For once the media addressed the real issue in education. Unequal Opportunities, John Humphries documentary on education, asked what we can do to address the under-achievement of the poorest members of our society.
He did not suggest grammar schools or private education as the answer. Neither of these have ever taken many children from those on lower incomes. When they do it is on the basis of selection (either the 11 plus or through scholarships) and so the only poor children they admit are those that are already succeeding in the education system.
What about the rest? Humphries showed that there are good local schools who are transforming the experience for the poorest. He focused on two, one a standard local school (Phoenix) and one an academy (Mossborune). Both are local schools that demonstrate the potential for success – with inspirational leadership, great teaching and good investment - of the comprehensive system.
These two are the most spectacular in the results they achieve. But as William Atkinson, the head of Phoenix says “More schools are better than we are led to believe in the media”.
However is the decline in social mobility down to schools at all? Humphries touches on a possible answer when he explains how he left school at 15 and worked his way up from local papers to his current position at the BBC. “Try doing that today” he comments ruefully.
In the 1960s only around 5% of the population went to university and as a result a degree was only required for very few jobs. Those who did not succeed academically found there were plenty of opportunities for promotion into good jobs.
All that has changed. Graduation from university is a requirement in a huge range of jobs across the public sector and throughout big business. The result is that those who don’t succeed in the formal education system find it very difficult to fulfil their potential.
Here’s my proposal for increasing social mobility: Make it illegal to require a degree except where (as in, say, Medicine or Engineering) a specific need can be proven. It would instantly open up employment again and make it possible for people to succeed on the basis of their ability rather than the letters after their name.