – written in the DfE by Gove and a few Spads – will help the life chances of the poor and those just above the threshold for free school meals.

    Please explain to us how Gove’s policy of forcing schools into academy status will stop inequality across generations and also, how are Free Schools, which are damaging the ability of LEAs to plan their education provision, syphoning off children of the ‘worried’ middles classes from state schools and introducing a fragmented system, going to help the poor?

    How is performance related pay and threatening teachers with the sack going to help inequality – when research has shown across the world shows PRP does nothing to improve teachers’ ‘performance’?

    This is not the first time you have praised Gove’s education policies – please enlighten us on the reasons why you as a Liberal Democrat, admire them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd May '13 - 10:23am

    In its own terms, then — delivering equality of opportunity — the Coalition is doing a lot.

    Unless something is done about the gross differences in opportunity between those who have well-housed parents and and grandparents stand to gain a huge advantage from inherited wealth and capital gains on housing, and those who have none of this (and it will not be done, because doing something strikes at the very heart of what the Conservative Party is about i.e. defending unearned wealth), any claims that “equality of opportunity” is being delivered are piffle.

  • Paul in Twickenham 23rd May '13 - 10:41am

    @Matthew – spot on.

    I make no apologies for the fact that I keep banging on about this, but it is once again topical to anyone who follows the markets: This morning the Nikkei has fallen by 7% and European bourses are all much lower. According to the FT this huge fall in the Nikkei is due to retail (i.e. domestic) investors booking profits. Frankly I don’t believe that and suspect there is more to this than meets the eye, but let’s take it at face value. Similarly the FTSE is falling today from what is close to an all-time nominal high value.

    Those “who have” have done very nicely thank you out of QE as the money has been used to boost nominal values in asset classes that tend to be owned by the already-rich. At the same time we are squeezing the poor more and more.

    It is hard to see how making the rich richer and squeezing the poor til the pips squeak is “encouraging social mobility” unless you follow some extreme version of supply-side economics.

    The coalition needs to find ways of dealing with this new emerging rentier class and decide whether it is happy to “own” the consequences of further QE as advocated by Carney.

  • Ben Jephcott 23rd May '13 - 11:31am

    The pupil premium is a good thing, though limited, but the Gove revolution is not about social mobility.

    The failure of Nick Clegg and other MPs – and now it appears Stephen Tall – to grasp the scale and consequence of what Gove is unleashing and how illiberal and reactionary it is never ceases to amaze. Academies will not help social mobility, even with a few safeguards we try to bolt on, neither will a back to the future curriculum.

    This kind of throwaway line totally at variance with the facts about the direction of policy is depressing.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd May '13 - 12:19pm

    The pupil premium is a joke. You can’t reduce the attainment gap between the rich and the poor by making the poor poorer.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd May '13 - 12:38pm

    Exactly Paul! We need to be speaking out against QE it has just been a giant stealth tax to take from the poor to give to the rich. The fact that Mark Carney wants more of it on a colossal scale, the IMF want to increase VAT in return for more corporate tax breaks and George Osborne is in on the whole lot, makes me think they are all just out for themselves. And I don’t see us doing anything about it.

    Think about the rising food prices as well, and the starving people in the third world. But they probably don’t matter because they don’t get a vote.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd May '13 - 12:41pm


    But stuff it, let’s just have lots more of it! Pensioners are also getting pillaged by this policy.

  • I enjoyed Stephen’s article, and agree we need to focus on real inequalities now, as we did up to the 2010 election, rather than future possible maybe inequalities.

    In reality, the government is using “sanctions” (denying people benefits to which they are entitled and have already paid for) and forced labour (aka slavery) on the poor and vulnerable people who are bearing the brunt of this government’s policies. It is unacceptable.

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd May '13 - 1:21pm

    I think we are all agreed that social mobility is something that the UK should greatly improve upon. In theory the stakes ought to be high, this is the ONLY aspect of the equality agenda that the Lib Dem in Coalition appear to be trying to achieve at the moment. The cuts in benefits means that poverty reduction is not such a high priority – in fact we are going backwards on that. As a Liberal I find that very disappointing and I struggle to make sense of it. The preamble of our constitution – which defines what a Liberal Democrat is – looks forward to a society where “None shall be enslaved by poverty”. This was in the previous Liberal party preamble as well – it is not just a Social Democrat aim. The words social mobility do not make an appearance in either.
    Maybe it is a sign of lack of ambition, reducing poverty is too difficult. Maybe just focussing on social mobility we can actually achieve that if nothing else?
    Nick Clegg used to make a big deal about life expectancy in Sheffield, see http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/big-life-expectancy-gap-between-rich-poor/1611
    Perhaps this is the measure we should use to test whether this government is delivering? Unfortunately it will take a long time before the numbers are out and we can test whether this government is doing the right thing.
    What I sense is that government policy is not joined up on this. The pupil premium is a good policy. But the question is is there enough money being put into it, and is the PP money being spent in the way it should. Recently Nick Clegg did the right thing for his child to get a place in a good state school. But are people on low incomes doing the same as he is? To what extent does the PP pulling in one direction get cancelled out by the sharp elbows of the middle classes pulling in the other? I wonder with David Laws currently writing the Lib Dem manifesto how he is going to weave a narrative that Social Mobility is improving? I wonder how it will bear scrutiny from the C4 News fact check?

  • Ever since the archers were well paid , social advancement can be achieved by obtaining the skills people want to pay for.

    A major reason for social inequality is that in many inner city schools, children are not taught the academic subjects and skills required to obtain well paid jobs. Even to obtain an electrical mechanical apprenticeship with a water company will need GSCEs in maths, english , science and another subjects. In reality , the company will give the apprenticeship to someone with better grades and GSCEs in physics and chemistry. Therefore someone say with grade B in maths, physics , chemistry and say Grade C In English who has good attendance record , turns up smartly to interview, on time and shows an interest in the company will be taken on in preference to someone with Grade C, has poor attendance record, is late, scruffy and shows no interest . Many employers say many children have not been given the basic interview skills by either parents or school.

    If someone is sullen and disinterested in the interview , then they are unlikely to be willing to be criticised during training. One does not want to work with a sullen un-responsive person if one his handling electric cables , especially above 400V.

    I would suggest many teachers should be sent on technical apprenticeships in say water or electricity utilities so they can learn to appreciate what academic and technical skills are required for careers. Next they would be sent to classes at Oxbridge/IC/UCL etc, etc and then to top companies which recruit from these universities in order to see what is required to hold down a job.

    Many pupils at public and grammar schools have parents who are employers in top organisations and therefore have been told what is required of them. In addition, many public and grammar schools have former pupils give talks on academic subjects at school and degrees in order to enter certain schools.

    Many teachers, civil servants and union leaders appear to have no understanding of what it takes to obtain a job in many careers.

    While many prep schools have working days of 8;30 am to 5 pm plus 1-2 hours of prep per night and saturday morni g classes:, many primary schools finish at 3-to 3;30pm , give little or no homework and have no saturday morning classes . Public school pupils take twice as many Maths and Science A Levels and three times as,any Modern Language A Levels. only 60% of comprehensives offer Further Maths A Level , let alone Additional Further Maths A Level. If we then consider disruption in the classroom, many comprehensive children are only taught for about 50-75% of the class.

    To enter the medical, science, engineering and maths departments it is ideal to be taught by graduates of these universities , not by ex-poly /college of higher education graduates with joint honours degrees. Just look at the CVs of teachers from top academic schools and those from inner city comprehensives.

    Consequently, public and grammar schools dominate subjects such as medicine, law, engineering , sciences at the top 5 universities. For ,many high flying careers in engineering or science , the first interview almost requires graduating from Cambridge or Imperial.

    If one looks at total hours of being taught( remove periods of disruption) and A Levels taken , then no wonder public and grammar schools are so dominant, especially the top 50.

    Do we need to change this? Yes. Those living in inner city areas need access to same rigorous education as someone n sent to top prep, grammar or public schools.

    If we look at top sports stars, musicians and ballet dancers what often distinguishes them is that they have trained harder and longer than other talented people- Wilkinson, Beckham, Player, Faldo, Benedetti( violinist): academic study is no different.

  • And believing that Education will cure all ills and inequalities is a charmingly old fashioned, hopelessly optimistic conceit..

  • CP. Education will not heal all ills. But as employment continues to require better education skills in order to start training for a job , it is a vital step. Britain has 20-40% of the population who lack the education to start training for a skilled job. Britain needs to move the population from un and semi-skilled employment into skilled employment ( obtaining at least NVQ3 )and this means generally obtaining 5 good GSCEs in maths,english, science ( 2 out 3 for physics, chemistry or biology) and a humanity.

  • Peter Watson 23rd May '13 - 4:46pm

    An interesting article about the equality of opportunity that I hope all Lib Dems support.
    I am unconvinced by the linking of tuition fees to this though.
    On the quantitative point that “application rates from disadvantaged areas hit their highest level ever in 2013” I would be interested to know the effect that nursing becoming a graduate career (and the university subject with the most applications) has had on this measure.
    Furthermore, as Stephen points out, “the poorest 30% of university graduates will pay back less overall than under Labour’s fees system while the richest will pay more”, so the cost of tuition fees is related to where a graduate ends up not where they started, and the mechanism is a disincentive to social mobility!

  • Helen Tedcastle 23rd May '13 - 5:59pm

    @ Charlie: A well put together argument in favour of the Conservative approach – or should I say ‘centrist’ analysis of education.
    The first sentence is the give away: “Ever since the archers were well paid , social advancement can be achieved by obtaining the skills people want to pay for.”

    Social advancement is equated with the economy – skills are associated with self-improvement and ‘getting on’. While skills and education are certainly essential for the country and the individual, it is curious that as a Liberal
    (I’m assuming you might be one), that education is not seen as a value in its own right – the need for teachers to unlock the potential and talent and each person – this is a classic Liberal value but no mention of it here.

    “A major reason for social inequality is that in many inner city schools, children are not taught the academic subjects and skills required to obtain well paid jobs. ”

    Please provide evidence for this assertion. Which schools specifically and in which boroughs? Which core academic subjects? You do realise that all students are required by law, before Gove and Laws were even in parliament, to study Mathematics, Science and English. These are academic core subjects. Until 2004, languages were compulsory – so it is only a few years since some schools could make them voluntary. Most pupils chooses a humanity – Religious Studies or History or Geography. After that, they may take design, technology and so on. This is fact.

    Gove was unable to provide evidence of his similar assertion on schools not teaching academic subjects – please do see if you can do better.

    ” Therefore someone say with grade B in maths, physics , chemistry and say Grade C In English who has good attendance record , turns up smartly to interview, on time and shows an interest in the company will be taken on in preference to someone with Grade C, has poor attendance record, is late, scruffy and shows no interest ”

    Obviously. I’m not sure who or what you are getting at – is it the ‘inner city schools’ again? What about the rest of the schools? Do you think that schools are not teaching their pupils how to conduct themselves? As school is often the only rules-based place some children experience, please tell us which school offers no rules or lessons in conduct/work experience. Most schools have staff in charge of this area and they liaise with businesses – many schools are Business specialists – are they not doing their job? Evidence please.

    “Many teachers, civil servants and union leaders appear to have no understanding of what it takes to obtain a job in many careers.”

    Not true. Many teachers have come into teaching late and have experience of other professions – I have worked with these people. Young people going into teaching may have chosen to teach but that does not mean they have not gone for jobs in other sectors, or had part-time jobs as students – they are not wholly ignorant of businesses – and if they are, they can learn – they are not stupid.

    “While many prep schools have working days of 8;30 am to 5 pm plus 1-2 hours of prep per night and saturday morni g classes:, many primary schools finish at 3-to 3;30pm , give little or no homework and have no saturday morning classes”

    I think you are a bit behind the times – the school day is around 8.30 – 3pm – 3.30pm. After school, there are clubs and many children take part in sport or music or a gardening club, so they will not get home before 5pm. They are not all involved but most will have something they do after school official hours. I am describing a typical ‘good’ school.

    Children are set homework, especially in the juniors with the SATs to prepare for. All children from infants, get nightly reading and spellings to do and also maths. In the junior years they will have projects and writing to do at home aswell as maths problems – I know because I have helped my nephews at state school with their homework.You are sadly out of date. I know primary schools that have extra classes before the school day starts aswell. Perhaps it could be made mandatory but there is a good argument for saying that overwork of children has negative long term emotional impacts – even upon public school boys.

    BY the way? Do you think that young children should go to school on a Saturday morning? Is that a good aspiration to have for children?
    Do you think children should have any free time? Should children be required to board like they do at public schools?

    “If we then consider disruption in the classroom, many comprehensive children are only taught for about 50-75% of the class.”

    This is a very negative assessment and based on what exactly? Most lessons are not disrupted – some are and that is because of an incident which cannot be predicted or a particularly difficult child or maybe the teacher is unable to cope with a particular class – in a comprehensive school, the children are not hand-picked and/or socially selected due to the wealth of their parents.

    ” To enter the medical, science, engineering and maths departments it is ideal to be taught by graduates of these universities , not by ex-poly /college of higher education graduates with joint honours degrees.”

    This is just patronising. Some of the most dedicated and passionate teachers I have worked with did not go to the ‘best’ universities but they were brilliant. Yet some of the children who were unfortunate according to you, to be taught by them, went on to read Physics, become Veterinary Science at Cambridge, read Modern History at Oxford – all from a ‘bog standard comp’ and taught by teachers who you think have not got the right degree from the right university.

    It is quite clear. You have no idea what you are talking about.

    Maybe you advise Michael Gove?

  • Helen Tadcastle .
    Look at the stats for admission to many courses at top universities: admissions from state schools largely come from . those who went to comprehensives which were former grammar schools in affluent suburbs and grammar schools: very few from inner city comprehensives .

    I would like the children from the poorest areas receive the same rigorous education that those who attend prep, grammar and public schools. There are a few children who can sail through and obtain top marks without hardly any work but most of us require hardwork. If in order to compete with prep and public schools children need to go to school on Saturday , then yes. Part of the success of Manchester United was that Cantona inspired other players to continue training even after the official practice sessions had finished.

    Experience of attending a comprehensive which was former secondary mod and experience of working in industry. Coming into contact with many people who were not given the correct advice at a younger enough age which meant they did not chose the best subjects for a future career.

    Working in a company where many colleagues had distinctions in their masters from Imperial. Listening to friends and colleagues about the difficulty of recruiting people with the right skills. Listening to employers who were City Guilds qualified saying many of those who were NVQ qualified were not good enough and had to let them go because they were damaging the firm’s reputation. Listening to an employer say she had to reject 10 applicants for a position as receptionist because they did not speak good enough English.

    Listening to too many people who reduced their chances of entering top universities because they had poor A Level selection. In particular, the lack of Further Maths A Level being taught in many comprehensives limits pupils chances of reading engineering , maths , physics chemistry , economics at many top universities . Some public schools even offer Additional Further Maths A Level. Kings College offers lower grades from those pupils who have attended schools with poor academic records for their Bio-Medical Course . If after 2 years they pass the exams they enter the full medical course. This recognition that pupils with the academic ability to read medicine but have attended schools with poor academic records have been disadvantaged.

    Many top law departments have now become open about which A Levels they do not consider adequate for entry requirements .Too many comprehensive pupils took inappropriate A Levels which stopped then entering top law departments.

    Look at websites of top public and grammar schools and see where the teachers have graduated from.

    A tutor has said he no longer coaches children from primary schools for entry to public schools once they older than 9 years as they have fallen too far behind.

    Look at the entrance requirements for top schools such as St Saviours and St Olavs, Orpington, Judd- Tonbridge , St Pauls’ Girls School, Westminster. Westminster on it;s website advises prospective 6th applicants which A Levels Pre – U courses are required for which degrees.

    The recent head of Dulwich College retired and had a B.Sc and doctorate in chemistry from Imperial. This enables a teacher to advise pupils on what is required to enter top universities , not just subject knowledge but attitude . The teacher was probably able to advise on what future employers are looking for. Top companies know what they want and top universities in the UK have to produce the correct graduates otherwise they will recruit from other countries.

    When it comes to many top companies , they often have a high flyer stream and tend to recruit from few departments at a few universities . If one does not graduate from these chosen departments and universities , then it is often difficult to obtain an interview. This is not just about Oxbridge: Warwick has top reputation for Maths, the LSE has a top reputation for economics and financial maths, Imperial for engineering and science ,Southampton for electrical and mechanical engineering , etc, etc. If one wants a career in fashion then Central St Martins is probably the the best college in the UK and that is why so many foreigners attend.. A friend, fashion designer said she regretted going to Leicester Poly and not St Martins but she did not know at the time .

    What matters are the opinions of the admissions tutors at top universities and future employers .

  • Helen Tedcastle 23rd May '13 - 7:21pm

    In the previous comment it should read : “…become Veterinary Scientists at Cambridge…”

  • Helen Tedcastle 23rd May '13 - 8:09pm

    @ Charlie: “What matters are the opinions of the admissions tutors at top universities and future employers .”

    Of course, their opinions matter but they are not the only people who have to be taken into account in raising standards for the whole pupil cohort. Schools have to deal with the whole range of ability – even in the middle class selective grammar, there is a range of ability and aptitude.

    With the latter in mind, it is important to consider the following – which children have the aptitude and potential to succeed at a university like Imperial College, with is in the top .5% of universities in the world? When one considers the elevated position of Imperial even in relation to other universities in England except Oxbridge, one realises that it will take a combination of high intelligence and potential, combined with the ability to work hard, the right advice and the right level of support. . All of these factors need to be in place to increase the probability of success. The responsibility for ensuring a child goes to Imperial is not entirely with the school, although that is a vitally important factor.

    My previous school, a comprehensive in a poor town, sent one or two bright children to Imperial to read Physics – but in those cases, the parents were very supportive and helped the children too. I’m afraid that it is difficult to send any child to Imperial if there is no support or back up in the home – if there is no culture of learning which the child can draw on, even if the parents are not university educated. In this school, we had brilliant teachers who went to college, not a university, yet they were brilliant teachers. I think it was because they saw teaching as a vocation not a stepping stone to something better – they dedicated themselves to the job.

    We also had teachers from top universities – it is genuinely difficult to say whether the presence and example of an average teacher from St. Andrews inspired a child to apply for Imperial over a brilliant (and I use that word in all consciousness of its meaning), ) college-educated teacher, as both contributed to the success – as did the parents.

    In other words, one ends up rapidly simplifying the solution and it results in a circular argument.

    Consider the following scenario : At the end of Year 6 in a primary school – Child A goes to a selective independent grammar – why do they attend that school? Because the parents ‘aspire’ to this type of school, as they are high achieving – doctors, teachers, lawyers; because they believe in education; because they pay for a tutor to coach the child (this happens for a fact); because they believe reports in the The Times about state schools and the disruption that went on in a school in Stoke recently, must apply to state schools generally. Child B – goes to the local comprehensive – why do they attend this school? The parents work long hours and want the child to attend a nearby school; the child’s friends are also going there; they want their child to be happy at school and want them to do their best; the parents have parent friends at the school.

    I hope you can at least appreciate that aspirations are different for different parents – some just want their child to be happy at school and do not want the long, grinding hours of a selective grammar. This scenario does not apply in all cases but it may give you a flavour of the range of expectations involved amongst parents – and this is crucial.

    I agree with you about information – we have been badly served by poor careers information. Often schools
    (most schools are 11-16 years) bring in careers officers from outside to advise and the service has not been good enough.

    However, I would point out that one of Gove’s early moves was to abolish the Connexions service – careers in schools service – and provided no replacement.

    On teachers: You seem to have a real problem with inner city schools and teachers without degrees from Imperial teaching at these schools. One has to begin from first principles. Why are graduates not choosing to teach in the inner city? These schools are very difficult – very deprived, often with a range of complex multi – cultural issues and competing values.

    Why would someone with a 2:1 in Physics from Imperial, who worked very hard to obtain their degree, ‘not’ want to teach bright, well-motivated, well-resourced pupils at Dulwich College instead of children who come to school without breakfast or any pens and whose readiness to learn is not as high? This does not mean expectations are not high amongst teachers but the ‘battles’ are different between schools.

    The idea that the problem of underachievement and inequality is down to poor students not having a rigorous education is really side-stepping the real problems ie: the causes of non-achievement, because academic subjects HAVE to be taught already – we a national curriculum which requires it..

    If the Head of Dulwich College himself taught at some of these schools it would not necessarily stop the inequality – he would simply help some already aspirational pupils.

  • Helen Tadcastle . Having attended comprehensive which was a former secondary modern and lived in rough areas I am quite aware that there are parents who are antagonistic or indifferent to their children” education. . Some parents removed their children from school as soon as they were 16 , even if it meant missing exams. When the children were disruptive , pupils and teachers who wanted academic success were heartily relieved.
    The fact that so many comprehensive classes suffer disruption especially from boys , means that girl only comprehensive schools often do better than mixed schools.

    Part of the problem is that there is massive range in academic ability , from those who can barely read by the time they are 16 , to those who go up to Trinity College , Cambridge to read maths with ease. I think it is unrealistic for all secondary schools to be able to teach all subjects to the highest levels when the pupils range from the least intelligent to the brightest ( obtains Distinction in their Maths Part III Tripos at Cambridge ) when parents range from those who are completely antagonistic to education( the type who assault teachers ) to those who are completely supportive and pay for tutors . The Yehudi Menuin and other music schools were set for very talented children because most schools cannot provide teaching . One would not expect the average school to provide the same standard of training as the Royal Ballet School.

    In many ways The Soviet Union had a sensible system:, those of exceptional ability in music, ballet ,maths and science were sent to specialist schools . Why not send very able children at comprehensives , where there are not enough high quality teachers to good grammar or public schools. Historically A Levels tended to be grouped into Classics, ( Latin, Greek and Classical History, History , geography and modern languages and then maths and sciences .
    It is unrealistic to expect every comprehensive to offer teaching in all the above subjects to enable pupils to read subjects at the top universities .

    The reality is that few comprehensives are truly comprehensive and never can be. When Gaitskill said ” Grammars for all ” , it was unrealistic . Approximately 25% of children passed the 11 plus 75% went to Sec’ Mods’ or few Technical Modern schools. It was not possible to spread the most academic teachers across all the comprehensive sand still maintain the same academic rigour as a grammar school.

    Hardly any Sec’ Mods which came comprehensives ever produced A Level years which had the same academic rigour, across all the major subjects, as former grammar schools. Those comprehensives which regularly produce pupils going to the top universities are largely former grammar schools in affluent areas- Camden Girls School.

    A possible option is to have 6 th form colleges which can emulate the 6 th form at top grammar and public schools. There is no reason why towns or boroughs could work together to produce excellent 6th form colleges for A Level teaching. If there was Upper 5th , then pupils who had done poorly in their GSCEs could repeat them so they entered their A levels with excellent marks and plenty of confidence.

  • Geoffrey Payne makes an interesting point that we Liberal Democrats want no one enslaved by poverty, but the benefit cuts mean that poverty reduction is not a high priority. I would go further the benefit cuts especially the 1% 3-year cap on increases in benefits and the Council Tax Benefit changes hit the poorest in society and not just those on out of work benefits.

    (I am appalled to think that David Laws is writing the manifesto. I thought we had a semi-democratic process for this that involved the Policy Committee. In fact our web site still says, “The Federal Policy Committee is also responsible for writing the General Election Manifesto …”. I hope Geoffrey Payne is on the Policy Committee and he will try to ensure it is in agreement with what we passed at conference and doesn’t include any wild Parliamentary ideas.)

    The question then is how do to decrease poverty. It has been suggested somewhere on this site that we tax inheritances more and give lump sum payments to 25 year olds. If the minimum wage was increased by at least 1% above the inflation rate or by at least 1% above the increase in wages or 2.5% whichever is the highest and that out of work benefits were increase by the same rate poverty would decrease. The higher the percentage above inflation or wage rises the faster poverty would decrease. However I can’t see this party including this in its manifesto especially as we are doing nothing to defend benefits or make the case that benefits are a good thing.

  • Helen Tedcastle 24th May '13 - 11:17am

    @ Charlie: The return to selection by ability will lead to the return of secondary moderns – the very school that you yourself attended and so despised.

    I too despised the old system, because bright pupils who failed the 11 plus (and bright people did fail because one exam cannot measure overall intelligence – just a one type of intelligence), ended up doing CSEs and attending sink schools with genuinely low expectations , while others were deemed to be successes, by virtue of getting into a grammar school. It gave me great pleasure at sixth form, to beat at A level many of my peers who attended grammar school, when I failed the 11 plus – that’s the result of the system of division in place in the 1970s/80s in my area.

    Any system which condemns children to fail at 11 or 13 because of one exam on a particular day – and lessens their entire life chances or instills a deep sense of personal failure for life, as a result – is iniquitous. There are still people today who have never got over the sense the failure that the 11plus gave them – and they spend their lives trying to compensate (in some cases).

    Finally, take a look at the results of all schools an area where the old grammar system persists – Birmingham, Kent for example. Competition for places at these grammars is intense. These areas do not want to abolish their systems because the parents of those children in the grammars clearly enjoy and want to keep the privileged status and advantages such schools give them. Others may aspire to go to these grammars and so want them to remain but as there are only a few of them, most people won’t attend.

    Despite this sense of ‘aspiration’ among parents to be the ones whose child goes to the grammar, there is the counterbalance of the almost certain failure of 80% of children to attend the grammars in these areas. The upshot of the success of the few is the following: the overall attainment of children in these areas is less good than those children who have only a comprehensive system in place.

    The lesson to learn is – if Government want to improve attainment for the many not the few, abolish selective grammars and boost the state system of comprehensive schools. One can set by ability in these schools according to subjects and still foster a sense of cohesion and harmony – it’s a microcosm of society – not all people are bright, from wealthy or comfortable backgrounds and middle class but we can all live and work together – that is the life lesson learned in the state comprehensive – and I for one, applaud that.

    The other important role Government can play is to stop denigrating teachers – why would someone with a degree from Imperial want to go into state school teaching in the first place, when Gove and Wilshaw tell them that teachers are simply marxist lefties who have no idea how to teach rigorously and well enough to send pupils to the right mission group of universities (the one which unashamedly backs Tory policies) – and who spend their time dumbing down standards?

    A basic lesson in life is that if one wants to encourage people, one has to look for the positives and the positive contribution teaching makes to pupils’ lives – in other words, Gove should be saying to people – look, teaching can make a real difference – you can unlock the potential of every child – we need people to join us in our endeavour!

  • Shirley Campbell 24th May '13 - 2:05pm

    Helen Tedcastle.

    I have read your comments on a number of threads and I must say that I agree with you, in the main, on many subjects.

    In respect of this thread, may I respond to the rhetoric and defend “COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOLS”.

    Actually, I have defended the “COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL” system on many occasions.

    Firstly, I would seek to state my position. Secondly, I would seek to stress that I do not do “spell check” or “grammar check”. I have many shortcomings but such shortcomings I would seek to lay at the door of my failure to listen to the dedicated, noble ladies who sought to teach me when I was in baby girl, a demob baby born in the spring of 1947, taught in classes of fifty-five plus children. Fact, I have much respect for the ladies who sought to teach me the essence of literacy and numeracy; such ladies must now be in their eighties. Such ladies are now considered to be gross spectacles of a bygone era, whereas the so-called anoited one has been placed on a pedestal and proclaimed as an example of hard work and dedication. Today, I received my renewed Membership Card from Republic, No 17728, and shall be supporting its “Born Equal” compaign, whilst I continue to celebrate the achievement of one of my great nephews who, at a comprehensive school, gained A grades in A level Maths, Physics and Chemistry in the summer of 2008 and thus a plus at a “Russell Group” University. Another great nephew, currently at a comprehensive school, is scheduled to achieve A grades in his THIRTEEN GCSEs.

    I despise the cowards who seek to denigrate the achievements of our own people.

  • Helen Tedcastle 24th May '13 - 10:28pm

    Shirley Campbell.

    I appreciate your comments and support for comprehensive schools – many , many children do very well at such schools and achieve their potential. It seems also that your great nephews have also done well and you must be very proud of them. You, like me and thousands of others, know that the state system is far from broken – there are thousands of dedicated hard-working teachers and wonderful, hard-working pupils.

    The fact that people like Gove can denigrate and belittle their achievements without any reprimand (that we know of) from his leader, is a scandal. Equally the silence of those at the top of the Liberal Democrats, who are in a position to stop Gove (and to be fair, they have stopped one or two of his ideas like the return of O Levels and CSEs), is extremely sad and frustrating – I write as a member of the Party and am near to despair at the rhetoric and selective propaganda masked as ‘evidence’ coming out of the DfE on a regular basis.

    There is no doubt that the programme of forcing schools to become academies and rushing through a highly prescriptive ‘national’ curriculum will not help the drive to address inequalities in the system – if anything, Gove will entrench divisions still further.

    I am also concerned that smaller research universities in the top ten for excellence in the UK and in the top 1% in the world are being discriminated against with this Government’s relentless promotion of the Russell Group of big city universities. The reason this group gets so much coverage, I am convinced, is that Oxbridge are members, although for how much longer in the light of Gove’s controversial meddling with A levels, remains to be seen.

    Although I do understand your pride at one of your nephews at attending one of these institutions, it saddens me that excellent universities and indeed some colleges are not perceived by some in the Government to be worth promoting as relentlessly.

    One of the proudest achievements I have felt as a teacher is helping a young person with low confidence but with potential to achieve the grades to attend a college or a university of their choice, and studying a subject they are passionate about – they attend an institution where they actually flourish. Pupils like this who are not in the top 5% of the ability range, are overlooked consistently by the high – achieving neo-liberal elitists at the top of politics.

  • Helen Tedcastle 24th May '13 - 10:53pm

    “…rushing through a highly prescriptive ‘national’ curriculum will not help the drive to address inequalities in the system – if anything, Gove will entrench divisions still further.”

    I want to clarify this remark. Firstly, not all the programmes of study for the new curriculum have been published in full. Second, my main concern at prescription lies with the History curriculum, which, it is now clear, was written in the DfE by Gove and his Spads (one of the Historians ‘consulted’ – Simon Sharma says he does not recognise the final programme). Apparently academies do not have to follow this curriculum but it is unclear how this will work in practice.

    The other concern is that the Geography programme contains no unit on climate change – the focus is on rivers and facts about the landscape and geology. It reminds me of the old Geography curriculum of thirty plus years ago.

    The point is – the curriculum programmes are being rushed – it is unclear why LEA schools have to follow them to the letter while academies can write their own programme. Some might say it’s a dog’s breakfast.

    A cynic might also say, Gove is using an unworkable curriculum to force schools to consider academy status.

    Is this the right way for a Government to tackle inequality and standards in schools?

  • Thank you Geoffrey Payne for your clarification. I agree with you that the 2015 manifesto has to galvanise the membership into action. However I am not galvanised by what our MPs are supporting with regard to increasing poverty as I stated above and I don’t wish to defend them on the doorstep.

  • I think much of this debate misses the point: it is not just mobility on the social scale that matters, it is also where the social scale starts in terms of living standards that makes a huge difference.

    Today the penalties of living at the bottom of the scale are too great. We need to make it far easier for those who do the right thing – work, raise their children properly and contribute to society – to live a decent life. This means making the basics of life more affordable, starting with further reductions in tax on the lowest paid, up to the value of the full time minimum wage. Then we need to break the ideological anti-state boundary by creating plenty of good quality, affordable social housing, coupled with much more affordable and comprehensive public transport. Follow this with a not-for profit grocery chain offering healthy food at accessible prices. We also need to ensure better quality employment by banning outrages like zero hours contracts.

    On the other hand, we need to give up on Labour’s mantra of “more benefits the better”. It simply is not true and in fact in the longer term, as well as being unaffordable, it is toxic both to society and the economy.

    Equality of opportunity is very good for making society efficient and productive, but if it means you are scrambling up a ladder where the bottom end is close to subsistence, someone is always going to be on the losing end of that process.

  • Simon Banks 26th May '13 - 8:25pm

    Well said, Stephen.

    To create a society with more equality of opportunity without creating a more equal society is extremely difficult, but this is not the only reason for rejecting the sometimes offered othodoxy that we’re interested in equality of opportunity, not of outcomes. Would we be happy with a society in which there were huge disparities of outcome, from several yachts to starvation, and not just for a tiny minority at either extreme? How well would that society work? Besides, while equality of opportunity is a very useful concept applied narrowly (A and B applied for the same job, A had better qualifications and experience, A produced a better application and seems to have interviewed better, but B got the job – so it seems there was inequality of opportunity, in other words, discrimination), if you apply it more widely the concept dissolves. If the influences on child development of some parents being rich and others poor is an unfair influence that should be counteracted, what about some parents being loving and others cold?

  • Shirley Campbell 30th May '13 - 4:37pm

    Thank you Helen Tedcastle for your various responses. I trust that this response will not be too late to reach you but, yes, your contention that it is not only the top 5% of perceived academic ability that are worthy of acclaim. I seek to bang the drum of individual achievement, I am a Liberal, and I despair when I read the current rhetoric. Actually, I am old but I am aware by virtue of anecdotes that many young people are fulfilling their educational aspirations at universities that offer undergraduate courses that fulfil the advanced-study subject matter that they seek. Classical Studies vis a vis Computer Studies, whatever turns you on!

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