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“Closing the attainment gap requires dealing with inequalities outside school as well as those inside”

As the UK’s first professor of social mobility, Lee Elliot Major has not surprisingly a very strong identity with his job: “my aim is to develop and promote practice and policy that will improve the lives of the disadvantaged. (It sounds very grand I know!)” But he also has a strong practical base, having been a leading light in the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which is doing an enormous amount of work on identifying, categorising and promoting the more reliable worldwide research in this area.

Major has published two books in the last year: with Stephen Machin, Social mobility and its enemies; and, with Steve Higgins, What Works? Research and evidence for successful teaching. The themes of these two books are highly relevant to SSAT’s campaign for deep social justice: the first looks at the big picture, inequality and the role of education – but recognising that society and government should not expect too much from schools in this regard. What works? considers the huge number of studies that have been done into raising disadvantaged students’ attainment, and which are the most effective as evidenced by EEF’s toolkit (which he says is valuable because the evidence it is collating “should empower teachers to make their own judgements of what to do in the classroom”).

Schools must focus on the wider issues

While schools can’t solve the social mobility problem on their own, they need to concern themselves with the wider issues, not just academic attainment, says Major. For a start, the narrowing of the curriculum doesn’t help: “art, sport and other aspects are just as important.” He is pleased to find “an increasing focus on this in schools, which are becoming like parents in many ways, providing meals outside the school day and working on the social and emotional aspects of the young people’s lives.

“Social mobility has become a term progressively more used over the last two decades. And yet, I think, inequality has widened in that period: this challenge is much greater than it was, pressures have mounted and government rhetoric has gone up, but not always to great effect. Indeed, we seem to be in an educational arms race: parents with the resources are investing more money in their children’s future, such as through private tutoring. Many people think schools are the greatest social leveller, but in many ways they have become the vehicle with which the middle classes enhance their position in society.

“We have a problem at the top and the bottom of society. Look at the proportion of prime ministers who have been to Eton and Oxford. Seven percent of young people go to private schools, yet they represent 60% of the people in many professional jobs. The poor national policy for further education is down to the fact that no-one at the top of politics has experienced it. And, at the ‘bottom’ of society, 25% of young people leave school without basic numeracy or literacy skills. It is a shame, a national disgrace.

“My view is that we should not interpret social mobility too narrowly – eg catapulting a few ‘bright’ disadvantaged students into the top jobs. It should apply to all children, irrespective of the career routes they choose. We should be investing in other areas as well as education – such as social work and wider support for young people. Expectations are wildly overambitious if you’re not going to take this broader approach.”

Yet the work schools can do to improve social mobility, and therefore social justice, comes down largely to good teaching. “A key point for school leaders is that the in-school variation in teaching effectiveness is greater than that between schools – so there is much more that we can each do to improve, such as through peer observation” (which is one of the main findings of his second book mentioned above). In a nutshell, Major points out, “it ain’t what you do but the way that you do it” (as the Bananarama song put it).

“Round the world, there have been very many studies of teacher-pupil interaction, which mostly confirm what every teacher already knows in their heart: interaction is what matters most – effective feedback, how you develop pupils as independent learners. This includes things like giving students (and teachers) more time to prepare and reflect on what they are doing. The way the school day is currently structured, there just isn’t enough time for that.”

What inspired you to make social mobility the focus of your career?

“I come from a background in which no-one in my family had been to university. We lived in an area of west London that was famous for its young offenders’ institution. I left home, stopped attending school, at 15. But I had faith in my teachers and went back to school, which is how I eventually gained a PhD and became a published author. It was a result of collective effort, people who have helped me all my life. This is what made me passionate about education and the power of teachers. I have a powerful dream: helping everyone to achieve their ambitions regardless of their background. My interest is in how we can achieve this.”

Lee is speaking on the first day of this year’s SSAT National Conference where we will be continuing our collective fight to put social justice at the heart of the education system. View the full programme with main stage speakers including Professor Sir Tim Brighouse, David Lammy  and Nina Jackson; panel discussions featuring Professor Dame Alison Peacock, Priya Lakhani OBE and Tom Ravenscroft; plus over 30 school-led workshops exploring themes including wellbeing, curriculum design and eradicating illiteracy.

Learn more about our main stage speakers by reading our interview with Martyn Reah, founder of #teacher5aday.

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