Is education the answer to social mobility? - Speech by Stephen Twigg

11 July 2012

Stephen Twigg- Check Against Delivery -

Stephen Twigg MP, Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, said:


Ten years ago this week, I was the Schools Minister and I gave the sign off on the decision to back Teach First- or Teach for London, as it was then. It is one of the fondest recollections from my time in government. To have played a small part in this wonderful journey and to see Teach First go from strength to strength is fantastic.

This week has become a bit of a Teach First themed week for me.

I spoke at the Teach First reception in the Speakers House in Parliament last night.

Three things struck me at the event last night.

First, the depth of cross party support for Teach First. Although set up under Labour, Teach First has received cross party support over the past decade. And long may that continue.

Second, the need for Teach First and others to challenge low expectations that do, sadly, still exist.

Brett recounts a story that presses home the depressing reality that exists in a small minority of schools. On a visit to a school in a deprived area, he was told by a teacher that the school couldn’t, to quote, “turn coal into diamond”. Great progress has been made in challenging this kind of thinking but there is much more to do to address schools, and indeed parents, who set the bar too low for their children. Teach First has gone some way to addressing this poverty of aspiration that inhibits social mobility.

Third, the real and life changing impact that comes from excellent teachers.
Haengeun Chi is the Head Girl at Burlington Danes Academy. She recounted her story of arriving in England from South Korea, with limited English and her daily struggle to see it through the school day. She eloquently spoke of the inspiration she had taken from her Maths teacher and how her teacher had equipped her with the confidence and determination to realise her dream of studying to become a professor of Mathematics, as she applies for her place at university.

In coming onto the question ‘Is education the answer to social mobility?’ I want to say a resounding yes. Education is one part of the answer. But of course, as Ed Miliband set out in his speech to the Sutton Trust in May, education is only one part.

Providing rigorous and high standard pathways, both what we have traditionally termed academic and vocational, is critical when addressing the supply side needs of the modern economy. You will all be familiar with Alan Milburn’s work in this area. The professions, as he terms them, remain restricted to the few, not the many.

This is not to say that progress has not been made.

We have seen a narrowing of the attainment gap at GCSE. We know that family background had less influence on GCSE results in 2006 than it did in 1986.

This did not come about by chance. Through a twin track investment and reform programme, Labour in government started to turn the ship. From a radical programme in Early Years in Sure Start to pioneering freedoms and flexibilities for schools, we started to see shifts in attainment by the most disadvantaged.

We know that what makes the biggest difference to the educational outcomes in classrooms is the teaching and leadership in the schools. Research from the Sutton Trust has shown that the difference between excellent and poor teachers equates to a whole years worth of learning. Professor Dylan Wiliam from the Institute of Education has shown 8 per cent of performance in schools is down to the governance structure, while 80 per cent is down to the quality of teaching.

So we have to absolutely focus in on the levers at our disposal, when there is less money to go around, to raise the ambitions again for the best generation of teachers that we have ever had. I think there is much that politicians and policy makers can learn from best practice at home and abroad and I will be fleshing out my thinking on this crucial area as we progress with the Labour Party’s Policy Review process.

I want to touch briefly on the debate on pathways. I believe that the needs of the modern economy do not delineate into academic versus vocational or vice-versa. The education system needs to equip young people with a broad skills set, rooted in rigour, fit for the jobs and social challenges of the future.

That I why I have published proposals to raise the emphasis that we place on developing speaking skills. Because whether you become a teacher, a self-employed tradesman, a technician or an aspiring master of the arts, you are going to need to be able to converse with the confidence that is too often the currency and preserve of those who have benefited from a private education. It is my view that what is good enough for privately educated children, is good enough for all children.

On the demand side, we are seeing an economy contracting and fewer opportunities for young people who are not in education, employment or training.

Ed Miliband said in his speech on social mobility in May: “We need to improve the supply and range of skills. But that is not the whole answer. Just as the debate about social mobility has focussed too much just on University education, so too the debate has focussed too much on educational qualifications to the exclusion of what is happening in our economy.”

This point is all too often over-looked in the debate on social mobility.

So whilst there is a need to build on the education system to equip young people with the skills and knowledge that they need to compete for jobs in a service led, international labour market, we too need the economic conditions in which to foster greater innovation and job creation.

We have an economy not working for working people. We need to challenge the assumptions which have produced an economy like this. And as Ed has said, we need a modern industrial strategy to help our firms and sectors compete on the basis of high-value, not low pay.