We need a relentless focus on closing the gap

For seven years, the Tories have shortchanged our education system – and our most disadvantaged students are being left behind as a result, writes Lucy Powell MP

Wasted talent, frustrated lives and a divided Britain. That is the result of a failure of successive governments to systematically improve social mobility. Now more than ever, with Brexit on the way, and a need for better skills and education for everyone to make it a success, boosting social mobility must be a national priority.

Today, in stark terms, the Education Policy Institute lays out the yawning gap in educational achievement between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. Persistently disadvantaged children – those on free school meals for 80 per cent of their time in secondary school – are further behind their better off classmates than they were ten years ago, and are now on average over two full years of learning behind their peers by the end of secondary school.

There has been very slow progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils (those who have been on free school meals at some point), with these children falling behind, on average, over two months each year over the course of their secondary school careers. According to the EPI it could take 50 years to eliminate the gap on current trends.

Forty per cent of the gap between poorer children and their peers exists pre-school and we know that in later life the gap looms large, with access to university and the professions also governed by birth and status not talent.

One of the positive results of the hung parliament, is that ministers have dropped plans to expand selective education, which would have made the education divide worse. Rather than the constant initiative-itis we have seen from government we now need a back-to-basics approach, focusing on what we know works to tackle the deep root causes of disadvantage.

We need a national mission to boost social mobility with a comprehensive cross-government social mobility strategy. We must devolve powers and responsibility to a local level, so that communities, alongside politicians and professionals can work together to tackle the root causes of disadvantage that stifle young lives.

Action must start pre-school with measures through pregnancy to school to support families; early intervention programmes to spot and target developmental problems and proper investment in high quality early education and care for all children which is proven to narrow the gap and ensure children are ready to learn. Extra support must be put in place to support children with SEND and looked after children so that these forgotten groups do not miss out.

We must enable all parents to help boost their children’s learning at home, so that parents are working with early years professionals and teachers, to give their child a strong foundation.

Secondary schooling poses a real challenge, as the EPI report shows. All schools must redouble their efforts to close the gap. Schools should be measured on how well they are eliminating the attainment gap through school, improving progress for all and for disadvantaged pupils the most. We must learn the lessons of Labour’s London Challenge and not squander the promise of opportunity areas with inadequate focus and resources.

Crucially, we will not achieve a world class education system, if we do not have enough excellent teachers. That means looking at how we can recruit the best and the brightest into teaching in areas of persistent low achievement, and it means looking at pay and conditions so that we can retain our excellent teachers everywhere. Teachers should get the respect and support they need to do this.

At all levels, we need adequate funding for our education system. We will not build an equal education system, that tackles inequality at all levels if there is not enough funding. Excellence should not be shortchanged. The Tories have failed to learn this lesson over the last seven years. That must change.

All parents are ambitious for their children to be happy and successful despite whatever challenges they face. Government should have the same ambition and ensure that no child is left behind.

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Lucy Powell is the Labour and Cooperative MP for Manchester Central. She tweets at @LucyMPowell

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