Crossing the education gap

We have one of the most unequal education systems in the developed world. In England, 34% of children from poor families fail to achieve the expected level in numeracy at the end of the early years foundation stage compared to 19% for their more advantaged peers. Poorer pupils are much more likely to leave school without the necessary skills in English and maths and the qualifications they need to access post-16 employment. Depressingly, the latest data show that children and young people from poor families were more likely to receive a fixed-period exclusion or to be permanently excluded than their more affluent peers. There has been progress in some areas but the big picture is still much too patchy. Progress is uneven, and in some cases non-existent.

As a coalition of over 70 organisations – charities, unions, social enterprises, businesses and educational establishments – the Fair Education Alliance is committed to working together to ensure that all children have access to a world class education, irrespective of their socio-economic background. Our aim? To reach the Fair Education Impact Goals by

  • Narrow the gap in literacy and numeracy at primary
  • Decrease the gap in GCSE attainment at secondary
  • Ensure young people develop key strengths, including character, emotional wellbeing and mental health and to support high 
  • Reduce the gap in the proportion of young people taking part in further education or employment based training after finishing their 
  • Lower the gap in university graduation, including from the top quarter of the most selective universities

Achieving this would make smaller the education gap between the wealthiest and poorest substantially. Naturally, we welcome the new Prime Minister’s focus on social mobility and as a coalition, we’ve set out an agenda for change in our annual State of the Nation Report Card.

 First, the education gap opens up early on so we need to change our approach to early years policy. The government is right to invest in additional hours of free childcare to alleviate poverty, but we also need a national focus on the quality of the nursery care that children from poor families receive. A policy of ensuring that all nurseries in England are led by more professionals would be transformative and could improve the life chances of tens of thousands of children.

Furthermore, the quality of teaching and leadership is what brings about lasting progress across the education system. We know that there are schools that serve disadvantaged communities that really struggle to attract good quality teachers and leaders. The previous Secretary of State for Education was right to establish the National Teaching Service, a scheme designed to encourage talented teachers and leaders to work in areas that are struggling with recruitment but this intervention can only be effective if we adopt a radical approach to recruitment. Why not follow the lead from Oxford City Council and explore the idea of helping teachers with their housing deposits in those parts of the country where that could prove to be effective? Moreover, we need to support teachers in developing the character and wellbeing of their young people as well as helping them get the qualifications they need. Both are mutually reinforcing.

We also need a serious focus on the quality of careers guidance. Quality careers guidance can have an enormous impact on the choices young people make at critical moments in their life. This is especially true for the most disadvantaged students. We would support the development of a scheme placing highly trained advisers in the most disadvantaged schools to guarantee that young people in these schools receive impartial expert advice and guidance. Volunteer mentors and web based information are of course important but should complement, not be a substitute for, professional advisers. To quote the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility: “without being taught life skills, given the right support, access to work experience and robust, independent careers advice, we are in danger of trapping these young people in low-skilled, low-paid work, with little chance of a rewarding career.”

All of these ideas can drastically improve social mobility but are in their own way challenging to implement. That is why as Chair of the Fair Education Alliance my fear is that a divisive debate on new grammar schools as a way of improving social mobility would serve as a distraction from the policies that can have a genuine impact on the lives of poor children. We’ve already seen the wide range of voices from across the sector make their case against an expansion of grammars. Educational inequality can only be tackled by working in partnership with civil society, not against it. It’s now time to work collaboratively to get the very best education for all children everywhere, not just the for the few.

Sir Richard Lambert is the chair of the Fair Education Alliance. The Fair Education Alliance is petitioning the government to retain the ban on new Grammar Schools: sign here