I’m delighted to be here today with you. And thanks Chris for that generous introduction.
Being gluttons for punishment my wife and I played golf yesterday at Royal Portrush, we kept wondering where Darren Clarke was to get us through this but of course he was in Chicago at the Ryder Cup – we had a really tough time. I sure am glad it’s Darren’s home course, not mine!
We had a better time at the Giant’s Causeway which is really worth seeing. But I was astonished to learn that these forty thousand columns had lain undiscovered until the late seventeenth century. It is amazing how we sometimes miss seeing things that should be obvious. During the eighties and nineties, you could have said that of declining social mobility in Britain.
I set up the Sutton Trust fifteen years ago – out of a sense of outrage at the waste of talent in Britain. I’ll give one example.
I visited by old school Reigate Grammar where all places were free when I was there. It was now 100% paying. Subsequent research has shown that before 1976 70% of independent day schools were principally state funded through the direct grant scheme and other local schemes.
Now social mobility is on the political map like never before. It is the biggest social issue of our time. It is a huge challenge. And it as much one for the independent school sector as it is for Government and wider society.
We all have a stake in ensuring that we make the most of the talents of every single young person in our country.
Today I want to share with you some of the progress we have made since I last spoke to this conference and the ideas we have to further improve social mobility.
First, let’s talk about progress made. Partly through our pioneering summer schools, access and widening participation are now properly debated in the universities sector, The proportion of state school students at Oxford, for example, which was 46% in 1997 when I founded the Sutton Trust is now 55%. It is 63% at Cambridge up from 52%.
The second area where there has been progress is in trying to break down the barriers between state and independent schools. I know that many of you are engaged in partnerships with local state schools on the curriculum, university access, sports and other activities. At the Sutton Trust we pioneered and co-sponsored with government many of the early partnerships.Some of you sponsor academies and free schools.
These are welcome developments. But they are far from being the solution that we need to break down the barriers between state and independent schools.
Before I say a little about how I believe we need to tackle social mobility, let me say a little about the scale of the problem. At the Sutton Trust, we have commissioned well over 100 pieces of research in the fifteen years we have been around. None has been more important than our documenting the scale of the social mobility challenge.
Anecdotal evidence suggested there had been a decline in opportunities for low and middle income children but it wasn’t until we commissioned the London School of Economics to look at social mobility in Britain that this decline was documented. The study showed shockingly that social mobility in Britain has declined significantly over the previous 30 years.
We also asked the LSE to do a comparative study. That showed that we in Britain together with the US have the lowest level of mobility of any developed country for which there is data. Put simply it is very difficult for children from less privileged backgrounds to move up in society and it is more difficult than it used to be.
These findings have had an enormous impact on the political debate in Britain. Now everyone talks about social mobility. When we held a summit in London in May on this subject, we heard from Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Michael Gove who all said improving social mobility was at the top of their agenda. But while there is now plenty of acceptance of the problem, far too little is being done to improve mobility.
LSE research suggests two main reasons for this reversal. Firstly we have high and increasing inequality and secondly increased educational opportunities have disproportionately benefited the better off. Earlier this year an OECD report showed that inequality in Britain has over the last 30 years increased faster than any other developed country and is one of the highest in the world. We got rid of academic selection in the 1970s and this has simply been replaced by social selection.
The result is that Britain has the most socially selective school system in the developed world according to an OECD study published just this month. Our selective universities and many of our professions are effectively closed to a large number of young people.
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
I think it is fair to say that state education has improved somewhat under successive governments. Standards of teaching, and school leadership, are better. There have been significant improvements in London schools, particularly for some ethnic communities.
But this isn’t good enough. Other countries, particularly in Asia, have improved faster. The UK languishes in 25th place in the OECD’s league tables for reading and in 28th place for maths.
This does not reflect the position of all our young people. When we look behind those figures, we can see a stark divide between those attending the best independent schools – which is a tribute to you – and many other schools. Our independent schools are rated by the OECD as the best in the world.
The converse is that there is no other country where the gap in performance between independent and state is as large as in this country. The major reason that independent schools are so good is that – according to research that we funded – they have far better qualified teachers than state schools and almost twice as many teachers per 100 pupils.
I know that academies – and other non-selective schools – are making a difference, especially in some poorer communities. Those that succeed do so because they have good teaching and to a lesser extent good leadership.
The OECD rates school leadership highly in the UK, but we still have a way to go to improve the quality of teaching in state schools. And while a good head is very important for a good school, good teaching is essential. So we need more good graduates teaching in the poorest communities, on a much larger scale than Teach First which I helped set up. It does excellent work, but only recruits 1 in 36 new teachers half of whom go onto careers outside teaching.
Even more important will be to improve the quality of the existing 440,000-strong workforce. Sutton Trust research shows that English schools could move into the world’s top five education performers within a decade if the performance of the least effective tenth of teachers were brought up to the average.
But while teaching and leadership are vital, they are not enough. We also have to address inequalities in our education system, which have a substantial social and economic cost. They prevent many of our children from non-privileged backgrounds from achieving their potential. Seven per cent of English pupils go to fee-paying schools. Despite bursaries, fee paying schools are out of reach to almost all other families. Another four per cent attend the remaining selective grammar schools, which draw just 2 per cent of children on free school meals. The top-performing comprehensives take just 6 per cent of their pupils from the poorest households. This compares to a free school meals average of 16%.
I believe we should address this inequality in three ways.
First, comprehensives should use ballots to determine admissions to urban secondary schools to ensure a social mix.
Second, grammar schools should select more fairly, reach out to able students from less privileged backgrounds and provide them with the extra help that better off pupils get.
OPENING UP THE INDEPENDENT SECTOR
But the third solution should be to transform the independent sector, ensuring that day schools recruit once again on merit rather than money, opening them up to a wider pool of talent.
The stark truth is that an independent day school student is 55 times more likely to win an Oxbridge place and 22 times more likely to go to a top-ranked university than a state school student from a poor household. I congratulate you on your successes. But behind such figures, this is a shocking waste of potential.
We need every able child in Britain to have access to an education that builds character and confidence, as well as the highest academic standards. Since the abolition of the direct grant scheme, and other local schemes, there have been various initiatives aimed at breaking down barriers between the state and independent sectors. The Conservatives introduced assisted places, which extended the bursaries that you already provided. I have already spoken about partnerships and independent schools sponsoring academies and free schools.
All these initiatives are worthy. But they won’t do more than drill a small hole in the barrier between the sectors. They are small-scale initiatives for a big-scale problem.
The danger here is that they have resulted in a spurious debate that something significant is being done when in reality, too little is being done.
It was because of my frustration with the status quo that between 2000 and 2007, I co-funded with the Girls’ Day School Trust, a pilot scheme at The Belvedere, an independent girls’ day school in Liverpool, replacing fees with admission based solely on merit.
Parents paid according to means, on a sliding scale. 70 per cent received help with fees; a third of pupils paid no fees. As an important part of the pilot, an outreach officer visited state primaries, informing them of the new opportunities and dispelling prejudice or misconceptions.
In the first year there were more than 360 applications for 72 places, compared to 130 before the scheme started. The entry procedures were selective but were designed to assess potential too. So, some allowance was made for the type of school the applicant attended and their home background. Verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests were introduced as well as the English and mathematics papers. With parents paying almost half the fees, the cost per pupil was less than at the average state school.
In their evaluations, Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson from Buckingham University found academic standards improved and it was a happy place to teach and for pupils of all backgrounds to learn. Smithers and Robinson concluded that: “Judged against its internal aims, Open Access at The Belvedere can be counted a great success. It has achieved its main objective of opening up the school to high ability children from low-income homes. They went on: “Open Access has shown how the important resource of independent schools could be incorporated into a national system.” Belvedere is still successful today as an academy, but it has also provided us with the blueprint for a national scheme.
A NATIONAL OPEN ACCESS SCHEME
More than 80 leading independent day schools would back such a state-funded scheme, which would benefit more than 30,000 able students, whose parents could not afford full fees. Nearly all those schools are represented here.
A national Open Access scheme would open independent day schools to all on a means-tested basis. Open Access membership would be voluntary, but only schools of sufficient academic quality would be admitted.
The only pressure would come from schools’ desire to educate able children from all backgrounds, and their need to compete with a new, dynamic sector drawing on a wider talent pool. Schools would retain their independence. I recognise that if you did not continue to control your admissions, syllabus and teacher recruitment, few of you would volunteer for change.
As state funds would be involved, there would be additional monitoring, but this should be relatively light touch. The Government accepts this now for outstanding state schools.
Admittance would be competitive, but the system of selection would be far more sophisticated than the old eleven-plus.
Fees for successful applicants would be charged on a sliding scale, with the richest paying full fees, and the poorest paying nothing, as at Belvedere. Assessment would take account of parents’ assets, as well as income, making it stricter and more efficient that Assisted Places. The state funding required would depend on the catchment area, but we estimate that around two-thirds of the cohort would receive some help with or full remission of fees, adding up to half of current fee income. This fees shortfall would come from the state but would be less per capita than a state school place. Once a full scheme was up and running, it would have a net estimated cost to the state of £180m a year.
And it would transform social mobility for highly able young people from low and middle income backgrounds.
THE POLITICAL CONTEXT
Open Access would require selective admissions, which the main parties oppose. However, the Coalition and Labour both agree that we should not abolish the remaining state grammar schools, even though just 2% of places are provided to pupils on free school meals. Indeed, the number of grammar school places expanded under Labour and is expanding under the Conservatives. We are not proposing to extend increase selection. Open Access would simply democratise existing selection.
The second objection is that all the places are not free. Of course, if the state wished to pay the full fees for all pupils, I wouldn’t object. But in these straitened times, I think that unlikely. So it makes sense to have a mix of funding that is based on ability to pay.
So I hope that the parties think again, and support Open Access in their manifestos for the 2015 election. Of course, after 15 years talking to the politicians, I’m a realist. I know that politicians respond to public pressure. I’m delighted that over 80 independent day schools have already signed up to Open Access.
You lead schools with a great tradition and a remarkable record of academic excellence. You all have charitable foundations, many of which were started to educate those from less well-off backgrounds. If we are to harness all the talents of all our young people, you must be enabled to do much more to reach them. As part of a wider programme to transform education, Open Access would transform social mobility at the top.
If you agree, I hope you will join us in making its case in the corridors of power. The best way you can do that is by joining the over 80 schools who have backed Open Access by signing up yourself. And together we can unleash the talents of tens of thousands of young people and enable them to make the fullest contribution to our economy and society.