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Headmaster's Blog

Delivering social mobility through education

Education has long been recognised as vital to achieving social mobility. But despite successive governments committing to ensuring that a child’s life chances aren’t dictated by their starting point, troubling differences in the prospects of different sectors of our society remain. So, after many years of trying, what policies will actually deliver the change we seek?

One small but, I feel, significant scheme was recently announced by our neighbour Bristol University. Its Bristol Scholars scheme will open up the University to ‘high potential’ students from local schools and colleges, with selection based on their headteachers’ assessments of their ability and potential rather than their exam results. Here is an opportunity that can be truly life changing for students who perhaps never considered, or expected to go to, university.

The Government is also keen for independent schools to contribute more, encouraging them to share expertise, resources and facilities with state schools, and looking to them to open free schools in areas where more school places are required. This breaking down of barriers between the state and independent sectors would be a culturally significant change to our education system, which could benefit the whole of society, not just a section of it.

In response to the Government’s desire for a greater contribution from independent schools, the Independent Schools Council (ISC) suggested that up to 10,000 independent school places could be created for children from low income families. This would be part-funded by the £5,500 allocated for each child’s education in the state system, with the independent schools covering the rest.

However, to me the ISC proposal feels like tinkering with a system that is already failing to deliver true social mobility. Tweaking the system is likely only to tweak the outcomes it delivers. To achieve true change the Government needs to consider a more radical approach and not be held back by political dogma.

I would like to see our Government consider a voucher system, giving parents a voucher that they can ‘spend’ at the school of their choice. This would offer all parents a much wider and more genuine choice of school, rather than limiting it to a select few. This could be means-tested, automatically providing additional funding for children from lower income families. An ambitious plan like this could prove genuinely transformative for educational outcomes in this country and build upon the small but valuable initiatives already underway.  

Rod MacKinnon
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School