Friday 17 April 2015

Mapping mobility

I've written this new blog post for the Sutton Trust website to coincide with a new index of social mobility across England's 533 constituencies.

The outcome of the general election on May 7th may be up for grabs. But one thing is certain – it will usher in a whole new cadre of MPs. We looked in February at the backgrounds of some of these candidates, and will look at the House of Commons in the future. But, what of the constituencies they represent? How well do advance social mobility?

That’s the background to today’s new social mobility index. The index looks at all 533 English constituencies – data is much better in England than in the other UK nations - and highlights the big differences that exist across the country in the chances of young people getting ahead in life.  With an interactive map, you can see how each constituency ranks on key measures.

It also points the way to some of the policies that those candidates who get elected in May should embrace if we are to enhance those limited life chances.

For example, the proportion of poorer children whose development is seen as good varies from 72% in Lewisham to 19% in Kenilworth and Southam. This is a big issue: our earlier research has shown a 19 month gap nationally in school readiness between the richest and poorest five year olds. Last year’s Sound Foundations report highlighted the importance of having well qualified staff to provide the sort of vocabulary and stimulus too often missing in deprived homes. More recently, we showed a link between good nursery education and taking the right A-levels.

Of course, these inequalities persist through primary school and unusually by international standards they continue through secondary school. And our index confirms that the London effect is making a difference, with 30 of the top 50 constituencies for mobility being in the capital. We’ve seen lots of explanations for why London schools, once falling behind, are now ahead of the national average, including the way schools worked together in the London Challenge programme, stronger improvements in literacy and numeracy at primary schools and the wider ethnic mix that has brought greater aspiration into the capital’s classrooms.

But underlying all this we need to improve the quality of teaching in schools. Sutton Trust research has shown that poorer pupils gain 18 months’ worth of learning with very effective teachers over a school year, compared with six months with poorly performing teachers. In other words, a great teacher can produce a whole year’s extra learning. Professional development is not a sexy subject for politicians, but getting it right with a strong entitlement for all England’s 450,000 teachers could make a massive difference to school standards.

Attending good universities is important for the top jobs, and changing mobility at the top of our professions, politics and the City. Our index finds big differences between areas when it comes to sending young people from the poorest neighbourhoods to the third of most selective universities, including the Russell Group and Oxbridge.

Students nationally are nearly seven times more likely to go to a top-tier university if they live in the richest fifth of neighbourhoods compared to the poorest fifth, and the gap is even wider for Oxford, Cambridge and other elite institutions. The index shows big variations between constituencies on this measure.

But getting to a good university is not enough. Research has shown that state school pupils can outperform their private school counterparts if they get admitted, though those from disadvantaged areas may need extra support to succeed while there. But they then need a level playing field in internships and work experience, if they are to get on. In our index, we looked at the success of less advantaged graduates in getting professional jobs, finding Harrogate and Knaresborough had the best record and Stoke-on-Trent North the poorest.

However, the important test of success today is getting a good job after school or university. For some young people that should mean apprenticeships, and our polling shows that parents and teachers share our view that there should be more available at A-level and degree standard. For others it will be doing the right degree at the right university.

Those choices should be known by every student, yet our research has shown that while good careers advice has a positive impact on results and choices, far too much of it is below par. We need a big improvement in the specialist advice on subjects like elite university admissions and the availability of apprenticeships for schools to guide their pupils in the right direction.

Social mobility has stalled in Britain, though we have seen progress in recent years – including improvements in primary test scores and access to higher education. But whatever combination of parties is in power after May still has a major job if they want to ensure young people can succeed regardless of their background.