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The Government has a number of policies it says will tackle educational disadvantage and ensure social mobility at all stages of education. These include the creation of new grammar schools, alongside support for non-selective schools; support for character education in schools; and various programmes and policies to support widening participation in further and higher education.

The grammar school proposals are highly controversial. The Government says grammars can be engines of social mobility and can also drive up standards in neighbouring non-selective schools, but opponents argue that increased selection will further disadvantage poorer children.

The Social Mobility Commission’s annual State of the Nation report was published on 16 November 2016. This concluded that Britain had a “deep social mobility problem which is getting worse”. It describes an “unfair education system” as one of the “fundamental barriers” to social mobility.[1]

The State of the Nation report called for (among other things), a rethinking of the government’s plan for more grammars and academy schools; more support for disadvantaged children in the early years; and the publication of social mobility league tables for universities.

Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2016 report

The Social Mobility Commission is currently chaired by ex-Labour MP, Alan Milburn. It published its annual State of the Nation report for 2016 on 16 November 2016.[2]

On education, the Commission concluded that there was an:

Entrenched and unbroken correlation between social class and educational success. Repeated attempts to reform the education system have not produced a big enough social mobility dividend.[3]

Key findings included:

  • In the last decade 500,000 poorer children were not school-ready by age five […]
  • Poorer children, who stand to gain most from high-quality childcare, are least likely to receive it […]
  • Just 5 per cent of children eligible for free school meals gain 5 A grades at GCSE […]
  • A child living in one of England’s most disadvantaged areas is 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child living in one of the least disadvantaged. […]
  • Funding is being diverted from second chance education in further education (FE) colleges to apprenticeships, which are often of low quality, in low-skill sectors and not linked to the country’s skill gaps. […]
  • Despite recent progress, for every child who goes to university from a family in the bottom two income quintiles, seven do not. […]
  • Youngsters cannot access higher education (HE) locally in many parts of the country […].[4]

The report’s recommendations on education include: 

In the early years

  • Introduction of new parental support package to support children falling behind.
  • A new target for every child to be ‘school ready’ by age 5, by 2025.
  • Double funding for the early years pupil premium (currently this is worth around £300 per annum).[5]

At school level:

  • Rethink the plans for more grammar schools and academies.
  • Set as the core mission reducing the attainment gap at GCSE by two thirds, within the next decade.
  • Mandate the ten lowest-performing local authorities to participate in improvement programmes.
  • Reform systems of teacher training and teacher distribution, and offer new incentives and better starting pay.
  • Require independent schools and universities to provide careers advice and other support.
  • “re-purpose” the National Citizen Service to offer work experience or extra-curricular activity.[6]

In further and higher education:

  • The development of a single UCAS-style portal over the next 4 years to help young people with choices about life after school.
  • Making schools more accountable for the destinations of their pupils.
  • Extending school sixth form provision, with schools given a role in supporting FE colleges to deliver the Government’s Skills Plan. The number of 16- to 18-year-old NEETs should be zero by 2022.
  • Scrapping ‘low-quality’ apprenticeships.
  • The publication of a new social mobility league table to encourage universities to widen access.
  • The extension of HE to parts of Britain that have little or no provision over the coming decade.[7]

Key Conservative Government policies

Key policy developments in relation to early years, schools, further and higher education include:

  • The proposed extension of the amount of free childcare available to qualifying working parents of 3- and 4- year olds, to 30 hours per term-time week.
  • The introduction, in April 2015 of the Early Years Pupil Premium, extra funding for disadvantaged 3 and 4 year olds accessing their free 15 hours of early education and care.
  • Proposals to lift the ban on new grammar schools in England, support the expansion of existing grammars, and allow non-selective schools to become selective in some circumstances.
  • Legislation before the House currently on further and higher education: the Higher Education and Research Bill and the Technical and Further Education Bill.

[1]     Social Mobility Commission, State of the Nation 2016, 16 November 2016, p. iii

[2]     Ibid

[3]     Ibid., p. iv

[4]     Social Mobility Commission, State of the Nation 2016, 16 November 2016, pp. xiv, xv,

[5]     Adapted from State of the Nation 2016, p. vii

[6]     Ibid., pp. vii-ix.

[7]     Ibid., pp. ix-x.

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