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25 February 2012

Social Mobility in Education

Tag(s): Education

This month I stepped down as an independent Governor of the University of Bedfordshire after serving the maximum allowed two terms of three years. To serve more would take a change of articles and that is a decision for the Privy Council so it was never going to happen! In that time the University has been transformed from the University of Luton which had been struggling to throw off some image issues, had only recently returned to financial surplus, had revenues of about £40 million and 8,000 students. After merging with the Bedford campus of De Montfort University in 2006 the new University of Bedfordshire was created and now has more than 24,000 students with revenues in excess of £130 million. It is in the process of £180 million investment in its estate and is one of the healthiest universities in the country from a financial perspective.

Much of this success can be attributed to its excellent Vice Chancellor, Professor Les Ebdon CBE who has demonstrated managerial skills that would not be out of place at the top of a global corporation. Professor Ebdon will be retiring this summer but this week has been appointed to be the new Director of the Office for Fair Access. This is a government appointment but has been the subject of some controversy with criticism coming from members of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee who apparently were not impressed with the manner in which Professor Ebdon answered their questions.

Les himself was brought up on a council estate in Hemel Hempstead but was able to win a scholarship to the local grammar school and from there won a place at Imperial College, London. He passionately believes in the transformative power of university education. I have shared the platform with him at numerous graduation ceremonies over which I have presided and heard him deliver this message on many occasions. I have no doubt that he will zealously pursue this mission following a policy of enabling able students to get the best possible education, whatever their background. Once the rhetoric and dogma is torn away this I believe has been the policy of all major parties for many years.

However, while Les’s remit will be confined to overseeing the actions and policies of Universities much of the problem starts earlier in life and may be already set in place at school. Social mobility has worsened over recent generations and there is a case to be made that it was the policy of closing the grammar schools, the sort that Les himself attended, that pulled up the drawbridge for children from poorer families.

I myself won a scholarship from Cheshire Local Education Authority to Manchester Grammar School (MGS) when it was a Direct Grant Grammar School.  MGS was founded in 1515 and from its beginning the school provided education for free. In 1865 its charter was altered to allow the admission of fee paying boys but still 200 of its pupils did not have to pay. Under the 1944 Education Act Direct Grant Grammar Schools were introduced. Such schools were selective and were partly funded by the state and partly through private fees. One quarter of the places were directly funded by central government with the rest attracting fees, some paid by the Local Education Authority and some by private pupils


Quoting Wikipedia “The archetype of the direct grant grammar school was the largest, Manchester Grammar School, whose High Master from 1945 to 1962, Eric James (elevated to the peerage in 1959), was an outspoken advocate of the "meritocracy". In 1968 the school sent 77% of its boys on to university, a rate surpassed only by the independent Winchester College.” I was one of those boys who went to university in 1968, indeed about half of that number went to Oxford or Cambridge and more than half of them, a fifth of the original intake, won scholarships or exhibitions. When three of my fellow pupils won places at Oxford or Cambridge and turned them down I was so surprised that I interviewed them for the school newspaper. When asked the reason one said “For kicks” while another preferred to stay in Manchester because of his social life. But for the rest of us it had been a normal part of our expectations that we would go to University and aim at Oxford or Cambridge.

I never really thought about the backgrounds of my fellow students as we all wore the same uniform and most came to school by train or bus. It was only when one was invited to a birthday party at someone’s home that one realised how varied the backgrounds actually were. The founders of the school understood that in the sixteenth century and it had been maintained in principle throughout its life.

But then in 1974 the newly elected Labour Government abolished the direct grant which was phased out by 1976. Some schools closed, some, particularly the Roman Catholic ones, found a home as LEA schools but the rest became independent fee-paying schools. This was the route taken by MGS although for some years it provided bursaries for eligible and deserving boys.

But after a few years the money was running out and for the first time in its near 500 year history it might have to close its doors to eligible boys. The then High Master, Dr Martin Stephen launched a campaign to Re-found the school, an extraordinary vision. He set a target of raising £20 million. I was so moved by his appeal that I wrote what for me was the largest such cheque I had hitherto written though tiny by the standards of others. Nevertheless Dr Stephen invited me back to the school for lunch “to see for myself whether they were in fact doing the things I thought they were doing.” I found myself back in the High Master’s Study which I had only previously visited in very different circumstances! Dr Stephen gave me lunch there and then we toured the school to show me what had changed from my day. One thing I noticed was that it was much more racially diverse than in my day thus reflecting society at large.

Dr Stephen went on later to be High Master of St Paul’s School in London where he set out to perform the same feat. He retired last year and that has brought a sense of freedom including the freedom to be a little more frank particularly about some of the parents he has encountered.[i]The concept of the tiger mother has emerged in China but Dr Stephen says they can be found here too. One father, in all seriousness, complained vociferously that he had not asked the police to close the adjoining main road while his son sat his GCSEs. He thought the traffic noise might be a distraction.  Another parent wrote that a boy was in despair as his first choice of university had turned him down, and this was the worst thing that had ever happened to him even though he had offers from two excellent universities. The problem was resolved a day later when a delighted but rather sheepish young man put his head round the door and said: “I’m really sorry my mum’s written to you, sir. She really wants me to go to that university, but I don’t, actually. I’m far happier with the one that has offered me a place.” He then paused for a moment, exasperation and love of his mother competing on his face, and added: “She’s a bit over the top sometimes, sir, but, honestly, she’s really rather nice.”

Dr Stephen also recounts examples of parents in denial. The ones who say they are best friends with their son, when what their son wants is not such embarrassment but instruction not to stay on Facebook till 3am. Or the ones who say their son never tells a lie to which Dr Stephen response is have him stuffed and sent to the Natural History Museum as a unique creature- the one human being who never lied.

For Dr Stephen the best parents are often world weary about their children, as witnessed by the initial response of the mother of one of the loveliest families he has known. “Oh God!” she said, when hearing her son’s head teacher on the phone. “What’s the little bugger done now?” “Well, actually he will be captain of school next year.”

His favourite parent brought his 11-year old son to sit a scholarship exam. “Dad,” the boy said, what will you do if I pass?” “Well,” said the father, “I’ll probably give you a hug and take you fishing.” Pause. Long pause. “Dad? What will you do if I …fail?” Pause. “Well, “said the father, “I’ll probably give you a hug and take you fishing.”

Dr Stephen’s advice to parents? “The real trick in parenting is to produce a young person who can lead a full life without you. Don’t try to live your child’s life for them”.

And the lesson for those who want to see greater social mobility? Provide the chances at every level, not just university. But understand that without good parenting some of the best candidates may still not get the chance. At least while we can produce educators like Les Ebdon and Martin Stephen some of us, or rather our children, or rather their children, have a chance.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

[i]Lessons in letting go  Dr Martin Stephen The Sunday Times 14.08.11

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