The equality of opportunity

Written by: Anne Lyons | Published:
Image: iStock

Governments talk often of ‘social mobility’ and ‘narrowing the gaps’ and schools have a clear role to play. But without two crucial ingredients – funding and teachers – we will not make progress, warns Anne Lyons

In January, it’s common for many of us to dream of fresh starts and new opportunities. Those dreams often become reality, but for too many people, life just doesn’t measure up to expectation.

In schools, right from the outset, we try to show children that their dreams can come true. But again, life can get in the way. While we make every effort to make the biggest positive impact for all the children in our care, equality is still pretty far out of reach for too many young people.

Over the two decades that I’ve been a school leader, I’ve seen numerous government initiatives come and go, and numerous education secretaries, too. In that time we have heard about “social mobility”, “narrowing the gap”, “life chances” and other buzzwords. But despite the improving standards in schools and 20 years or more of sustained effort, as a society, we have failed at narrowing the gap between richer and poorer students.

In all that time, there has been a focus on schools either to play a part or in some cases to entirely solve the “social mobility problem”. Tragically, for the folk at the bottom of the ladder, the policy people at the top have missed two indisputable truths.

First, schools can’t improve equality for pupils if they are struggling for money themselves – vital interventions that could improve equality are already disappearing. There was no new core funding for schools in November’s Budget, so we will continue to campaign for more. Without it, school just won’t have a chance.

Rightly, schools are at the centre of the efforts that we make to narrow the gap. But the second thing to remember is that it would be totally wrong to expect schools to solve the problem on their own. The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve.

Cuts to local authority budgets have greatly reduced the sources of support for families on low incomes.

Some of the areas where it is hardest to be socially mobile have suffered from decades of under-investment and shrinking opportunities for well-paid and highly skilled work. If we are serious about improving equality in the UK we have got to look at all these factors. Schools can’t do it alone.

We are not without hope, though. Those of us at the coal face know what the problems are and have the desire to make a difference. Primary and secondary schools in and around London have been able to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students that buck the national trend. Additional investment and focus on projects like the London Challenge appear to have had an impact. We should be looking for ways to spread this to areas of the country that still need support.

Our current education secretary Justine Greening has spoken publicly with a depth of understanding of the issues and a very open desire to put things right. Many of the government’s strategies for improving equality of opportunity are the right ones, but it can’t be done on the cheap. The government’s reluctance to put its money where its mouth is will only ever undermine the plans they have to make a fairer society.

As well as funding, the second area of focus must be recruitment. Our recent Leaky Pipeline report (November 2017), showed that the recruitment crisis continues unabated and that school leaders in areas with low social mobility have always struggled to attract teachers. Only a national strategy for teacher recruitment that recognises teachers as high-status professionals and guarantees enough teachers for every school will solve this problem.

Fortunately, we seem to have stopped looking for magic bullets in education (although, you never know), but you can’t deny that a highly skilled and well-motivated team of teachers is essential if you’re going to stand a realistic chance of improving equality for pupils.

I said at the start that we’ve failed. We’re all haunted by memories of children who we haven’t been able to reach. But, although we can’t do it alone, there’s still no one like a teacher to open up a young person’s eyes to the possibilities that life could hold.

  • Anne Lyons is the current president of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit

Further information

The Leaky Pipeline, NAHT, November 2017:

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