Everything changes, but nothing changes – that’s my overall reflection having come back to the Sutton Trust after four years away and completing my first year as CEO.
Some of the issues are depressingly constant. Most obviously – despite some signs of progress on some fronts – we remain a long way from being a society in which educational opportunities are evenly spread. And even if that is a pipe dream, the chances open to a poor child growing up in the North West, for example, compared to a wealthy child in the South East, are way too far apart – a chasm rather than a gap.
Some of the particular debates are familiar too. One of my first memories at the Trust in the mid-2000s was the publication of the admirable Schwartz report on making university admissions fair and transparent. Fast forward to today and we have UUK and the OfS conducting reviews with a similar remit. Even the introduction of Post Qualification Applications to university (PQA) – one of the recommendations of the Schwartz report – is back on the table.
On the schools front, the spotlight is shining once again on independent schools and their role in social mobility. There are passionate and valid views on both sides of the argument, but no clear way forward in terms of a policy approach that, in the cold light of day, is on the cards to be implemented. Ideological arguments aside, we still need to think what can practically be done to resolve this decades-old dilemma.
But it’s hasn’t all been déjà vu; there have been some important developments. Contextual admissions to universities – which the Trust has advocated for many years- is now much more widely accepted as a positive, recognising that potential is not always captured simply in grades. That itself is huge progress. The challenge now is how ambitiously contextual information is used to meet the stretching access targets set out by universities, with encouragement from the strong and purposeful Office for Students.
The evidence behind well-intentioned initiatives to address inequalities is also on the radar like never before, thanks among others to the work of the Trust’s sister charity the Education Endowment Foundation. The establishment of The Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education is also hugely welcome – but it will need more funding to prompt the step change in the evidence base we need.
Most notable on the change front is that the consensus on social mobility itself has broken down, with the Labour Party questioning the concept and pledging to replace the Social Mobility Commission with a body focused on social justice, something I wrote about in the summer. We have always seen social mobility and social justice as two sides to the same coin, and that individual opportunity is compatible with a concern around community and place (an important agenda that is gathering momentum).
So whatever we call it, we need to keep banging the drum for more action focused on helping those from poorer backgrounds to have good educational chances in life.
Among the 10 research reports we released this year with that very objective in mind, were studies looking at the makeup of our elites; the meteoric rise in private tuition; the impact of recent GCSE reforms on the attainment gap; and work on the social selectiveness of high performing state schools.
A priority for us in 2020 is on transforming more of our research into practical policy steps. Our well-received Mobility Manifesto lay the foundations for this. Fairer school admissions, provision for highly able students in state schools, expanding degree-level apprenticeships are all areas we want to look at more closely next year.
Alongside work to help change the system, we need to keep working on a practical level to provide opportunities for those who may not otherwise have them. We’ve done our part in 2019 by supporting, in partnership with universities, charities and corporates, 5,000 high potential, low and middle income young people each year. Next year will see us expanding provision into new areas – including into higher level apprenticeships – and into subjects and careers that are well positioned to cope with the challenges of the workforce of the future. Together, we hope to help more young people than ever before, especially in those areas of the country which are cold spots for opportunity.
There’s one other thing that is the same now as it was when I first joined the Trust: the unswerving dedication of people working in education to address the inequalities in our system. I would definitely include amongst them the great team at the Sutton Trust, as well as our volunteers, university and corporate partners, donors, and our outstanding alumni who give back in a variety of ways. Although progress is slow, without these heroic efforts it may well be that the gaps we see today would be even wider than they are; and each young person given a new opportunity is itself a big success story. That’s some important Christmas Cheer on which to end the year.