Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Is social mobility really stagnant?

The Government's new social mobility paper clearly has some good ideas attached to it. Golden handcuffs for staying in inner city schools may make a difference to recruitment (though with the recession, there should be no shortage of teaching candidates). And the appointment of Alan Milburn to head a taskforce on the problem should ensure a livelier set of future proposals. Today's report comes after a LibDem think tank yesterday presented their own critique (pdf). Needless to say the party rejected the only proposal on education likely to make a serious difference - admissions ballots for secondary schools. With ballots or banding, popular urban schools could achieve a mixed intake. Without them, they often become too socially selective.

But while there is still clearly a big gap between the achievements of the best off pupils and the poorest, it is not the case that there has been no change as a result of the government's education policies. Martin Narey said in the Lib Dem report yesterday:
The present Government came into office with a commitment to tackle this social exclusion and it needs to be acknowledged that many of the policies implemented since 1998 have contributed to positive change and the long- term return on others, such as Sure Start have yet to be realised.

However, even that is not the whole story. In fact, not only are GCSE results improving, they are improving disproportionately more for those from poorer households. Mobility is not just about those who are in workless households; a Labour government has always been as much if not more about the interests of those in work with modest incomes. The evidence of improvements can be found in a twice yearly survey that the Government doesn't do enough to publicise known as the Youth Cohort Study.

The 2007 publication shows that between 1999 and 2006, the proportion of higher professional children gaining five good GCSEs rose six points from 75 to 81%, an increase of six percentage points. At the same time, there was a ten point increase among pupils from lower professional families and intermediate occupations, a twelve point increase in those from lower supervisory grades and a 14 point increase from 26 to 42% in families with routine occupations. There have also been disproportionately large improvements among Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils. But, at the same time, there does seem to have been less improvement among white boys on free school meals (only 14% of pupils are eligible for FSM).

None of this suggests a problem solved, and the mobility taskforce has its work cut out for it. The children of professionals are still twice as likely as those from families with routine occupations to gain five good GCSEs. But it does suggest that the more extreme comparisons, based on data such as free school meals, are not telling the whole story. Comparisons with earlier years were done -as is the wont of our brilliant statisticians - using a different scale, which means we don't have continuity. But given that these changes happened within a particular policy framework targeted at urban school improvement, including the birth of academies, the London Challenge and Excellence in Cities, might there not be some connection between the improvements and Labour education policy? And shouldn't our ministers remind us it is so?

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