Gap likely to grow in social mobility 'coldspots'

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The Government’s shift in focus towards childcare as a means of getting parents back to work, away from good quality early years education, is affecting settings’ quality and impacting social mobility, a cross-government report warns.


Children from poorer backgrounds are already nearly a year behing their better-off peers when they start school

The findings come from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, made up of MPs and peers, and the report on their inquiry into the regional attainment gap in England.

This highlights the fundamental role of early years education in a child’s life, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are already 11 months behind their better-off peers when they start school.

The attainment gap - the gap in exam results between pupils from different backgrounds - is one of the key factors leading to social mobility 'coldspots'.

While it says that indications are that the attainment gap is narrowing, at its current rate, we are still over 40 years away from closing the gap between disadvantaged five-year-olds and the more advantaged.

Progress is also spread unevenly across the country, with social mobility ‘coldspots’ in areas including Norfolk, Somerset and Blackpool.

London is significantly ahead of the rest of England in raising the attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The quality of early years educators also needs to be addressed in order to close the attainment gap. It said this already recognised by nearly all 'Opportunity Areas', which list early years as a focus.

The report also calls for ringfenced funding for children’s centres and a ‘reinvigorated strategy’ to halt their decline. The inquiry heard how children’s centres are seen as key to improving outcomes for disadvantaged children, but widespread closures and downgrades have worried many experts.

It says that around a third of the 1,263 children’s centres that were open in December 2009 are now closed.

For those that remain open their remit has expanded so that they no longer focus on early intervention.

The report also calls for the Pupil Premium to be repurposed into a new 'Social Mobility Premium', which could be used for professional development and extra support for teachers in deprived areas, and to help incentivise greater collaboration between schools and other local partners. This would send a strong signal that there is Government determination, backed by resources, to deliver real improvements in social mobility, it says.

Labour MP Justin Madders MP, co-chair of the APPG on social mobility, said, ‘Social background and geography are still huge influences on educational success and it will require a combination of big picture thinking and local understanding to change that. Each area has its own challenges, so we would like to see more focus on local collaboration between schools, local authorities and universities, harnessing the successes of the London Challenge, and with a focus on social mobility coldspots.’

The APPG’s co-chair Baroness Tyler, a Liberal Democrat peer, said, ‘If we are to improve social mobility in this country, it is key that we tackle the issues addressed during our inquiry. A focus on the early years is essential and we’d like the Government to publish a re-invigorated strategy for children’s centres with a much stronger focus on social mobility. We hope that the Prime Minister, and her government, will look closely at all the findings and recommendations of this report.’

'Major roadblock to social mobility'

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, which helped produced the APPG report, said, ‘We find ourselves an increasingly divided country; divided by politics, by life prospects, and also divided geographically. There are big differences in educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in different areas. This regional attainment gap acts as a major roadblock to social mobility, creating social mobility "coldspots" where your chances of getting on in life are slim. To improve overall social mobility we need to focus on these "coldspots" by means of interventions to address inequalities.’

The Early Years Alliance (formerly the Pre-school Learning Alliance), shared the Sutton Trust’s concerns that early years policy is now focused on the provision of childcare as a route to encourage parents back to work, rather than high-quality education that supports children’s early learning.

Chief executive of Neil Leitch, said, ‘it is deeply worrying that current debates about childcare rarely, if ever, mention quality.

 ‘The report is also right to criticise the widespread closure and downgrade of children’s centres across the country. These services play an absolutely vital role in supporting children and families – and particularly those from more vulnerable backgrounds – and yet, the Government seems to have abandoned any attempts to develop a coherent, sustainable long-term strategy in this area.

‘Ministers talk so often about the need to close the attainment gap as early as possible, but to date, have failed to back up with their rhetoric with action. If the Government wants to improve the life chances of all children, and especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, then it needs to invest more in the sector that is pivotal to making this happen: the early years.’

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