School improvement is reducing social mobility

Social mobility, or rather evidence of the increasing lack of it, is rarely out of the news. In my book, ‘Learning Matters‘ and elsewhere on this website I argue that, ‘there is no gap’.

Does this mean I am admitting to having been wrong? – Yes and no.  Yes, I agree with Peter Saunders, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Sussex, when he argues that much of what the political class, especially on the left, believes about social mobility in this country is either false or more complicated than they think. It is true that poor school attainment and the resulting limited social and career mobility is strongly linked with social class and relative affluence. But this is not a causal relationship. Saunders maintains that academic attainment and therefore also social mobility is driven by general intelligence, and that British society is, in fact, strongly meritocratic, meaning that those individuals with talents and ability (including intellectual ability) can and do, to a considerable extent, succeed.

In ‘Learning Matters‘ I explore this premise through my case study of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney. This school, and the London Borough of Hackney in which it is situated, are the source of the data that are needed to test the widely held assumption that academic attainment at school is significantly constrained by social class and relative poverty. This is because, early in Y6, all children in Hackney primary schools take Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs). These data are primarily used to drive the Hackney ‘fair banding’ system, which I analyse and discuss in detail in Part 4 of my book.

I am able to conclude from real data about actual schools and cohorts of pupils, that in a good all-ability comprehensive school such as Mossbourne Academy and perhaps also in schools in some other ‘Academy Chains’ where CATs based admissions are used, the meritocratic link between academic success and general intelligence (as measured by the CAT) remains strong regardless of social class and poverty factors.

Is this an argument that supports Academisation of the English education system? It is not. See the work of Henry Stewart set out on Local Schools Network.

Is it an argument that supports ALL the teaching methods employed in Academy Schools, including Mossbourne Academy? It is not. See the ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit‘ researched by the Education Endowment Foundation. See also international evidence from PISA and especially my article about the importance of mistakes to deep learning.

In February 2017 an article in the Independent addressed this issue in relation to recruitment to the ‘Civil Service Fast Stream’, the traditional route towards employment in the top echelons of Whitehall. In 2014, less than five percent of successful applicants had parents with manual occupation backgrounds. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty (SMCP) Commission monitors the progress of government and others in improving social mobility and reducing child poverty in the United Kingdom. It regularly produces ever more alarming data on the decline in social mobility, as does the Sutton Trust.

Matthew Hancock, the Cabinet Office Minister stated:

“Inequality Matters. Countries with higher income inequality have lower levels of social mobility. It’s harder to climb the ladder of opportunity if the rungs are further apart. We’re going to put more rungs in the ladder.” I am sure he is right about this.

So what is the real cause of this decline in social mobility? A clue lies in the fact that this issue has clearly NOT  been addressed by the spectacular growth in headline GCSE results in the past three decades. Could this ‘spectacular growth’ in school exam performance be the problem rather than the solution?

Some insights into a possible mechanism can be found in my 2011 article in Forum, which is about a school which was widely acclaimed and celebrated at the time for its astonishing degree of ‘school improvement’.

To understand the significance of this article we have to revisit various concepts of ‘intelligence’, a concept that many on the left are uncomfortable with.  Saunders argues that the upward mobility of economically disadvantaged groups in society is in general frustrated not by discrimination and prejudice but by relatively low general intelligence.  Although this is a shocking assertion to many, there is no doubt that it is true in terms of the records of Cognitive Ability Test Scores (CATs) related to Free School Meals data of hundreds of thousands of children collected over many decades by reputable testing bodies. It is also true that expensive taxpayer funded social programmes such as Sure Start do not raise levels of general intelligence and therefore do not improve social mobility. It is hard to argue with if general intelligence is fixed at birth. But what if it is not?

The following arguments are based on the validity of general intelligence. My book deals with the arguments for and against this concept, but with the qualification that such general intelligence is not fixed at birth through genes nor necessarily permanently constrained in infancy by upbringing, but is plastic. ‘Plastic Intelligence’ means that cognitive ability and level of cognitive sophistication can be permanently changed through perception/experience combined with the right sort of teaching/learning.

‘Plastic’ general intelligence is a significantly different concept to ‘fixed intelligence conferred at birth’. It opens the door to the development of the intellect of all children (and indeed adults) through good quality education.

In an email to me of March 2012 the late Professor Philip Adey wrote the following:

“you are right about the intelligence problem; the left are frightened by it and the right give it too much credence. I have been trying to argue for years that once you accept that general intelligence is plastic, it ceases to be the bogey-man ushering in racism etc. and becomes a great opportunity.”

 This ‘opportunity’ is the central theme of ‘Learning Matters’  together with the disastrous consequences for the education system of failing to recognise its importance.

My central argument, supported by data from real school case studies, is that since the 1988 Education Reform Act our schools have been driven by league table competition in the opposite direction to teaching for cognitive development and this has impeded the development of cognitive powers in our pupils.

Whereas it is the least able that stand to gain the most from improvements in their cognitive ability it is these pupils that have been most likely denied such opportunity on account of suffering degraded teaching at KS1, KS2 and KS4 as teachers have been forced to pursue the SATs L4 and the GCSE ‘C’ grade results needed for the survival of their schools, above all other educational considerations.

By compelling schools to be subject to a market in school choice, exercised by parents on the basis of simplistic school performance indicators in the context of privatised examination boards competing to sell their exams, curriculum and teaching methods have become degraded resulting in a significant real decline in educational standards despite the illusion of school improvement. The irony is that the 2010 Conservative-led coalition government under Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove had, unlike his New Labour predecessors, recognised this decline but Gove and his successor have been ideologically and disastrously blind to its causes.

Much current teaching in schools that is commonly believed by the government to be ‘good’ is in fact ‘bad’ because it is ‘teaching to the test’ and does not result in cognitive growth.

Why is this? It is a consequence of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that now dominates the English Education system. GERM  drives the replacement of teaching methods that develop cognitive ability by those methods that are most effective in meeting the narrow exam performance criteria needed to drive a market in school choice. In the English system this means the high stakes SATs L4 and GCSE C grades that have been artificially and arbitrarily chosen as performance indicators for parents to choose schools. GERM favours ‘behaviourism’.

Cognitive development is secured through ‘developmentalism’. Cognitive gains are achieved through a teaching and learning culture that celebrates mistakes. This approach is maligned in the DfE promoted GERM culture as ‘progressivism’ and is being discouraged in our schools.

Not all pupils in all schools suffer from being deprived of the ‘deep learning’  opportunities offered through cognitively developmental teaching. Mossbourne Academy and other ‘fair banded’ schools have genuinely all-ability intakes. It is rare for LA schools to benefit from such admissions systems. The exception is in Hackney where there is an LA wide CATs driven admissions system that includes both LA schools and Academies within the same system administered by the LA through the ‘Hackney Learning Trust’.

The high stakes pressure on schools to meet ‘threshold standards’ in terms of GCSE ‘C’ grades including English and maths is lower in such schools (although not entirely absent) because there are sufficient cognitively able pupils admitted to justify teaching them properly.

It is schools without banded admissions systems located in areas characterised by low average cognitive ability that cannot afford the luxury of rich, cognitively challenging teaching because they are continuously threatened by the floor targets and the OfSTED judgements that are driven by GCSE ‘C’ grade performance indicators.

Such secondary schools are likely to be fed by primary schools under the same high stakes pressure to produce a sufficient proportion of L4+ SATs results. This is likely to be so pressing an issue for such primary schools that they have to prioritise SATs L4 at the expense of L5+ for the minority of their more able pupils. The SATs results distribution for such schools is likely to peak at L4a, if they are lucky, with this achieved through a strong dose of behaviourist teaching, cramming and various other incentives during Y6. Henry Stewart has shown that the secondary schools to which such pupils progress are far more likely to be accused of being subject to OfSTED criticism for ‘coasting’ purely as a result of misapplied DfE statistics. The result is that the same pupils forced to endure behaviourist cramming in their primary schools will receive the same behaviourist pedagogic diet in the classrooms of their secondary schools without ever experiencing anything better.

Such pupils, often from poor working class homes, are ‘on average’ likely to have entered primary schools with some relative cognitive development deficits. Such pupils are therefore most in need of cognitively developmental teaching methods, but will be the least likely to get them, because it will be more important to the school to subject them to the behaviourist cramming needed for the school to jump the SATs L4 hurdle needed to fend off closure or forced Academisation.

The sorry process is then repeated in their secondary schools. Now GCSE ‘C’ grades are all important, so cognitively developmental teaching again goes out of the window. The result is Y11 leavers that have experienced an entire statutory state education of cognitively stultifying behaviourism. They are likely to reap not just restricted opportunities for social mobility but also the general alienation and disaffection that goes with it. This is a recipe for the creation of an angry cognitive underclass of young people in the economically deprived parts of increasingly unequal country.

It follows that the greater the degree of ‘school improvement’ that these pupils have been subjected to from age 4 to 11, the greater the cognitive damage they are likely to have experienced.

What about ‘good’ school improvement such as that achieved through the much celebrated ‘London Challenge’? For me the jury is out. We know the London Challenge has worked much better than Academisation in maximising GCSE ‘C’ grade outcomes. One reason is that co-operation between schools and their teachers is much better than competition. But has it also produced enthusiastic school leavers whose impressive GCSE portfolios really reflect the deep learning that drives social mobility? I certainly hope so.

What about the next version of DfE school accountability? Will the replacement of %5+A*-Cs  by ‘Best 8’ combat the ‘teaching to the test’ culture? This remains to be seen. Best 8 is still based on GCSE ‘C’ grade targets, so again, I have my doubts. At the end of Y11 these pupils may have accumulated lots of C grade GCSEs, but often only just. It is the pupils that have made sufficient cognitive progression to secure A/A* grades that are likely to take A levels in STEM subjects and progress to Russell Group Universities and Oxbridge. Such pupils are more likely to be found in the banded Academies, selective schools and comprehensive schools that serve affluent catchments, that have the freedom from OfSTED and league table threats that enables them to teach in a cognitively developmental manner

This is why our marketised education system is the true cause of declining social mobility. The unrelenting pressure for school improvement constantly inflates GCSE ‘C grade’ pass rates. The DfE claims its policies are working, but the education system becomes increasingly fragmented as the decline in social mobility accelerates. This ‘closed loop’ circularity results in the inevitable prescription from the GERM inspired government and the various hand-wringing think tanks: far more such school improvement (that has caused the problem) is obviously needed!

Compare this ‘closed loop’ circularity with the medical practice of ‘bloodletting’. This frequently led to the death of the patient either directly through the loss of blood or indirectly because the blood loss so weakened the natural systems that the patient succumbed to the true agent causing the illness. Despite continuously poor outcomes, ‘bloodletting’ continued as a medical practice for more than 1500 years.  As late as 1942, a medical textbook considered bloodletting appropriate treatment for pneumonia. A ‘closed loop’ culture resisted any proper analysis of outcomes. If a patient survived the doctor would say, “Boodletting cured him”. If not, the explanation was also clear. The patient must have been extremely ill if the wonder cure of bloodletting did not work.

Or else, “We did not take enough blood”.

 Refer also to the following links.

A step by step way forward

 Teaching to the test

The unintended consequences of the school testing regime, by Professor Alastair Sharp

Coasting Schools – the DfE marches blindfold across a statistical minefield

Why do educational standards fall following marketisation?

The bucket theory of learning and behaviourism

Why schools should encourage slow thinking

Closing the Gap

The Slow Education Movement


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3 Responses to School improvement is reducing social mobility

  1. “Saunders argues that the upward mobility of economically disadvantaged groups in society is in general frustrated not by discrimination and prejudice but by relatively low general intelligence” – this part resonated with me as I’m pretty sure my general intelligence was through the floor by the end of formal education. Now I see your description, it seems this is what I was trying to express here for SOSS:


  2. Leah – Thank you for this. This is what you say in your link.

    ” Amend school accountability so our wonderful teachers are free to honor what each student truly cares about bringing to this world. By not forcing social mobility, but fanning what’s already there, the result will be social mobility.”

    What a difficult subject this is. It sounds as if I am saying that ‘thick’ people deserve to be left to rot at the base of the social pile because they are thick. No wonder this can appear to be offensive. You are helping me to be clear that what I am really saying is that all of us, wherever we score on an IQ type test at any moment in time, have a right to be intellectually and morally challenged through quality teaching that engages us as learners deeply in the process and results in our cognitive growth. As you say, forcing ever more school students onto the treadmill of cramming for C grade GCSEs does indeed frustrate and inhibit their social mobility.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Educational Lysenkoism is blighting the English education system | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

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