Ruby Nightingale, Communications and Public Affairs Officer at the Sutton Trust, reports on the APPG on social mobility’s inquiry on the regional attainment gap and sets out how we might close it.

Following its successful inquiry into the barriers to accessing the top professions, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility launched its latest inquiry in November 2017. This would examine the gap in school attainment between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their classmates and why this gap is more pronounced in different parts of the country. The inquiry looked at what efforts have been made to close these gaps, and what we can learn from best practice across the country.

A wealth of research, including the Sutton Trust’s Mobility Map, shows how social mobility levels vary across the country. And it’s not simply a difference between north and south; instead we see significant variations between regions, and even between constituencies and postcodes.

One of the main drivers of these variations is differences in educational attainment, particularly for disadvantaged pupils. While recent research suggests that the attainment gap is narrowing, at its current rate we are still over 40 years away from closing it, and the narrowing that is taking place is happening unevenly across the country. In particular, London has been pulling away from the rest of the country when it comes to the achievement of those from less well-off backgrounds. Schools in the capital seem to be more successful in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, despite having a higher proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals compared to many other regions. But what can we learn from London’s turnaround and similar localised efforts across the country?

A sense of place

In December 2017, the government published its Social Mobility Action Plan. Narrowing the attainment gap was one of the key ambitions outlined in the plan. But equally important was the overarching ambition of the plan – ‘no community left behind’, focusing on places where resources are needed the most. This reflects the importance of a sense of place, something that is becoming increasingly popular in recent education policy. Initiatives such as Opportunity Areas, Research School networks and the Northern Powerhouse are all being used to improve social mobility in areas of the country that have traditionally had less focus from central government.

Understanding the unique context of an area is crucial to understand what is driving the attainment gap in that particular region, and how to narrow it. The London Challenge has been central to the transformation of London schools, and is often cited as the reason that London now has some of the best schools in the country. The inquiry heard that the initiative was successful because it understood the unique local needs of London and brought together local players. Throughout the inquiry it emerged that understanding local challenges, drivers and key players is vital to securing local buy-in to central government initiatives, which in turn is key to the success of these programmes.

The importance of collaboration

Given the challenges facing disadvantaged young people across the country, collaboration both within places and between places is vital to closing the attainment gap. A key theme that emerged from the evidence submitted to the APPG was the necessity for collaboration at a local level, across schools, local government, and local communities and businesses. But equally important was collaboration between regions. The inquiry heard repeatedly that sharing best practice consistently and widely is challenging, with no clear mechanism available by which best practice can be shared. To close the attainment gap across the country, areas and regions that are successful in narrowing the gap should be able to easily share what they have learnt, to build a range of well-evidenced approaches on what works.

Teacher recruitment and retention

Evidence suggests that the most important factor affecting the attainment of disadvantaged young people is the quality of teaching. Yet disadvantaged young people are more likely to be taught by teachers who are less experienced and have lower qualifications. The inquiry heard that recruitment and retention of teachers is a bigger challenge in areas with high levels of deprivation, despite these areas being where disadvantaged young people would benefit the most from high quality teaching. The government’s new teacher and recruitment retention strategy has been welcomed by the APPG, but if we are to close the attainment gap across the country, more needs to be done to ensure that experienced and qualified teachers are working in the most deprived areas.

Early years

To give young people the best chance of success in life, it is vital to tackle gaps early. Research by the Sutton Trust has long showed the importance of highly quality early years education, and this was a key theme highlighted throughout the inquiry. Issues were raised around the closure of children’s centres and the lack of well-qualified practitioners. The government’s 30 hours free childcare policy, which has seen a shift in focus from good quality early years education to providing childcare to enable parents to work, appears to be negatively impacting the quality of early years settings. The importance of early years education must not be overlooked in closing the gap, and early interventions are key.

National policies in a local context

Breaking the link between social background, geography and educational success will require a combination of both local and national initiatives. At the local level it is vital to increase collaboration between schools, local authorities and universities, with a particular focus on social mobility coldspots.

Nationally, the APPG have highlighted the need improve teacher recruitment and retention in deprived areas. The APPG also recommends repurposing the Pupil Premium into a new ‘Social Mobility Premium’, which can be used for professional development and extra support for teachers. The importance of high-quality early years education must also be recognised by government, and both the APPG and the Sutton Trust are calling for the government to complete its review of the children’s centre programme.

The same opportunities should be available to all young people, regardless of where they grow up. Early years education and the school years have a significant impact on the life chances of a young person, so if we are to improve social mobility across the country, it is crucial that we focus our efforts on closing the attainment gap.

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