14 December 2017

Redefining social mobility

By Jonathan Simons

Justine Greening’s Social Mobility Action Plan, published today, isn’t a full White Paper of the kind that Secretaries of State normally produce (or even a Green Paper). It is much narrower in its scope than Education Excellence Everywhere and Gove’s The Importance of Teaching. But in its defence, it doesn’t claim to be an all encompassing document. Nor does it try to cover anywhere near the full breadth of what the expanded DfE now covers.

Instead, it aims to put flesh on the bones of what the Education Secretary actually means by social mobility. So yes it’s narrow. And no, it isn’t sprinkled with hundreds of new announcements and loads of extra cash. But I think it does one very important thing. And it provides a base for a second thing.

So the very important thing: it talks about place.

Place has hitherto been relatively unimportant in UK (English) policy-making. This is for four reasons. First, England is quite small as a country. So it’s easy to think of it as a relatively homogenous bloc. Secondly, the London dominated policy world is even smaller, so the frame of geographical reference is even smaller. And while one of Parliament’s strengths is that it theoretically represents the whole country, up until the 2017 General Election, government departments (Ministers and officials) didn’t really care what Parliament thought and didn’t take their views into account.

Third, as a group, most civil servants share a mindset which tends to dismiss place as a feature. Given almost all DfE policy types live in London and the South East, which tends on the whole to be less “place” oriented as a region, they either have grown up there, or have moved there – which itself demonstrates to their minds that place isn’t an obstacle to getting on and becoming socially mobile. And fourth, place has been low in the pecking order of policy thinking because if government has often been dismissive of Parliament, it has frankly been contemptuous of much of local government as an actor.

So while education policy has recognised place in the past, it has not been as a causal factor. Rather, place has been “an area in which unrelated issues which need sorting out occur”. By which I mean that previous geographically concentrated approaches like London Challenge, whilst ostensibly about place, were really just school improvement programmes, albeit geographically targeted ones.

This sounds like a semantic difference, but it is absolutely crucial. One of the reasons London Challenge didn’t work in its many replications around the country is because these Challenges didn’t take account of place, and simply imposed pretty boilerplate school improvement solutions onto quite specific places and communities. Similarly, previous governments may have talked the talk on things such as Total Place and community based approaches, they’ve always been pretty tokenistic, for the reasons above.

But in the past year or so, this has shifted. Principally, the Brexit vote showed very clearly that places have identity that reach beyond their economic or social circumstances, which was missed by Whitehall and Westminster. And the academic and author David Goodhart has really crystallised the thinking and missteps that have happened in this area in his book The Road To Somewhere. To quote from a review of his book:

“Goodhart argues that the key faultline in Britain and elsewhere now separates those who come from Somewhere – rooted in a specific place or community, usually a small town or in the countryside, socially conservative, often less educated – and those who could come from Anywhere: footloose, often urban, socially liberal and university educated. He cites polling evidence to show that Somewheres make up roughly half the population, with Anywheres accounting for 20% to 25% and the rest classified as “Inbetweeners”.”

Anywheres are people who think that public policy solutions are essentially technocratic ones because the place in which they occur doesn’t matter. If a community has no jobs, and if there are vacancies in a nearby town, then people should just move there. If schools are no good in an area, choose a school elsewhere.

By contrast, Somewheres believe (perhaps overly so) that place is what matters. People aren’t living in an area purely for functional or technical reasons, but because it’s home. And that community — those ties that bind — remains strong, even when that comes at a cost in terms of social mobility as often defined.

Government is overwhelmingly made up of Anywheres. And the school improvement challenge is overwhelmingly located in Somewhere areas. If you don’t understand that, then any further action – even ostensibly geographically targeted plans, like Opportunity Areas – simply won’t work.

This, then, is the territory that Justine Greening – from a very strong Somewhere community – is engaging in. The strength of the Social Mobility Action Plan is a recognition of two things: first, that place matters over and above the education services in them, and second, that the answer isn’t about parachuting in (brilliant teachers and leaders) or bailing out (socially mobile and ambitious young people) . As she writes:

“The overarching ambition of this plan is to leave no community behind. We will relentlessly target effort and resources at parts of the country where they have the toughest challenges and fewest opportunities.”

So “no community left behind”   is not stuck in at the back, or referenced off-handedly, but right up there as an overarching governing principle for the whole document. One ambition to rule them all, you might say.

And within schools, the chapter sets out a potentially radical model of prioritising almost all of what government will do in the 108 local areas with the weakest capacity to improve — starting with what is there (teachers and leaders and community organisations) and addressing the specific challenges they face, through for example a significant ramping up of high quality professional development, rather than spending money on short term fixes brought in from elsewhere. Not all of this is welcome (goodbye free schools in London and the South East, it was nice knowing you). But you can’t say it isn’t bold.

“No community left behind” is a slogan, for sure – and what it means is still imprecise – but as a governing principle for identifying what the issue is and how it can and can’t be tackled, I think it’s important and significant.

You can also detect a continued shift as to the DfE’s theory of change.

The significance of Education Excellence Everywhere, under Nicky Morgan, is that it shifted the government’s rhetoric and approach from pure autonomy (under Gove) to “supported autonomy” which recognised the need for governments to tactically intervene and build capacity.

This approach from Greening takes it one step further. Supported autonomy, still yes, in specific geographical areas still yes, but now additionally recognising that these are areas that need addressing as areas, and because they are areas. It’s perhaps no coincidence that as noted above, Justine Greening is from a deeply Somewhere area, and was comprehensively educated.

This stuff, maybe, comes more naturally to her. You can also detect the hand of some of the longer standing policy advisers in this document, who are into their third Secretary of State, and are making their influence and experience felt in helping this theory of improvement evolve over a longer time period – to their credit.

The second thing the Social Mobility Action Plan does is puts something of a unified theory around what Greening wants to do and provides a platform for further action. Yes, I’m sure that Greening would have preferred to have launched something all singing and dancing, with lots of money, and with No 10 cover to really make bold moves. Heaven knows, the interlinked challenges of a new industrial strategy, the increasing need for retraining and lifelong learning, and the requirement for a realignment post Brexit, all require this type of thinking from government, which could and should be coming from DfE.

But the lack of any money for government to spend – and spending commitments are really notable by their absence in this document – and politics over the last 12 months would have probably made such a task impossible. So this document has shown the skill of a Secretary of State playing a relatively weak starting hand well. There’s a base here for a big bet on important issues in the next year – if she wants to make it.

Jonathan Simons is the former Head of Education at Policy Exchange