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Social mobility: is it all about pay reform?

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Social mobility is the kind of thing that politicians of all persuasions can easily sign up to: the idea that wherever you come from, you should have an equal chance to progress. Yet the truth is that this remains an aspiration rather than a reality in our country. All too often, demography defines destiny.

This government has taken steps to close the gap between less advantaged pupils and their peers. The introduction of a pupil premium to support pupils on free school meals was a step in the right direction. However, there's more to be done. Last month, I went to see Alan Milburn, chair of the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, speak about the role of education in promoting social mobility.

The presentation opened with a series of depressing statistics. At present, children in the most deprived parts of the country are over 20% less likely to attend a 'good' or 'outstanding' secondary school than those in the least deprived areas. Around 36% of children in deprived areas are taught in secondary schools that require improvement or are inadequate.

Mr. Milburn then suggested reforms that the next government could make to ‘narrow the gap’. His policy proposals focused on encouraging our best teachers to work in disadvantaged schools via enhanced opportunities for pay and progression.

He talked about the introduction of a ‘teacher premium’ which would offer 2,000 of the best teachers a 25% pay uplift if they agree to teach in a challenging school. Under his plans, the national pay framework for teachers would also be broadened to include new pay bands for teachers working in deprived areas.

The coalition’s recent wrangling over the School Teacher Review Body’s proposed pay rise for teachers suggests pay reform is a tricky subject, not least because it remains unclear how it would be funded.  However, we are in election campaigning season, so explaining how an aspirational policy would be funded isn’t exactly in vogue at present.

Still, there are a number of issues to consider in relation to Mr. Milburn's pay reform proposals. First, there would be the problem of determining objective criteria to decide which schools are given the opportunity to offer such incentives. Second, there comes the question of what happens when these schools and their surrounding areas improve and develop.

School improvement and regional gentrification are gradual processes. Pay decisions are permanent. Revising the national pay framework for teachers to accommodate regional recruitment priorities could prove incredibly problematic for school pay budgets.

Mr. Milburn also lobbied for the introduction of a fast stream to get teachers into senior leadership positions quickly. Under the scheme, participants would be expected to spend some time teaching at a disadvantaged school. Yet sustainability may be a sticking point here. It is questionable to what extent parachuting aspiring leaders into struggling schools on a fixed-term basis would engineer actual school improvement over a long-term basis.

Even so, Mr. Milburn's proposals emphasise the critical role teaching plays in promoting social mobility. Any measures that can be taken to get more good teachers into struggling schools to help poorer pupils achieve better outcomes should be welcomed.

Further reading to help

Members of The Key for School Leaders can read our article on how to recruit outstanding teachers. We also have an article which links to training resources on narrowing the gap, and a group of articles which look at how the pupil premium can be used to support learning.

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