Close the regional attainment gap – and kick start social mobility in this country

Posted On: 
6th March 2019

If we want to build a fairer society then we must close the regional attainment gap in our schools, write the co-chairs of the Social Mobility APPG Baroness Tyler and Justin Madders

"Good teaching has the power to kick-start social mobility in this country," Baroness Tyler and Justin Madders write

Inequalities abound within our schools. Without new policy interventions we are over 40 years away from closing the gap between the attainment of disadvantaged children and their better off peers.

Currently, pupils from disadvantaged areas are lagging behind their classmates by around half a grade per subject at GCSE, affecting their social mobility for the rest of their lives. And this gap varies hugely across the country. While London is pulling ahead in raising attainment, other areas, such as Somerset and Blackpool are being left behind. If we want to build a fairer society where everyone is socially mobile, we must do a lot more to close this regional attainment gap.

At the end of February the Social Mobility APPG launched its report on “Closing the Regional Attainment Gap”. Our year-long Inquiry examined the problems causing the gap and our report proposes the solutions needed to close it. We found that good teaching has the power to kick-start social mobility in this country.

In fact, the most significant driver in raising the attainment of children is the quality of their teachers. This is hardly surprising – teachers are with their students for many hours every day and shape the direction that a young person’s life takes.

It is worrying that many children from disadvantaged areas simply aren’t getting the good teaching they need to achieve. On average, nearly 10 per cent of teachers in the most disadvantaged schools are not appropriately qualified. This is most stark in the STEM subjects – a young person in a disadvantaged school is 22 per cent less likely to be taught physics by someone with a degree in the subject. This is all the more troubling given the growing consensus that deep knowledge of a subject is essential for good teaching.

Even when disadvantaged schools recruit good teachers, they often are not there for very long. According to the evidence we received from Professor Rebecca Allen, the most disadvantaged schools in our country face the highest staff turnover rates.

This becomes a vicious circle – schools experience a teacher shortage due to high turnover. They then recruit inexperienced staff, who go into the job with good intentions to make a difference in young people’s lives. Many then leave when faced by the rising pressures in disadvantaged schools, where teachers face long working hours, low job satisfaction and pupil’s home lives spilling into the classroom.

“Closing the Regional Attainment Gap” makes it clear: we need to recruit and retain the best and most experienced teachers for disadvantaged schools if we are to have any hope of closing the regional attainment gap.

The report outlines a number of recommendations that need to be taken for this to happen. For a start, we need to offer more generous financial incentives to teachers who take up posts in challenging schools. However, when it comes to retaining teachers, it is not all about the money. We also need to be giving teachers the support they need. This means giving teachers good support networks including wellbeing programmes, better flexible working and plenty of Continuing Professional Development opportunities.

To change the teaching experience in disadvantaged areas, we need to begin by spending funding better. The Pupil Premium is designed to help tackle these problems. However, currently it often fails to do so. Large amounts of pupil premium money are spent on initiatives such as employing more teaching assistants, but the evidence show that they are not always used in the most effective way.

By redesigning the Pupil Premium as a “Social Mobility Premium”, we can encourage schools to better invest in initiatives designed to improve social mobility. This includes ensuring that teaching assistants are able to support good teaching to raise attainment, that enough teachers with the right qualifications are recruited in disadvantaged areas and that once they arrive there, they stay there.

Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, and Lib Dem peer Baroness Tyler of Enfield are co-chairs of the Social Mobility APPG