Bacc for the Future? Social mobility in education

by Paul Steer, 03 January 2016
The Commission on Inequality in Education’s report on the gap between the performance of disadvantaged children and their better-off classmates provides a linking theme of social inclusion between many of this month’s education stories. The clear evidence that regional inequalities in educational outcomes have persisted for decades is depressing. We should be careful of course not to condemn our schools for this phenomenon when these outcomes are clearly a symptom of much wider social and economic disparities – deep seated problems which the school system cannot put right on its own. Nevertheless, at a time when the Education Select Committee is inquiring into the purpose of education, the role of education in breaking generational cycles of disadvantage is bound to be a major point of discussion. There is plenty to chew on. 

"Not everyone can be a future David Bowie or an Alan Rickman... " 

The nature of the curriculum and the choices made available to young people both at Key Stage 4 and beyond are not irrelevant in this context. Those signing up to the ‘Bacc for the Future’ campaign claim that creative subjects are in a spiral of decline as a result of being omitted from the EBacc measure. Not everyone can be a future David Bowie or an Alan Rickman, but it would be interesting to look at what role creative subjects might have played in the past in engaging young people from all backgrounds and building their confidence and wider skills. 

The new Progress 8 school performance measure has rightly been welcomed by many and has some potential for recognising those schools that pay most attention to the progress of all their pupils, especially those starting their secondary education at a 
"... reward those schools that do most to aid social mobility." 

disadvantage. But it is important to remember that all performance measures are far from perfect. Progress 8 has its own flaws, depending so much as it does on the quality and availability of Key Stage 2 data and a correlation between that and GCSE achievement. We forget at our peril that such measures should never be considered without some contextual information and some alternative measures that tell us other parts of the story. Nevertheless, Progress 8 is a much better measure than the current blunt instrument of ‘5 good GCSEs’ which it will replace and, if intelligently applied, can do something to reward those schools that do most to aid social mobility. 

Progress 8 may also help to offset some of the potentially narrowing effects of the compulsory EBacc. It holds the potential to include at least three non-EBacc subjects and this includes a list of approved vocational qualifications, which many teachers will tell 
"Radical change in the FE sector is a given..." 

you can play an important role in getting the disaffected to re-engage with their studies. Beyond Key Stage 4, the government has seen a need to introduce legislation to make sure people making choices at 16 are given full knowledge of the choices available to them. The new legislation will mean schools will be required by law to collaborate with colleges, university technical colleges and other training providers to ensure that young people are aware of all the routes to higher skills and the workplace, including higher and degree apprenticeships. 

We know that vocational routes provide pathways to higher education, to technical and professional occupations and might well be a better alternative to A Levels for many, regardless of their background. If this is the case, then post-16 vocational programmes need to be nurtured with great care and that means the current area reviews of Further Education are critical as well as the financial stability of our colleges. The recent report of the Public Accounts Committee which predicts a ‘looming crisis’ in Further Education is therefore deeply worrying. It is difficult, however, to reconcile the findings of this committee with the claims of the Skills Minister, Nick Boles, that spending in Further Education is set to rise in real terms by more than a third in the next five years. Radical change in the FE sector is a given, but let us hope that whatever emerges retains that strong commitment to serving learners from the widest range of backgrounds and age groups. 

"... the AS provides security for students with disrupted lives or economic challenges..." 

The AS Level has long been regarded by its supporters as playing an important role in social mobility. It is argued that the AS provides security for students with disrupted lives or economic challenges who are wary of committing at the outset to a two year programme. It means that they can leave after one year with some recognition for the studies undertaken but in reality, it is often good results at AS that give them the confidence to continue their studies to A Level and beyond. The latest news from UCAS that almost three quarters of schools are intending to offer AS exams in summer 2016, despite being decoupled from the A Level, will therefore be welcomed. 

Finally, this month also saw the launch of the Learning and Work Institute, “dedicated to lifelong learning, full employment and inclusion”. With the heritage of NIACE and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion behind it, it already has a strong track record in making a difference and speaking up for learners of all ages. We wish them every success – there is plenty to be getting on with. 

Paul Steer 
Head of Policy, OCR

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