Written in the stars? Social inequality causes are far closer to home Mr. Clegg

Nick Clegg Q&A 9

COMMENT – It occurred to me the other day that I now have to spend at least twice as much time as I used to on reading various websites for new announcements, pronouncements and general bits of attention-seeking by people with influence over education.  At first, it was just Michael ‘Look at me, look at me!’ Gove, bending our internet ears on almost a daily basis with some new and exciting ruse or other designed to build his own, particular educational Jerusalem in England.  Then, once he’d got the Ofsted job, Michael ‘My dad was a postie, hardest job in the world’ Wilshaw started getting on to his pins with ever-increasing frequency in his bid to be even more loathed by teachers in his first year in post than Chris Woodhead managed in six years.

I shall pause there whilst all teachers reading this gasp in amazement; I, too, share your disbelief and had to check twice that Woodhead was, indeed, only at the helm at Ofsted for six years.  Nonetheless, the standard he set as the first Grand Inquisitor – he famously declared, “I am paid to challenge mediocrity, failure and complacency” – is one which the newest Michael to sit on the Inquisitorial throne is clearly keen to better.  I wrote only recently of his attempt to persuade the general public that teachers today experience even less stress than a postman in the fifties and sixties did – and you can see his point, given the amount of letters there were stuffed in the average postbag back then in those funny old, pre-internet days.

It was with surprise, therefore, that I encountered the latest expert to dip his toe into the raging torrent that educational debate has become since May 2010.  Nick ‘I wonder what we should claim are our policies at the next general election’’ Clegg has pronounced on social mobility and new government plans to compile a load of new statistics.  Blimey, I thought, if that doesn’t get social classes four and five shunted up the ladder, nothing will.

Agog to discover what the man who for now is called the Deputy PM has to say about social mobility, I paid closer attention than normal before sprinting metaphorically to my keyboard to hold forth.  Apparently, the government plans to publish an annual “snapshot” of social mobility, using information such as educational achievement, access to professions and birth weights.

Intrigued and not a little puzzled, I sat down to consider this for a while.  I’m well aware of my own deficiencies in the field of statistics, but I’m still wondering how the government proposes to link birth weight to educational achievement and attainment of a profession.  Will they, for example, ring up barristers, doctors and headteachers  and ask nosey questions?   Or will they, I mused, in Michael Apted ‘7 Up’-style select a group across social classes and track their progress?

I was, therefore, delighted to read on and discover that Mr Clegg has recommended that people watch the current series ’56 Up’ to see how successive governments have failed to improve social mobility.  If anything, the series shows most clearly the influence of parents on a child’s ability to negotiate and make progress through the education system unique to England.   There are, moreover, within this ‘study’ (I use parentheses because it’s just a television series, isn’t it?) of just 14 children a number of trend-buckers.  Suzy, for example, dropped out of her expensive independent education at 16 and was doing nothing much more than chain-smoking and glowering a lot at 21. Whilst she then married Rupert, a solicitor and became a happy wife and mother, how much might we judge her to have achieved compared with Sue who, despite not having attended a university herself, let alone a private school, has worked for some years now as an administrator for Queen Mary’s university in London?

Nick ‘I wonder how many people will vote for us at the next election’ Clegg has attempted to compare this country with Australia and Canada where, it is suggested, there are similar levels of social inequality but where, apparently, there is far greater social mobility.  Mr Clegg is naïve to imagine that a simple comparison such as this means very much; but then, politicians always go on the shortest possible journey when seeking to make a point and the field of education has taken a number of education secretaries in particular on very tiny trips indeed.   I would, therefore, urge Mr Clegg to get one of his work experience boys at the Deputy PM’s office to find him a bit more information about Australia and Canada on which to base any future comparisons; he might want to take a very close look at the levels of social mobility available to children born into Australian Aboriginal families, for example, if he wants some really good examples of what social inequality can do.

Having made his tiny little leap of comparison, Mr Clegg stated, “So there must be other things going on here. In the education system; in the housing market; or perhaps in social attitudes. Factors impacting on mobility that closing the income gap will not, and cannot, address.”  I’m sure he thought he’d come up with something that no-one else had thought of, but honestly –  does he really imagine that everyone will react to this staggering deduction by saying, ‘Goodness me!  I’d always wondered if the attitudes of a child’s parents had some impact on their educational and social outcomes – what we need is a longitudinal study lasting decades.’

Politicians always want and look for simple answers.  It has suited successive governments for many years both to blame schools for social inequality and to look to them to change it.  There is evidence that those children at the very bottom of the social heap – the ones that start school unable to speak, feed themselves or go to the toilet – hear (according to Frank Field’s study) only 10 million words by the time they start school, compared with 33 million by middle class children.  Those of us who have actually taught a range of children from various social classes know only too well that there’s no ‘catching up’ when the gap’s as wide as that.

Mr Clegg is part of a government that has cut money for Sure Start, a programme that aimed to address this very problem.  Statistics will merely tell us what we already know.

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Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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  1. Indeed, Clegg might also wish to consider how successive Australian governments’ persistent refusal to behave humanely towards refugees may allow their inequality/mobility relationship to appear rather flattering. I note the author of the report drawn upon by Cleggy for his offering is somewhat bemused to be so badly misunderstood by such a clever chap as the Deputy PM.

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