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Levelling the playing field and promoting social mobility through education

Written By: Jonathan Doherty
8 min read

Britain today is a divided nation. We see those divisions taking many forms: family income, social class, race, gender and across our regions. For too many young people – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – educational inequalities are barriers to social mobility which mediate against their achieving their full potential. Recent government reports (DfE, 2017) and research findings (EPI, 2017; Jerrim et al., 2018; SMC, 2017) show that despite some progress, the educational attainment gap between children from wealthy families and their more socially-disadvantaged peers remains stubbornly wide.

For this article, I will draw on Francis and Wong’s (2013) definition of social mobility. These writers define social mobility as movability based on individual merit and ability where anyone can go up the social ladder according to their achievements. For me, this expresses exactly the power that social mobility has to enrich lives for some young people, and how limiting it can be for others. Social mobility brings many benefits. It helps to build fairer and more inclusive communities and combats social exclusion. It promotes better employment, economic productivity, access to higher education and skills for lifelong learning (Jenkins et al. 2017; Woodfield et al., 2013).

Education is a driver of social mobility. Evidence shows, however, that it can not only replicate existing inequalities, but can also make them worse. Findings from The State of the Nation Report (SMC, 2017) show that in London, 51% of children who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) achieve A* to C in English and Maths GCSE, compared with an average of 36% in all other English regions. A common feature of local authority areas who perform in the lowest 10% for disadvantaged young people is that fewer children on Free School Meals attend secondary schools rated ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’, compared with those who attend ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ primary schools. Disadvantaged young people are almost twice as likely as their better-off peers to be NEETs (not in education, employment or training) a year after their GCSEs (SMC, 2017).

Recent government initiatives to improve social mobility have been suggested, for example, the 2017 report and action plan Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential proposed more school choice, new curricula and a revised exam system for schools. It remains, however, that we have not yet created sustainable pathways within our education system for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to flourish.

The class ceiling

Social class is the strongest predictor of life outcomes in this country. The first hurdle to social mobility appears early in the critical first years of a child’s life with early gaps in literacy ability. Washbrook and Waldfogel (2010) found a difference of 11.1 months between children from low-income and higher-income families.

This has an effect as those children enter formal education. Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Life Chances inquiry, said: ‘….children who start school with poor language skills are six times more likely to struggle with reading, and 11 times more likely to struggle with maths, at the age of 11. While home and family life are the biggest influence on a child’s language and skills development in their early years, high quality early years education can have a major impact in helping even the most disadvantaged children to compete with their better-off peers.’ (2018, p.3)

From a poor start, the next hurdles appear soon after. In Teach First’s 2017 report, Impossible, we learn that by age 11, 35% of pupils from low-income backgrounds achieve the expected standards in reading, writing and maths, compared with 57% of their better-off peers. In secondary school, only one in three teenagers from low-income backgrounds achieve five GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths, compared with twice as many teenagers from more affluent backgrounds. Author Ben Gadsby argues that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face significant challenges in breaking through what he calls the ‘class ceiling’ (p.4).

The Education Policy Institute (2017) reported that, at the current rate of progress, it would take 50 years to have an education system where disadvantaged students did not fall behind their peers in formal education to age 16.

The ‘class ceiling’ is not just about how young people perform at school, however, it also affects how long they stay in the education system and how they progress through it. Students from low-income backgrounds are one third more likely to drop out of education at age 16. In 2015, the report Background to Success found that white, working-class boys from poor neighbourhoods face a ‘double disadvantage’. Their low family income and place poverty reduces the likelihood of academic study after GCSE considerably.

Furthermore, the expansion of higher education in Britain has benefited those from more affluent backgrounds far more than poorer young people. There is a 1 in 1,500 chance of a young person from a less affluent family entering Oxford or Cambridge. Furthermore, just 24% of pupils eligible for FSM attend universities, compared with 42% of non-FSM students, and those from low-income backgrounds are less likely to complete their degrees (Gadsby, 2017).

International comparisons

There is much to be done. Britain is largely a socially immobile country, with one of the worst records of social mobility amongst OECD nations (Cabinet Office, 2011). The barriers to social mobility that disadvantaged young people in the UK face are greater than anywhere else in the world (OECD, 2014).

The most recent OECD report on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Equity in Education (2018), found 15-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds across OECD countries scored 88 points lower in science than their more advantaged peers. This, shockingly, is equivalent to three years of schooling. The Oxera and Sutton Trust report of 2017, Social Mobility and Economic Success, was clear that social mobility in the UK has stagnated in recent years.

What can be done?

There is cause for hope, however; disadvantage is not destiny. The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students has narrowed in many developed countries since the last PISA cycle in 2015. The OECD report Equity in Education (2018) delivered important lessons that inequality is not a fixed commodity and, with the right policies and practice, the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on educational achievement can be reduced. Strategies from more successful OECD countries include:

  • Having early access to early childhood education and care for disadvantaged families
  • Setting ambitious goals to monitor disadvantaged students’ progress
  • Targeting resources where most needed
  • Helping teachers identify and manage student needs
  • Having better communication with families
  • Implementing effective teaching and learning strategies in classrooms
  • The use of peer mentoring in supporting resilience.


In an earlier 2012 report, they acknowledged the significance of social mobility for OECD countries and made a number recommendations to promote equity. This included ideas for system-level change, such as managing school choice to avoid segregation and making funding strategies responsive to students’ and schools’ needs. They also got more granular and made school-level recommendations, including:

  • Strengthening school leadership
  • Providing a stimulating and supportive school climate and environments for learning
  • Attracting, supporting and retaining high-quality teachers
  • Implementing effective classroom strategies
  • Prioritising linking schools with parents and communities.


These are entirely relevant to the UK setting; we have learned lessons from abroad and developed various initiatives appropriate for our context.

The Government recognises the importance of early intervention and the need to provide funding and resources at this life stage. The current 15 hours of free childcare entitlement is aimed at narrowing the gap early, and more investment into early years is planned (around £6 bn per year by 2020) going into parenting schemes and home-support programmes for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) report, The Attainment Gap, in 2017 also recognised that Pupil Premium funding is a valuable support for senior leaders in raising the attainment of disadvantaged young people. Schools can make a real difference for disadvantaged children when activities are carefully planned with quality-first teaching at their heart and used throughout a school to provide early interventions.

With the Government’s 2019 Spending Review not far away and if the Pupil Premium continues after 2020, schools will need to show the difference it has made to justify the £12bn spent since 2011.

It’s also important to understand that day-to-day teaching must meet learners’ needs – you can’t rely on interventions to compensate for less-than-good teaching (see Henshaw, 2017). The Attainment Gap in 2017 echoes this, saying that good teaching for all pupils has a particular benefit for disadvantaged pupils. Indeed, when teachers use the kind of classroom strategies in the report, What Makes Great Teaching? (Coe et al., 2014), the effect is greatest on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Sutton Trust is dedicated to increasing opportunities for those from non-privileged backgrounds through a range of evidence-based programmes in schools. Its Teaching and Learning Toolkit and Early Years companion are summaries of educational research, developed in collaboration with the EEF, and cover over 11,500 studies. It’s being well used too: six in 10 secondary senior leaders report having used the Toolkit (Sutton Trust, 2017).

Some schools offer 50% extra learning time to disadvantaged pupils and summer camps for primary children to reduce summer learning loss. There are individual enrichment sessions for higher-attaining disadvantaged students in key stage 3. Teaching strategies – such as effective teacher modeling, questioning and discussion – are being used to improve the performance of high-attaining disadvantaged young people.

In terms of attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, we know that schools with the greatest disadvantage tend to have the least experienced teachers and vice versa (Best in Class, 2016). Initiatives like Teach Next and Future Leaders aim to change this, providing a pipeline of high-quality teachers into the poorest schools and supporting leadership development, while there has also been recent investment in STEM subjects and apprenticeships.

There has also been further work on improving links between schools and the communities they serve. Data from organisations like the Fischer Family Trust is now more easily shared with parents and can help in raising pupil aspirations. Government-funded programmes linked to Opportunity Areas aim to support the achievement of disadvantaged pupils.

Finally, within the higher education sector, there have been concerted efforts to improve admissions and break down social mobility barriers for 18-year-olds and beyond. There are now many more university summer schools and access programmes, such as the Sutton Trust’s Academic Routes (STAR) programmes.

Staying focused

Our lack of social mobility in the UK costs us considerably. Improving levels of social mobility for future generations in the UK would boost the economy up to £140 million a year by 2050 (Jenkins et al., 2017). Raising the educational outcomes of children from less educated families so their absolute test scores are in line with the UK average, but without reducing test scores of those from the most educated families, is achievable with shared commitment at policy and practice levels.

An equal playing field for everyone means eradicating the barriers to social mobility from an early age and giving every child opportunities in education to fulfil their potential, regardless of where they were born or their social circumstances. It is an imperative for social justice.

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