We must harness the power of agency in education to improve social mobility

 “Geography is destiny” Abraham Verghese, physician-author

 “The need for political leadership in this area has never been more pressing. Social mobility is one of the biggest challenges facing our country today. It is not just the poorest in society who are losing out. Whole communities and parts of Britain are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially. The growing sense that we have become an “us and them” society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation” Rt Hon Alan Milburn, former Chair of the Social Mobility Commission.

Education is the civil rights issue of our generationArne Duncan, former US Secretary of Education. 

My former teacher and mentor, Les Jones, was born just outside Wrexham in North Wales around the time of the dreadful Gresford Colliery disaster of 1934 that took 266 lives of that close-knit mining community including members of his family. A coal miner’s son and the youngest of four he would go onto take his place at the local grammar school, Grove Park, and later to win a scholarship and place at Magdalen College, Oxford. I once asked him what had been the significant factors that had enabled what the experts would now call “intragenerational social mobility”, an individual’s upwardly mobile socio-economic class strata shift hard to achieve even in 2018 but especially in a Depression/World War era, class ridden British society in the mid Twentieth Century. His reply was twofold: Firstly, his family and the strong community stability of his colliery town that provided him with so much support, aspiration and love. It really does take a village! Secondly, the access to education and learning he had growing up. In Wrexham, the great nineteenth century Scottish-American steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, had built one of his many public libraries across Britain and USA in one of the most significant philanthropic gestures of that era. Akin to the work of the Gates Foundation today. My old teacher benefited completely from this foresight in allowing the masses access to learning and similar to the approach to education of self-taught revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, who Les often said he took the lesson from as he read every book available in Carnegie’s generous gift of that library to the inhabitants of industrial Wrexham. It worked and after university, he never looked back and continued to learn and put back into society through his career as an educator, community leader, artist and a wise holistic teacher to so many students in the UK and around the World over the decades. He is still doing it now in retirement from his rural home in the hills of mid Wales.

The Indo-American sociologist, Anindya Kunda, asked the crucial question of our time in his 2017 TED Talk, “How can disadvantaged students succeed?” and he used his own background growing up in America with an Indian heritage and other stories from his career as an example of how that is possible. He categorically rejects the easy notion that these students from very disadvantaged backgrounds simply had “grit and resilience” and “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps” which often seems the opinion of the privileged and the elites when viewing such cases. Kunda as a sociologist focusses on other factors that influenced their agency, built their capacity and allowed them to navigate the system. A system in America where aspiration and doing better than the previous generation is so ingrained it goes as far back as colonial times and is enshrined in the constitution. Andrew Carnegie was a poor Scottish immigrant arriving in that country hoping for social mobility as much as another later Scottish immigrant in Mary Anne Trump, nee MacLeod or the Slovakian immigrant Melania Knavs arriving in New York in 1996. Kunda in his talk looked at the pathways, support, programmes and social scaffolding that allowed very disadvantaged individuals to become socially mobile. Learning simple skills that most socially mobile people have like having networks, relevant skills and cultural capital through education for example. Kunda puts the important caveat in all of this success and said we should think of people who obtain social mobility as being “exceptional” not the “exception”. By thinking of them as exceptions, we take away society’s responsibility to help people, students, and families in similar circumstances. I am also hoping that the use of and the sneering around “Vicki Pollard” type working class characters has long gone from the stereotypes some sections of the media and professional classes have when they view the working class.

Anindya Kunda the boost students need to overcome obstacles

When former President Obama’s Secretary for Education, Arne Duncan, made his call to arms in 2010 by declaring that “education was the civil rights issue of our time” using the very powerful analogy of a fundamental societal problem to solve with the first black President sitting in the Oval Office, that clarion call echoed across similar Western societies including a post-industrial Britain. Looking at the issue of increasing greater social mobility opportunities for disadvantaged children, families and communities ranging from coastal towns, former coal mining towns and areas of rural deprivation has occupied governments for a long time and certainly has become a priority in the 21st Century to try to tackle poverty, poor attainment and perceived poor aspirational attitudes. Education is more than the silver bullet here. Education is critical to the success of offering a lasting solution and having a wider resonating legacy throughout these communities. All governments recognise this and it was the cross-party commission on social mobility led by former Labour minister, Alan Milburn, and former Conservative minister, Gillian Shephard, which spent most of this decade looking at solutions to tackle deprivation and how to increase social mobility for some of the poorest communities of the UK. The last two years of British politics has seen a political agenda dominated by one item since the 2016 referendum vote and that is Brexit. As a consequence of this, Alan Milburn resigned from chairing the social mobility commission frustrated by his perceived lack of progress and support from the government. The Commission’s November 2017 report is still relevant and remains one of the most detailed, comprehensive and analytical reports into deprivation, lack of opportunity and poor social mobility in the UK. The report highlighted the “cold spots” in the UK, where there are poor social mobility opportunities and that included the Forest of Dean. For example, many young people in low and low/middle income families will do worse economically than their parents. In some of the “cold spots” less than 10% of young people will go onto Higher Education. It is vitally important for the Forest of Dean that Post 16 centres thrive like the one we have at Wyedean, offering academic and vocational routes and aspirations to our young people and Wyedean is supporting the proposal for a Sixth Form for Dene Magna School in the central/north part of the Forest of Dean. The 2017 report also found UK levels of social mobility for young people were far lower than many other countries. Those from high income and professional backgrounds who have all the structural and cultural capital that social mobility requires still predominantly dominate the top professions and universities.

Connectivity is also a key factor and to echo the writer Verghese, it really is about where we are from. Wrexham or the Forest of Dean or even Appalachia. The 2017 Commission spent a long time highlighting the urban/rural split in term of social mobility and education. Connectivity is the key not only addressing poor transport for remote areas but also in terms of connectivity and digital literacy. I had the pleasure of talking at length earlier this week with Dame Sue John, the Executive Director of Challenge Partners, formerly, known as the London Challenge. London does stand out from the rest of the UK and the next 20 UK cities for being a “hot spot” for social mobility. The London Challenge, and subsequent Challenge Partners of now over 400 English schools, also stands out as one of the most remarkable peer to peer school improvement networks and this has had a knock-on effect on the quality of education being delivered in London and so many other schools like Wyedean. London schools achieving higher than the Kent grammar schools. I spoke to colleagues in Wales this week in Cardiff about school improvement through global learning and lamented the waste of money thrown at an ill thought out imitation of Challenge Partners for Welsh education a few years ago, Challenge Cymru. It took huge amounts of money from already struggling schools in the Valleys, wasted it on educational “gurus” and was eventually brought to an end with no clear impact at all. Another costly failure on trying to improve schools, education and social mobility.

At Wellington College’s annual Festival of Education in June, the Chief Inspector of OfSTED, Amanda Speilman, contributed to the social mobility and education debate with this missive: Many local working-class communities have felt the full brunt of economic dislocation in recent years, and, perhaps as a result, can lack the aspiration and drive seen in many migrant communities. What was encouraging to see across the educational chattering classes on social media and subsequent media responses was a robust debate around social mobility, lack of opportunity, the white working class, deprivation in the UK, aspiration and the perceived higher “drive and aspiration” of migrant communities. Including the purpose of OfSTED being debated in its current form and the negative contribution is has sometimes played in damning so many of these schools. In these very areas OfSTED focusses only on outcomes to make its overall judgement with little regard to socio-economic context as these schools continue to struggle with poor funding, disengagement, deep societal issues and the damning instability of frequent staff turnover of around 70%. Her predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, also waded in. A man many would hold responsible for the aggressive and narrow focus of OFSTED that is linked to harsh punitive accountability climates and a poor imitation of private school cultures being adopted to “raise standards” like the garish blazers, Ebacc drive, mis-understood house systems and binary behaviour systems. All so loved by the short term “hero Heads” finally falling out of fashion when school improvement has always been a collective endeavor. And, of course, the now shrill call for mobiles to be banned in schools. A notion so counterintuitive to the very idea of digital learning and preparing working class kids for their already existing digital world. In these schools this approach fostered by the likes of Wilshaw’s leadership has led to so many good irreplaceable teachers simply leaving the profession because of unrealistic workloads especially in the very areas they are most needed. To be fair to the current chief inspector she did also state; “Schools in white working-class communities have a harder job to do than others”. But since this speech the new professionalism and desire to claim back leadership of education by so many educators and school leaders has seen the power of their agency taking to task these comments and OFSTED’s entire approach to schools in deprived areas already struggling in difficult circumstances. This Tuesday an important piece of research by Toby Greaney and Rob Higham of UCL for Nuffield into the structural impact of changes in England will further add to the power of agency of educators to take on the “perceived wisdom” that presides: The Guardian – Market led education system puts finances before pupils?

Wilshaw’s description of England’s state education system as “mediocre” speaks more about his past leadership of HM Schools inspectorate for his years in charge of standards in education rather than on hard working colleagues and communities battling a rapidly changing globalised society affecting and demanding on their corner of the World.

Dr Zubaida Haque, wrote a 10-point response back to Amanda Speilman in the TES and this is not the first time Dr Haque has taken issue before with Speilman especially over her comments about banning the hijab in schools last year. People seem to want to ban so much in schools. What I found worthy in Dr Haque’s points is the first point: Career aspirations don’t just come from home. Also point 2 – social capital matters. It led me to have a look at the book review of Robert Verkaik’s “Posh Boys” which looks at the place of independent schools in the UK in the 21st Century. The Guardian described it as “A trenchant j’accuse against the old-boy chumocracy and the “apartheid education system” that perpetuates social inequality”. As the principal of the very school Hogwarts probably originated from and the school least likely to look like Hogwarts even with the odd rickety staircase and ex caretaker who is more than a passing resemblance to Hagrid, I think this kind of argument doesn’t actually help or add anything in the social mobility debate. If private school aspirations are about a “Hogwarts” model as school leaders told me at the COBIS conference in London in May then their students are going to be suffering poor social mobility in the globalised and digital society of the 2020s and beyond as much as their white working-class counterparts in the coastal towns of England. And parents will be paying a lot of money for their child’s privilege of fanciful 19th century idealised educational fiction and not being able to be socially mobile outside of a narrow English confine which no one knows what will even look like post Brexit-Global Britain. I have worked in and work with a range of schools, and whatever label we give them what I have always found is all parents and carers want the best for the children. Working class parents want the very best for their children as much as any socio-economic class of parents. It was ill-judged for the chief inspector to say they had no drive or aspiration. I have also seen some of the worst and best lessons, school leadership, curriculum design and safeguarding in independent schools and to say the private school system existing prevents social mobility is too crude and lets so many other factors off the hook in this fundamental debate.

Two things these last few weeks at Wyedean have given me very clear signs of hope, which is again about the drive and aspirations of our young people to want to use education to make something of themselves and navigate successfully a complex globalised society. Firstly, seeing the future cohorts coming to Wyedean from our local primary schools as well as being able to take time in the very warm weather to talk to our existing students as we come to the end of a long academic year with the summer holidays ahead. The Year 11 Prom last week, a wonderful American idea that allows our young people to mark the end of school formally and make a rite of passage in their young lives. It made me so proud of how these students have grown in confidence especially with the stress of so many hours of exams this summer term. The second is reading a captivating and hopeful article on the recommendation of my great colleague and inspirational global educator, Barbara Zielonka in HundrEd by Josephine Lister. The article is below and what it illustrated for me is the continued narrowness of the national confines of debates in the UK around issues like social mobility and the need to look for international comparisons and examples to inform our debates and search for solutions in a much wider way. I was blown away at the notion put forward by global strategist, Parag Khanna, that far from the revival of nationalism and aggressive populism that we see in Europe and America right now the actual global trend is the continued rise of the urban megacity having much less in common with their nation’s rural hinterland and more connectivity to other world cities. London already illustrates this in the UK along with cities like Paris and New York. One of my main aims for Wyedean and our part of the Forest of Dean and borders is to be proud of our area but make sure we are outward facing. This mentality alone is a key factor in the power of agency in developing social mobility for our students. Lister also references the work of the NGO BRAC in Bangladesh, a country suffering the impact of climate change with the constant flooding from the Bengal Delta. The solution for the young people, especially girls, is to get an education and to have special boats which could connect rural areas and act as schools if needed. Education is critical to social mobility as I have seen only too often in so many countries where it is not taken for granted. We can ban mobile phones all we want but the key to education in the 21st Century can now exist on just two things – a device and a connection. The research of Professor Sugata Mitra and founder of SOLE has proved that with a more technologically literate generation than ever when school is not an option, young people in India and other places struggling to climb the social strata for a better life can do so because they can now access education through a device and a connection. “I understand democracy as something that gives the weak the same chances of the strong” Gandhi

There’s a growing educational gap between rural and urban areas connectivity could help solve it

I know the power of agency in education to improve social mobility, as a young secondary school student in the mid-1980s living in a former mining town, coming from a council estate and a large family where my father had been digging coal underground since the age of 15. I knew even then that I would need the drive to harness the power of agency to fulfil my aspirations through education. I was very fortunate that my brilliantly caring, funny, engaging, creative and challenging wood work teacher shared a similar background and somehow was in my school despite having a PPE from Oxford University and could name drop his famous contemporaries impressing most people. I had teachers who took us to West Berlin, the Wall came down by chance, whilst we were there, a real moment of history. Teachers who made us so proud of our town and county’s history and local identity that I still get a thrill driving past the barn when Charles II hid in 1651 after the Battle of Worcester and thinking “What if…?”. A school where languages, Art, Drama, IT, Food Tech, Music, Creativity, Sports were as equal in the curriculum as other subjects. Teachers who gave us a love of learning, of books and ideas. Who taught us how to debate and to critically think. Who brought the outside World to our corner of it, so we could talk to people in different professions and walks of life raising our experiences and life chances. Who didn’t sneer at our popular culture because they saw it in the context of interacting with visiting museums, galleries, libraries, allowing us our heroes of the day akin to Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, Ariana Grande. I have had more conversations from my own students about the World Cup and Russia this last week, and they looked shocked when I shared with them my own stories of visiting and working with schools and agencies in Moscow and Siberia. How did my own trajectory from the “neck-end of Madeley” get me to delivering lectures on History at Tomsk State University 10 years ago? My own daughters have enjoyed the film “The Greatest Showman”, and PT Barnum is almost the classic example and advocate of social mobility in 19th century America as well as widening popular culture to the people. My daughters looked very surprised when I said to them at the end of the film at the scene where Barnum is watching “Swan Lake” with his two daughters performing that I had seen the actual lake outside Moscow where Tchaikovsky composed the ballet score. I have experienced this, all thanks to my teachers, who made going to university sound so natural despite the fact that we were the first in our families to do so. Families worked with the school and wanted such high aspirations for their children. I am not sure as a teenager in 2018 that I would be able to have the same path as I did in the 1980s and 1990s through education in the climate of today.

My late father in law, Peter Whittle, is another example of a white working-class boy who accessed education from the poverty of Royston Street, Edge Hill, L6 in a post war Liverpool and went onto study History at the University of Bristol, despite his mother refusing to sign his admissions and grant forms. When we scattered his ashes on the cliffs above his beloved Brehac plage on the Cotes d’Armor two years ago, we looked back at a life of social mobility of a solid cricketer, writer on the Liverpool Echo, teacher, yachtsman, brilliant chef and restaurateur as well as a man who learned languages and epitimised everything that was good about being a cosmopolitan European and being English. Although passing on his love of Everton FC to my three daughters has been raised a few times.

Education is critical to social mobility through high aspirations. The Observer article from the weekend starkly illustrated the deep challenges facing English education going into the next decade: Observer view on role of schools generating inequality admissions

For education to mean something by playing a determining role in allowing social mobility for all, we do need to level the playing field but in the sense of greater opportunity, investment and wider society by having high aspirations for all our young people and not just a few. We need it for the sake of cohesiveness and mutual prosperity. We are committed to it for the young people of our communities in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley at Wyedean as all educators are in their communities as well.

Aspire Together, Achieve Together: Wyedean is an academic and nurturing global school committed to World Class C21st learning for all. We aim to turn dreams into Futures. Wyedean School mission statement on the school website.


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