Putting social mobility at the heart of government policy means grammar schools need to change
Ahead of her debate on Government policies on social mobility, Lucy Powell MP writes for PoliticsHome saying, "measures to tackle genuine social mobility would find welcome agreement across the House of Commons."
The council house kitchen table to Cabinet or boardroom table story is often rolled out to show that social mobility is happening in our country. Yet whilst the achievements of the people who manage this feat should be celebrated, it is an unhelpful analogy if we’re to tackle modern social mobility problems.
Report after report from the Social Mobility Commission highlights the deep problems and division in our country. The lack of social mobility is entrenched in many communities with clear social divides in education, housing, access to the professions and in pay. In their most recent report, Time for Change the Commission shows that the gaps between the ‘haves and have nots’ remain stark. Child poverty is on the increase in the aftermath of the recession, and there is no prospect of the gap between poorer and wealthier children being eliminated at either GCSE or A level. Despite university access widening, the top professions remain the preserve of private school graduates.
Social mobility is the single biggest challenge we face, even before Brexit. Our country is increasingly divided because of it.
Social mobility should be at the heart of education policy, with every part of the system working to unleash the talents of all young people. That means existing grammar schools must do more rather than damaging wider social mobility. Unless they reform admissions urgently and show a substantial boost in the numbers of low income children attending these schools within the next few years, the state should stop funding these schools.
Figures I’m releasing today alongside my debate on social mobility in Westminster Hall, show that the number of low income children in grammar schools is flat lining despite calls by Ministers from the PM down for grammar schools to do more. The proportion of these children attending grammars up just 0.1 per-cent in the last year. Just 2.7 per-cent of children in grammar schools are from low income families compared with 13.6 percent of pupils across all state-funded secondary schools.
In half of local authorities with fully or partially selective education systems, no progress has been made, with the proportion of free school meals children either stagnant or falling. Indeed in Lincolnshire, the proportion of low income children in grammar schools has reduced at a time when the numbers of poorer children has increased. In two thirds of grammar schools all the children on free school meals would fit in one classroom.
This is not good enough. The debate before the election on grammar schools showed that they are still the preserve of the elite. Far from boosting social mobility across an education system, they entrench advantage. Ministers said that they would require existing grammars to reform but now they are backpedalling on this commitment.
We should be rewarding schools that do the most for pupil progress, for the majority of pupils, whilst narrowing the attainment gap, which league tables currently fail to do adequately. League tables should be reformed with pupil progress, not simply attainment, as the key measure.
Theresa May is reportedly looking to build consensus in Parliament. If she looked hard enough she would find social mobility could be such an issue. A cross-government plan to boost social mobility would be welcome and could start with boosting life chances in the early years, ensuring excellent teachers in every school, and giving people security in their homes so they can focus on education and work.
Measures to tackle genuine social mobility would find welcome agreement across the House of Commons. As we debate them in Parliament today Ministers must step up their game to heal the divisions in our country and allow everyone a fair chance.
Lucy Powell is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Manchester Central