Expanded to include responsibility for apprenticeships and higher education. A big new push on social mobility from the PM herself. One step removed from the task of Brexit. What a time to be leading the Department for Education!
There’s certainly a lot to do. Our work shows that family income remains the biggest predictor of school outcomes, now as it was for children born in 1950. Closing the gap in attainment has been remarkably difficult. By the time young people are considering university, 8 times as many from the richest areas in England have the top grades compared to those from the poorest areas.
But schools in disadvantaged areas are getting much better. What about London?
London is a success story. But variation in school performance is very large. Schools outside London in particular are finding it much harder to attract qualified and experienced teachers. In poorer areas, often they are only able to recruit brand new teachers. After a few years, they leave. On top of that, the Chief Inspector of schools keeps warning that lots of teachers are being sucked into the independent sector, including to teach overseas. Many people expect recruitment to come to a crunch at the end of this year.
Okay, so we need to attract more young people into teaching. Let’s expand Teach First.
Teach First is already the largest graduate employer in the country. We could give it some help: Teach Last, for example. Let’s have a shot at bringing people in mid- or late career into teaching, to use the skills they’ve built up in the classroom.
The previous Secretary of State also started a programme called the National Teaching Service, to attract teachers into the parts of the country that are really struggling to recruit. The new Secretary of State could boost its efforts by for example offering help with buying a house to young teachers if they move to areas of need. The big win is not just to get teachers to move to these areas but to put down roots so that they stay.
It sounds like schools should have more flexibility on pay. What about turning more of them into academies?
There’s little evidence that school type on its own makes much difference to performance. Anyway the Government backed down just a few months ago on forcing all schools to be academies.
How about grammars then? Don’t they create ladders of opportunity for bright young people from working class backgrounds?
That’s very dismissive, isn’t there . . . ?
International evidence that selective school systems create social segregation?
No, I mean . . .
Okay, hang on. We know that grammar schools disproportionately select young people from more advantaged backgrounds. But the problem is deeper than that.
Outstanding non-grammar schools also have a lower proportion of pupils on free school meals than the national average. Where we have educational excellence, we’re not distributing it fairly – for example, because wealthier parents move to place themselves closer to the best schools. Changing the admissions code to require schools to admit a set proportion of students from outside their present catchment area would change that. So would requiring outstanding schools to admit a minimum proportion of pupils on free school meals.
But . . . that’s social engineering?
So is parents paying for private tuition, the growth in independent schools and, come to think of it, the work of Teach First. Societies are engineered. They are not the product of an immaculate conception.
Keep your hippy liberalism to yourself. The backbenches won’t stand for it, will they?
This is the big challenge for the new Secretary of State. Moving the dial on social mobility in a significant way will require bold measures that critics will immediately call social engineering – there’s no doubt.
The same criticism will be made in higher education. Government already has an ambition to double the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are going to university. On current trends, it will miss the target.
This needs a holistic approach. Improve schools and the university target will take care of itself. It’s a good thing they’re both together in the same Department now, isn’t it?
It does mean that the issue can’t be passed back and forth across Whitehall. For example, it may be that a part of the solution is for universities to get more involved in improving outcomes at school age – e.g. through providing more tuition or summer schools to target groups of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some of them are already running academies and free schools.
Still, in the end, more university places for poorer students means fewer places for the middle classes, doesn’t it?
It might not. The number of university places is no longer capped. Universities can take additional students from poorer backgrounds without squeezing out students from somewhere else. Some highly selective institutions have grown in precisely this way.
What about apprenticeships though, university isn’t for everyone?
It isn’t. But apprenticeships currently receive much less funding than university places. The quality gap is large. Government had announced an apprenticeships levy to help fix that. Businesses are set to contribute up to £3bn more per year to increase funding for apprenticeships. Except many of them are opposed to the levy, especially in the wake of the Leave vote, and are lobbying for the levy to be scrapped or delayed.
So, in the end, Brexit does reach everywhere?
Well, there’s more. Universities could be hit hard by Brexit. The Secretary of State will be under pressure to ensure there is access to EU research funding and networks for UK universities after Brexit (several non-EU countries already have access, so it’s possible to win it); and, then the harder prize, to guarantee that our borders are still open to international students, from within the EU and beyond it, despite the tougher line on immigration that many others in the Government are likely to take. The benefits of international students coming to the UK are large; but this is likely to be a tough negotiation nonetheless.