A Thousand Flowers Wilt?

James Turner suggests that more coherence in social mobility programmes would benefit everyone

One of the privileges of working at the Sutton Trust is the chance to meet people who have been inspired to dedicate their working lives to improving educational opportunity. Many have given up more conventional (and high paying) careers and taken the risk of setting up new programmes to make their ideas a reality.

Over its fifteen year history the Trust has funded many of these. In the last year, we are proud to have supported the start up of The Brilliant Club, which uses PhD students to tutor non-privileged pupils, and to provide seed corn funding to Spire Hubs, which harnesses the expertise of retired teachers for the cause of social mobility.

Many of the small projects we helped to support in the past have now blossomed into significant programmes, reaching thousands of young people.

But things have changed a lot in those fifteen years – and in my eight year tenure at the Trust. As the term ‘social mobility’ has gained political currency, so the landscape has become more crowded, with more and more organisations springing up.

This has been accompanied by a dismantling – sometimes for good reason, sometimes not – of the structures which provided a framework for this activity, whether that is the demise of Connexions and Aimhigher, or the diminished role of local government.  The worlds of university access and information, advice and guidance seem busier, but more fragmented, than ever.

But does this matter?

My view is that it does for three main reasons. Firstly, it’s inefficient for a sector already starved of resources to duplicate efforts. We should be much better at linking complementary initiatives rather than sowing the seeds of new projects which substantially overlap with existing ones.

Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – fragmentation makes the area harder to navigate for teachers, parents and pupils.   Where should a headteacher go for, say, university access work – to their local HE provider, a national charity, a local not-for-profit provider, a commercial outfit or one of the many consultants working in this space?

And finally, how does the teacher know which will make the most difference to young people?   It makes evaluation of what works – already shamefully lacking – even harder.

Others are also concerned by the lack of coordination.  Accessprofessions.com makes it easier for students to benefit from the multiplicity of aspiration-raising activities out there. And PRIME is bringing coherence to work experience schemes, initially in the legal sector, with the aim of boosting quality and equity.

In the schools sphere, the Education Endowment Foundation, which the Sutton Trust set up with support from Impetus, is providing a valuable framework for activities to raise the achievement of the poorest students. It focusses on evaluating what works and funding disciplined innovation – work which is grounded in evidence, rather than a flight of fancy.

In the Trust’s own work, we are developing our existing proven programmes, linking them with other initiatives, and building in evaluation. Our summer schools, for instance, are expanding and we are developing wrap-around activities, such as mentoring and teacher events.

Of course, the Trust will continue to fund new programmes where they are needed and to take justified risks.  We are not afraid of being bold – as our ambitious US summer school programme has showed.

None of this should discourage social entrepreneurs who have a vision and who spot an opportunity to improve education for the better.

But shiny and new isn’t always the answer.   As in life, the most heroic thing to do might, in fact, be the most mundane.

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