Children from wealthier families do better at West Midlands schools, universities and the jobs market. But will Government initiatives to create a fairer society make a difference? Political Editor Jonathan Walker looks at the figures.
More than 161,000 children in the West Midlands will each be eligible for a £430 bonus payment going straight to their school, Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced.
The so-called pupil premium, paid to youngsters who qualify for free school meals and those in care, as well as the children of armed forces personnel, is part of the Government’s drive to improve social mobility.
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, is leading the campaign to end the link between the family you grow up in and your chances of getting a good education or high-flying job.
His social mobility strategy includes a range of measures to create a fairer society, including parenting advice to help mothers and fathers give their children a better start in life and a speaking programme to get successful adults into state schools, in order to inspire young people.
But the Government’s plans have been questioned by one leading academic, who warned that social mobility in Britain might already be better than Mr Clegg believes.
Stephen Gorard, a Professor of Education Research at the University of Birmingham, called for rigorous research to improve Government’s understanding of social mobility, saying: “There is a strong link between socio-economic background and achievement at school. But it is not necessarily getting worse – it is probably getting better.”
Mr Clegg also faced accusations of hypocrisy after it emerged a friend of his financier father helped him secure an internship at a Finnish bank as a teenager.
He was forced to admit he had benefited from the sort of old boys’ network he was setting out to abolish, when he was challenged in the House of Commons by Black Country MP John Spellar (Lab Warley).
But whatever Mr Clegg did in his youth, he seems to have a point when he claims we live in an unfair society where your chances of succeeding in life are directly linked to the circumstances in which you grow up.
A Government study published in February this year found that 54 per cent of West Midlands pupils achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, between 2006 and 2010.
But among pupils eligible for free school meals, the figure dropped to 32 per cent. Of those not on free school meals, 58 per cent hit the Government benchmark.
The achievement gap is worse in some places than others.
In Walsall, just 23 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved five or more grades A* to C – compared to 49 per cent of those who were ineligible.
In Birmingham, 40 per cent of pupils on free school meals hit the benchmark.
This is higher than any authority outside of London, and suggests that poorer pupils have more chance of succeeding in Birmingham than they do in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle.
But there is still a significant gap between youngsters from poorer backgrounds and those from wealthier families.
Of Birmingham pupils not on free school meals, 61 per cent hit the Government benchmark.
What’s more, access to West Midlands’ top universities seems to depend partly on wealth. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, just 77.6 per cent of students beginning a degree at the University of Birmingham in 2009-10 were educated at a state school.
But 92 per cent of GCSE-age pupils attend state schools.
The figure doesn’t mean that the university is discriminating against state school pupils. It may reflect the fact that Birmingham, as a leading university, requires high grades for entry, which pupils at independent schools are more likely to achieve.
Having said that, Birmingham is also failing to meet a “benchmark” set by the Higher Education Statistics agency. Based on the number of children who achieve its entry qualifications in different sectors of the education system, 80.8 per cent of Birmingham’s students should come from the state sector, according to the agency.
It’s a similar situation at other leading universities. At Warwick, 74.7 per cent of new degree students were state educated. This is slightly behind the “benchmark” figure of 76.5 per cent.
And unfairness continues into the workplace.
National research published by the Panel for Fair Access to the Professions, chaired by former Health Secretary Alan Milburn, found that the average lawyer or doctor grew up in a family with an income more than 60 per cent above the national average family income.
For journalists and broadcasters, the figure is just above 40 per cent and for accountants it is 40 per cent. The average disposable income for a UK household in 1977 was £14,631 according to the ONS. In 2006-7 it was £27,370.
This is what Nick Clegg was referring to when he said: “In Britain today, life chances are narrowed for too many by the circumstances of their birth - the home they’re born into, the neighbourhood they grow up in or the jobs their parents do.”
But some academics, such as Professor Gorard, believe that social mobility may already be improving – even if the changes are happening too slowly for politicians to appreciate.
He is the author of a paper warning that “poor-quality research” into social mobility and measures designed to improve it could be “worse than useless” because it could lead to policies that actually reduced mobility.
Speaking to The Birmingham Post, he said one example was a lack of rigorous research into the effect of measures designed to raise pupils’s aspirations.
“We know there is a link between aspiration and attainment.
“It is very easy to think therefore that if we increase people’s aspiration then they will do better at school.
“But it may be the other way around - academic success may raise people’s hopes and expectations.”
He added: “What tends to happen in education is that politicians have a whizzo idea and decide to introduce it across the country.
“But if I developed a new treatment for athlete’s foot it would take seven years of trials before it could go on the market.”
Similar testing of proposals to improve social mobility should take place before they were unleashed on the nation’s children, he said.