25 June 2007

The Only Way Is Up?

Yet another study confirms that children born in the 1970s have a worse chance of escaping poverty than those born in the 1950s, that Britain has the lowest social mobility of any country you can measure, and that the Government's education policy fails poorer children.

There is cause for encouragement, though. For one thing, not only has the issue so clearly been identified as a problem, but many ideas are now being put forward for how to reverse the trend. Just consider the following three lists.

Firstly from David Willetts, who last month identified four areas that would help advance social mobility: ensure all children can read to a competent standard when they leave primary school; make vocational training more worthwhile to help tackle the poor performance of boys when compared with girls; increase home ownership; and reduce means-testing for families with several children staying on at school.

Secondly from Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, describing elements of a framework to promote social mobility: get rid of the multiple disincentives that trap people in poverty; tackle the root causes of poverty, such as poor education, family breakdown, and dependency on alcohol or drugs; create an environment in which local communities, charities, social entrepreneurs and private enterprises can apply themselves over the long term to establishing what works in helping people deal with the problems that trap them in poverty, to be rewarded fairly and dependably for the results they achieve, and to be allowed to take risks in return for results; and establish asset-building as a key policy objective, whether it is personal assets such as a great education or material assets such as a home, a pension and savings.

Thirdly, these seven suggestions from Sir Peter Lampl, the chairman of the education policy group The Sutton Trust, that commissioned the latest study:

  • Invest more in early years support that reaches the right families.

  • Sure Start, the government plan to help parents and young children, has too often failed to reach the families who need it most.
  • Make school choice a reality for all.

  • There should be a national school bus system to ensure poorer parents – who are less likely to have access to private transport – can reach the better state schools in their area, even if they cannot afford to live next to them.
  • Open up grammar schools to bright children from nonprivileged backgrounds.

  • David Willetts was right to point out that existing grammar schools serve too narrow a social pool.
  • Democratise access to independent day schools.

  • Open up the top 100 or more private day schools on a needs-blind basis, with parents paying a sliding scale of fees according to their means.
  • Supply high-quality provision out of school hours to develop young people.

  • All children should have access to meaningful opportunities beyond the school day to enrich their learning.
  • Give the brightest and best the opportunity to prosper.

  • Introduce a measure of potential, such as the American Sat tests, to be used in conjunction with A-levels to identify bright children who may not have had access to the best education.
    Also move to a system of true postqualification application, where students apply to university once they know their exam grades.
  • Create an independent body to monitor education performance.

  • An education policy committee may be a step too far, but an authoritative body to look independently at standards, both across time and in relation to other countries, is desperately needed.
With such a wealth of suggestions, let us hope that a new government under a new prime minister might seek a new cross-party consensus to implement the kind of changes that will make a genuine difference to those who are currently unable to reach their full potential—and to society at large.