South Yorkshire’s Push to Close the Attainment Gap in Education

A fracture is growing in regional social mobility between London and the rest of the country, according to a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on social mobility last Thursday. Of the 14 South Yorkshire constituencies, 10 have ‘very low’ or ‘low’ social mobility according to the Sutton Trust Mobility Map.

The report shows that the gap between pupils from different social backgrounds is one of the key factors driving this divide, and highlights the power of high quality teaching for disadvantaged pupils.

In England, 87% of the most deprived pupils attend good or outstanding schools, compared to 71% in Sheffield and Barnsley, and just 63% and 53% in Rotherham and Doncaster respectively. At the end of Key Stage 2, the reading pass rate in South Yorkshire is 67% compared to a national average of 72%.

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, but equally we need to see policy change at a national level.”

The attainment gap measures the difference in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged children (using Free School Meal eligibility as a measure of disadvantage) at key points in their educational journey – usually at Key Stage 2 and then again at Key Stage 4.

“While 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 their more advantaged counterparts,” said Baroness Tyler, who also co-chairs the group.

“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.”

Sheffield Hallam University, in partnership with the Department of Education, have launched the South Yorkshire Futures initiative to help improve educational performance and progression of young people in the region. Their work has found that social capital is critical factor in preventing young people from progressing further, even if their academic performance at school is high.

Greg Burke, director of the initiative, said: “The position in South Yorkshire is that as people go through the education system, they tend to get worse between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4. Some of that is because of becoming disengaged and not quite seeing the point of education, not understanding how what they are doing in the school system is going to give them opportunities.”

Although Yorkshire and the Humber performs favourably compared to most of the country in terms of the progress made by students on free school meals between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4, such pupils still fair five times worse than similarly disadvantaged students in Inner London.

“There are big differences in educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in different areas,” said Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, a foundation for improving nationwide social mobility.

“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.”

Mr Burke agrees, arguing that while many students from impoverished areas of London are at a disadvantage in comparison to their wealthier neighbours, they are still in an environment where opportunity is visible.

“I think sometimes it can be difficult when you are outside London for young people to see opportunities,” he said. “Growing up in parts of South Yorkshire you can be quite isolated from opportunity, and therefore it’s hard to see that connection between what you are doing at school and how that can help you to achieve your ambition.”

The solution, then, lies not with trying to copy the London model of improving social mobility from education, but in tailoring programmes to the needs of South Yorkshire itself.

One project being worked on between SYF and the Local Enterprise Partnership is trying to build links between young people at school and the working world. The focus is on developing Yorkshire school children’s employability skills and ensuring they are able to envision how the work they do in education has a direct path to career development later on.

Mr Burke said: “I think for a lot of young people, they are aspirational, but what they lack is an understanding of how to get from where they are to where they’d like to be. Often, they become disillusioned and lose sight of where they were trying to get to in those early teenage years.”

They are also working on a coaching project in Barnsley, training schools to help young people to work through particular barriers they may face on a one-to-one basis. Mr Burke pointed to the XP school in Doncaster, who’s whole curriculum is taught  with an expeditional model, which is focused on the development of skills and attributes outside of traditional academic success.

While the project is very much in its infancy, South Yorkshire Futures is optimistic about changes they can make in the next year to help reduce disparity between South Yorkshire and London. They are developing a region-wide vision for what ‘school readiness’ – which particularly refers to language skills for preschoolers – would look like, as well as new strategies for recruiting and retaining teachers from South Yorkshire.

In the meantime, Mr Burke has stressed the need to get more people involved in young people’s development.

“Not all of this can be done by schools. We have to take a more collective responsibility for the development of young people,” he said.

“Our main ambition at the moment is getting lots more people involved.”