Boosting social mobility: Seven building blocks for schools

Written by: Dr Jonathan Doherty | Published:
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The tail of educational underachievement for disadvantaged students risks getting longer. Dr Jonathan Doherty looks at the state of play after two years of Covid, considers where now for social mobility, and discusses seven building blocks for schools to help raise attainment for disadvantaged students​


Education, as a driver of social mobility, can be the gateway to a better future; but it can also drive a wedge between “those who have” and “those who have not”.

Serious divisions exist in Britain today. Inequalities across society entrench young people in disadvantage and widen the gulf between rich and poor in our schools.

Rafts of government initiatives to improve social mobility have been suggested – proposing more school choice, new curricula, and a revised exam system in schools. It remains, however, that we have not yet created sustainable pathways within our education system for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to flourish. If Britain were a more equal society, evidence from the Equality Trust (2022) suggests that:

  • Murder rates could halve.
  • Mental illnesses could reduce by two-thirds.
  • Obesity could halve.
  • Prison populations could reduce by 80%.
  • Teenage pregnancies could reduce by 80%.
  • Levels of trust could increase by 85%.

While educational underachievement is an international concern, links to social class in the UK continue to be highlighted. In countries such as Scandinavia where the class gap between rich and poor is relatively small, people are happier and healthier. Life expectancy is longer. Social mobility is higher. Educational outcomes are higher.

As a consequence of years of under investment in Britain, the life chances of too many young people continue to be compromised. It is an injustice harming the outcomes of those young people affected and it represents an economic and social strain on the whole of society that creates and perpetuates cycles of disadvantage.


Breaking the class ceiling of underachievement

Links between social class and educational achievement have been well documented for years. It has been shown to be a good predictor of many life outcomes, such as job status, happiness, health, and even life expectancy (Rimfield et al, 2018).

Raising the educational achievement of young people from low-income families remains a key priority in education, and this critical issue forms the focal point of my recent article, Levelling the playing field and promoting social mobility through education, in the Chartered College of Teaching’s free book on the future of teaching (CoT, 2021).

Good grades in secondary school offer a way into further education, university acceptance, or employment, and are prime movers in life-long education and work trajectories.

A lack of understanding of the connection between socio-economic status and educational achievement perpetuates a chasm of difference between young people in disadvantage and their more affluent peers. The issue has stubbornly not gone away.

The “class ceiling” is not just about young people’s grades, it also affects how long they stay in the education system and the progress they make through it. Students from low-income backgrounds are one-third more likely to drop out of education at age 16. In 2015, the report Background to Success (Sammons et al, 2015) found that white, working-class boys from poor neighbourhoods face a “double disadvantage”. Their low family income and the postcode they have reduces the likelihood of academic study after GCSE considerably.

The stark headline of the Education in England 2020 report (Hutchinson et al, 2020) was that: “Progress has stalled in tackling inequalities in our education system … any progress made since 2011 will be reversed. If current trends continue, the disadvantage gap will never close.”

The report found that persistently disadvantaged children (who have been eligible for free school meals for more than 80% of their school life) were on average 22 months behind their more advantaged peers. This has not improved since 2011.

There are high inequalities in attainment in maths and English, with a gap of 17.5 months in maths and 16.2 months in English. The disadvantage gap is also widening for the most vulnerable.

By the time looked after young people sit their GCSEs, they are 29 months behind their peers (Hutchinson et al, 2020).


A worsening situation due to the pandemic

Undoubtedly, Covid 19 has made the situation even worse. Evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (2022) on the impact of school closures on young people’s learning shows a consistent pattern: progress against that of peers has been less for disadvantaged learners. Add to that the disruption of learning, accessibility of learning resources (including IT), home circumstances and so on, it paints a dismal picture. Analysis from the DfE (2021) shows that secondary students from disadvantaged backgrounds have experienced two months more learning loss in reading than their non-disadvantaged peers.

Students in high-poverty schools are disproportionately affected. Gaps in learning time during the lockdown have, not surprisingly, widened. Further research estimates that students are around three months behind due to the pandemic and the disadvantaged have been affected most (Sharp et al, 2020).

There has been a clear difference in students’ level of engagement with remote learning, with the most disadvantaged young people less engaged in learning online. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Andrew et al, 2020) presented data on home learning during the first lockdown, finding that children from better-off families are spending 30% more time on home learning than are those from poorer families.

The Ofsted Annual Report (2021), while acknowledging the hard work done by staff in schools, reports that the pandemic had an enormous impact in the last year. There were particular concerns expressed about year 7, who were coming into secondary education without a proper transition, and year 11, who were preparing for exams.

In almost all secondary schools visited by inspectors, students were studying the usual subjects but there were significant restrictions on what could be achieved in some subjects, such as music and PE. The report recognised that schools were facing challenges with attendance, remote learning, curriculum planning, behaviour, students’ social, emotional and physical health, and closures during lockdown. It recognised the impact that Covid had was not aligned neatly with patterns of vulnerability or deprivation.


So what can be done? What can change the situation?

There have been many policy interventions in recent years aimed at addressing the achievement gap, and yet, not least as a result of the pandemic, the gap is increasing.

Should a tighter focus on attainment scores be a solution? Milner (2013), for example, highlights the dangers of policy-makers and educators focusing on the gap alone, without considering the ‘‘compelling, nuanced, and illustrative pictures of the reasons undergirding and behind the causes of disparities and differences that exist between and among groups’’.

There is certainly a bigger picture to be considered seriously that is at the very heart of the class-divided societies that exist in the UK. Quick interventions targeted at academic attainment may not be the answer to address the deep-rooted issues related to disadvantage which give rise to poor educational outcomes for some young people.

Policy-makers owe it to our young people to ensure that their outcomes do not mask the challenges they have faced and continue to face as we hopefully move to the exiting phase of the pandemic in 2022.

Last year’s GCSE cohort and their teachers have worked hard to overcome the challenges that the pandemic presented them with. It is now time for them to be backed properly.

It is urgent that attention and finances are channelled to education recovery, particularly the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, many of whom have been left behind by this pandemic.

However, the great power of schooling is that it is in our power to change it now and change it for the better. A few years back, a piece of research (Macleod et al, 2015) identified seven vital building blocks for schools which are successful in raising disadvantaged students’ attainment. It might be worth reminded ourselves now:

Have a whole school ethos of attainment for all: Successful schools have an ethos of high attainment for all. They view each student as an individual and avoid stereotyping disadvantaged students by referring to them as a group. They do not believe that disadvantaged learners have less potential to succeed.

Address behaviour and attendance: Successful schools have effective behaviour strategies. They communicate simple, clear rules and train all staff in behaviour management. There are effective social and emotional support strategies to help students in need of additional support, including working with their families. They set up rapid response systems to address poor attendance in school.

There is high quality teaching for all students: School leaders provide a consistently high standard, through setting high expectations for learning. Progress is monitored systematically and teaching and support is tailored to meet needs.

They meet individual learning needs: Schools see young people as individuals, with their own challenges, talents and interests. Staff work to identify next steps in learning, whether students are performing below, at, or above expectations. They focus on providing targeted support for those under-performing during curriculum time (as well as providing learning support outside school hours).

Staff are deployed effectively: Successful schools identify the strengths of each member of staff and find the best ways to use them. They devolve as much responsibility as possible to front-line staff and deploy their best teachers and teaching assistants to work with individual learners who need the most support.

They are data-driven and respond to evidence: More successful schools use data to identify students’ learning needs at every opportunity – when they join the school, during regular reviews of progress, and during day-to-day teaching. They review progress every few weeks, spot any signs of underperformance and address them quickly. Teachers engage with the data: they input, analyse and use it to underpin their teaching.

There is clear, responsive leadership: Senior leaders share their thinking and work collaboratively with staff, students, parents, families and the local community. They ensure their schools are linked into a number of networks such as local school clusters, teaching school networks, online forums, and national education events. They constantly seek out new ideas and put systems in place for staff to share best practice.


Final words

Equity in education must surely be about maximising opportunities for all children to enable every child to be successful. Our aspirations to be world leaders in education must embrace the fact that tackling the long tail of educational underachievement from our most deprived pupils is now a priority.

  • Dr Jonathan Doherty is a university lecturer and an independent education consultant. He is proud to be a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching, a professional membership body for teachers offering support networks, resources, programmes and research-based insights around teaching and learning excellence: https://chartered.college/


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