The social mobility challenge is not impossible

Schools-datajournogenius Christopher Cook of the FT wrote a nice blog post this week showing how forcing academy conversion for low performing schools probably wouldn’t do much to fix social inequalities in educational achievement. I agree. But I want to show some (quick and dirty) data to help keep alive the dreams of school reformers. This data refutes his suggestion that poor children do badly in the majority of England’s schools.

Schools do make a difference to the lives of poor children, far more so than for rich children who do well everywhere. Professor Simon Burgess and I noticed this when we were working on local school performance tables, which consistently showed that choice of local school appeared to matter far more for low ability children than it did for high ability children:

Equally, the variation in achievement for children from deprived neighbourhoods is greater than than for children from affluent neighbourhoods. This chart shows the 10th-90th percentile range of GCSE achievement by deprivation of neighbourhood:

Which schools make a difference to poor children’s lives? Well, Chris Cook shows it isn’t the schools in the top half of the national league tables on the % 5+ A*-C measure. But why should they? These schools aren’t necessarily ‘good’ schools, they are just relatively affluent schools. I’ve opened up my dataset to look a little harder for some high quality schools.

How do high quality schools, as judged by Ofsted, do on the social mobility challenge? This chart here shows that Ofsted-judged outstanding schools are pretty good social levellers, on average (i.e. they are much better than the average school for poor children but only moderately better than the average school for rich children)…

…And how to high value-added schools do on the social mobility challenge? Not so well overall. But this chart does show that schools who perform poorly on a CVA-style value-added measure appear to be a serious drag on social mobility…

…and, of course, if we start digging deeper into the data we can find hundreds of individual examples of outstanding schools that truly appear to transform the lives of children from deprived neighbourhoods, such as this well known north east London academy that recently lost its headteacher:

So, while I agree with Chris Cook that within-school variation in attainment remains a huge problem and that education policy can never fix all of society’s problems, I want to give a ray of hope to the policy makers, headteacher and teachers who work in education because they believe they can transform lives.

It’s not all hopeless (although it also isn’t easy). There are schools where pupil achievement isn’t entirely dependent on social background. We can’t close the social class attainment gap, but the best schools do help make it much smaller.

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1 thought on “The social mobility challenge is not impossible”

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