Education’s lost souls

Written by: Stephen Machin & Lee Elliot Major | Published:
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If we are to save the lost souls of education, we need a new model of social mobility that develops all talents, not just the academic, say Stephen Machin and Lee Elliot Major

In 2011 following the summer riots, Michael Gove gave one of his most revealing speeches as education secretary.

“For all the advances we have made, and are making in education, we still, every year, allow thousands more children to join an educational underclass,” Gove told an invited audience at the Durand Academy in Stockwell, south London.

“They are the lost souls our school system has failed.”

Teachers had reported a growing number of children unable to form letters or even hold a pencil. Many could not sit and listen during lessons. Others could barely speak a full sentence of proper words, let alone frame a question.

Despite the heroic efforts of teachers, the destiny for these pupils was all too predictable: they would become the next generation of street gangs and prison inmates. They faced a world of multi-dimensional poverty – “a poverty of ambition, a poverty of discipline, a poverty of soul”.

The uncomfortable truth is Gove’s “underclass” of illiterate and innumerate pupils has remained immune to countless education reforms ushered in by successive education secretaries.

Policy has swung from market-based reforms to highly prescribed edicts on what teachers should do. School funding has increased (and then been cut). Targets have been set (and then re-cast). Commitments have been made (and then discarded). Yet the numbers of young people without the most basic literacy and numeracy skills remains stuck at shockingly high levels.

In our book Social Mobility and Its Enemies we present numbers showing that a quarter of 16 to 65-year-olds in England in 2012 did not have basic functional numeracy and literacy skills.

It may be hard to believe, but this extrapolates to around 10 million unskilled adults across Britain who are unable to digest simple figures and words. The national trend, where this has not been improving across age cohorts in England, contrasts with smaller and declining proportions of younger people with such low skills in other countries where cross-cohort progress is being made. England (and Britain) is losing the international race in basic skills.

Moreover the problem of the low skilled losers of the education system is set to magnify for future generations. The crippling disability of low skills is passed down from one generation to the next. Parents with low skills are more likely to produce offspring who will leave the education system with poor qualifications.

Poor education begets poor education. The failures of the education system to address low skills just stores up a bigger problem for future generations.

Tragically the evidence suggests that the Govian reforms that shape today’s education system will hinder rather than help education’s lost souls.

England’s exam reforms had much to say for them: more grades to distinguish between the very highest academic achievers and school measures to track the progress of all children, not just the final grades they finished with.

Yet the system remains an academic sorting machine: selecting talent on a narrow set of metrics through end-of-year memory tests with questionable real world relevance for many students.

Quite rightly, education ministers argue that academic streams should not be the exclusive preserve of posh pupils. Yet this logic has drifted into the flawed assumption that all children should pursue an academic education.

The tragedy is that the system has ended up labelling those with other talents – creative, vocational and technical – as failures.

Public examinations are increasingly a measure of how much support children receive outside school. Children from wealthier families with the same cognitive ability as poorer children secure higher grades in school tests such as A levels – little wonder given the boom in private tutoring outside school hours.

The pattern observed is an ever-escalating educational arms race in which the poorest children are hopelessly ill-equipped to fight.

Education secretaries come and go – all faced with the impossible task of addressing a multi-generational problem. We urgently need a long term review to look into how we provide the most basic functional skills to 100,000s of school-leavers.

For them, the purely academic approach is not working. Children should be assessed against a basic threshold of key skills required to get on in life. Functional maths and English could be taught as part of a practical, meaningful jobs-focused curriculum.

Meanwhile the fundamental questions at the heart of education – how we measure schools and what is best for our children – need to be asked again and this time be more critically appraised than before.

Education is not solely as a quest to identify the best academic minds (important as this is), but the enabler of all talents. If we are to save the lost souls, Britain needs a new model of social mobility that develops all talents, not just academic, but vocational and creative too.

  • Professor Stephen Machin is director of the Centre for Economic Performance & Dr Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust.

Further information

Social Mobility and Its Enemies is published by Penguin:


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