"Criticising what works is no way to fix what doesn’t"

Posted on: 28 May 2016
Posted by: Mark Mortimer

Mark Mortimer, headmaster of Warminster School, adds his voice in responding to a cabinet minister's claims that job applicants should be asked if they went to private school.

This blog is in response to a Telegraph report that cabinet minister Matt Hancock has called for a system where companies should check the socio-economic background of job applicants, including where they went to school.

It is unclear why Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock wants to ask job applicants whether they went to private school.

Perhaps it’s just to grab a headline. However, it’s easy to interpret it as an unsubtle attack on independent schools and his phrase ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ sends a shiver down the spine. A governmental obsession with what is tangible is part of the problem. What is clear is that successive governments have had little positive impact on social mobility; heaven forbid that their focus is in the wrong place!

Undoubtedly, the national data on social mobility in the UK is depressing. Alongside the USA, Britain has the lowest level of social mobility of any developed country for which there is data. At the same time, having been on the decline for decades, wealth inequality has risen sharply in the past fifteen years.

Likewise, income inequality is high – and getting higher – in the UK and the evidence suggests that countries with more inequality tend to have less intergenerational mobility. Further evidence suggests that income and educational attainment are causally related.

The Sutton Trust has identified five factors that they believe correlate with intergenerational mobility: residential segregation, family structure, income inequality, social capital and quality of school. Meanwhile, in its 2014 report, ‘Cracking the code: how schools can improve social mobility’, the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission listed five key steps for schools to take, a list that includes a high expectations culture, incessant focus on the quality of teaching, preparing pupils for all aspects of life (and not just exams) and engaging with parents.

So, listed there are nine factors from two highly respected and knowledgeable organisations that they believe will kick-start social mobility. Funnily enough, asking daft questions to check the socio-economic background of job applicants isn’t one of them. What a surprise.

Look closely at those nine factors and then consider what independent schools do. The majority of them are what private schools have excelled at for years: high quality teaching, high expectations, a belief in the importance of what happens outside the classroom and regular communication with parents.

More than 90% of them now work in some form of partnership with state schools. Huge sums are spent on bursaries; the effect of this is that private schools are becoming increasingly socially diverse, in other words, breaking down residential segregation. Social capital, for example using parental contacts to secure work experience or offering useful advice about the most valuable subjects to study, is also then shared and developed.

Meanwhile, boarding schools offer constant routine and structure and can be of enormous benefit to children from difficult or disadvantaged family backgrounds. Let’s not overlook the fact that there are large numbers of such children thriving in British boarding schools (both private and state).

Social mobility is partly about raising pupils’ aspirations, but it’s also about showing them how to do it, that it can be done and encouraging others to try. This is where organisations such as the Springboard Bursary Foundation come in, with its emphasis on the pupils it selects to join boarding schools behaving as ambassadors in their home-town communities. It’s the power of role models and it’s working.

The government’s goal of making sure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed and make the most of their talents, whatever the circumstances of their birth, is the right one, but their plan for achieving it is not.

It’s a depressingly familiar headline-grabbing, gimmicky, short-term approach that takes a lazy and hackneyed swipe at the private sector. Criticising what works is no way to fix what doesn’t.

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About Mark Mortimer

Mark Mortimer is head of Warminster School, a coeducational day and boarding school in Wiltshire.