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13th October 2020

Lee Elliot Major: ‘There’s a real volunteering spirit among the young’

The UK’s first social mobility professor spoke to Finito world on the eve of securing vital public monies for tutoring 

I am very careful to be apolitical with my views on social mobility as I think it’s a cross party issue. This might be a naïve belief but my view is that you have to present evidence behind what you’re proposing.

There are huge questions around why we have a social mobility problem, but what I’ve been trying to do is come up with pragmatic solutions to problems. When I was a trustee at the Education Endowment Foundation, we looked at what works in the classroom in terms of improving learning for disadvantaged pupils. What’s hard is to find approaches that can be consistently scaled up. We’ve done hundreds of trials and reviewed literally thousands of studies on what we think are our best bets for learning. One thing that surfaced was classroom-teacher feedback, the core of all good schooling.

Alongside that, we found strong evidence of the effectiveness of one-to-one tutoring. I’ve always felt that that was something we could utilize more to help the disadvantaged learn. Tutoring is simple to scale up. The idea is that wherever people live they have access to tutoring support. We found the existence of this patchy; in some areas there are charities – as in some areas of London – but there are other areas where there’s no support at all. Then, when we turned to the question of addressing inequalities during the Covid-19 crisis, we talked about establishing a National Tutoring Service. I began observing a boom in private tutoring – surely now was the time to level up the playing-field.

It feeds into something else I’ve noticed: there’s a real volunteering spirit among the younger generation. These are people who like to give back and have a strong sense of social justice. It was fantastic when the Johnson administration gave money to the idea.

There’s also, of course, huge inequality in the workplace. When you look at studies about who gets on in work, you often find that someone senior and experienced champions someone junior in the organization. This tends to happen predominantly to people from privileged backgrounds: if you’ve gone to the same school, or if there’s some sort of familial connection.

It could be possible to create a more formal mentoring program that could be part of a national service, whereby senior people could champion people from disadvantaged backgrounds. At the moment, they feel lost in the culture of the industry. For instance, I know a lot of people around the creative industries. At the moment, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, you’re struggling to progress in the early career phase. The cultural assumptions can be quite alienating if you’re not a part of that: if you’re outside London, it can be hard to get into London.

But as ever you come up against the practicalities. The question is, how idealistic do we want to be about this? It would be difficult to deliver a national mentoring program. Another critique would be that a mentoring service would assume that in-built cultures and inequalities in industries would remain. We can so easily get caught between ideologues on left and right. On the one hand, those who say: ‘All we need is to make things equal.’ And on the other, those who say: ‘All we need is economic growth.

One of the reasons government looks at education even though it’s become a market-led sector, is that in this area you can at least try and do something: the taxpayer is paying a lot for that delivery. Once you look at labor and economy policy you’re suddenly dealing with private companies and the levers that government have are less direct.

But what’s interesting is that during the coronavirus crisis, that has changed. The government is now paying the salaries of a lot of people. So although this time is tragic, it’s very exciting from the policy perspective. It’s challenged the old stereotypes and preconceptions about what’s left and what’s right. This is the most interventionist government I can remember. And the question for someone like me is: ‘Do some of these things remain in five years’ time? Is it a permanent readjustment about profound social issues? Or do we slip back into the assumptions of neoliberal global politics?’

I hope it’s the former. I think we can find a better balance and a fairer system. I think we were heading for a reckoning before this crisis. When society doesn’t give people a fair go over several generations then at some point down the pecking order, people will think there’s no way to change society other than by revolt. I don’t know whether we’re there yet, but I hope the government grabs this moment. It’s time for a branded national tutoring service.

Professor Lee Elliot Major’s new book is What Do We Know and What Should We Do about Social Mobility? Published by SAGE

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