I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about why I agree absolutely with Michael Gove.
I agree absolutely with Michael Gove when he says, There need be no difference in performance – none whatsoever – between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier homes…a difficult start in life can be overcome, with hard work and good teaching.
I have no truck with the working class hero cliché; however, just for this post, I need to provide some autobiographical detail. My dad left school at 14 to become a messenger boy, the prelude to becoming a life-long postman. He could read but rarely wrote. My mum fell ill when just 13 and never completed her formal education. She resorted to being a cleaner and she did for Mrs Wilkins in the village. I have two brothers and two sisters. A family of seven, living in a two up, two down council house: my sisters shared a bedroom, just as I did with my brothers. Our parents slept on a pull-out bed in the front room. With an outside loo we had a wee-bucket in our boys’ bedroom at night which, all too frequently, got knocked over and stained the polystyrene tiles on the front room ceiling below. Not once, in my journey from council house to the Headteacher’s office, did I ever feel disadvantaged; not once did I perceive a barrier between me and a graduate career. I worked hard and, by any measure, I am the type of social mobility success story Michael Gove would surely admire.


Sunday Times or the Observer? Last weekend I bought the former and was confronted by its eponymous Rich List; today I taught income inequality to my Year 13 Economics group having copied Will Hutton’s recent article on the subject. Reading the latter, I suddenly realised why I find it difficult to imagine our students from the most deprived backgrounds ever making the transition from the council estate to the peak of one of the professions as I have done. And it’s not because I’m of the Blob or an enemy of promise…it’s because of the data provided by this graph which shows the share of the UK’s income going to the top 10% of the country’s earners.


I began my secondary education in 1975, the very year that the UK was at its most equal in the past 100 years. By 1984 five years of Thatcherism had increased income inequality in the UK significantly, but not to such an extent that I was deterred from embarking upon a degree course: I enjoyed a full grant and tuition fees were unimaginable. Looking at the graph, it’s hard to disagree with Neil Kinnock when he said in 2007, “I think that Tony is impressed by wealth.” In 2014 the UK boasts levels of income inequality not seen since Victorian times, whilst income redistribution becomes increasingly ineffective as tax rates are reduced for the richest and the welfare budget is cut. It’s a fact that Britain’s five richest families are worth more than the poorest 20%.


If the UK were more equal, we’d all be better off as a population; that’s the conclusion of Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their seminal text on the socially corrosive effects of income inequality, The Spirit Level. If one of our boys I spoke to yesterday, who is talented, good-looking, charming, funny, but with a chaotic home life, is going to thrive in an increasingly socially immobile world we have to give boys like him personalised, aspirationally different experiences. Doing what we have always done is nowhere near enough anymore.

The impact of  income inequality upon people is indelible. York is one of the UK’s richest cities; it is also one of its most unequal cities and the income gap between the richest and the poorest continues to grow. Recently I wrote an article for our local paper on what might help eradicate child poverty from a Headteacher’s perspective; this is the email I received the day after it was published:

email poverty

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This post has 22 Comments

  1. I too am a headteacher who (I’ll say it quietly) agree with many of the principles MG is promoting in particular social mobility. I came from a working class background in rural Devon (often not recognised for what it is in terms of one of the most deprived areas of the UK). Both my sister and I have done pretty well for ourselves and enjoy some of the advantages that having a good job has. But this was achieved with a huge chunk of support from our parents who knew how important education was in getting you a leg up in life. What I increasingly see are parents who don’t seem to see education as this vehicle to social mobility. Unlike my parents there seems less of a desire to get on in life. One theory is it’s been fuelled by our consumer society. Many of my families at school can be on FSM or be in lower paid jobs but still have a big 4×4 car, iPhone, tablet, big TV, sky, enjoy foreign holidays, designer clothes etc. I think the challenge we have is children see this and take a view that you can get all these desirables without having to push yourself. These luxuries were just unattainable (or didn’t exist) to families like ours so this gave you an aspiration to succeed. I fear MG doesn’t recognise this and realise that far too many families don’t share the same aspiration he (and his parents) had. Our mantra at school remains high expectation and aspiration for all our children but without this message being reinforced at home I fear we will continue to have a social (if not consumer) divide.
    Just a thought.

    1. Are you sure? That list hardly looks like it’s attainable for someone actually on a low income, by definition. I’d suggest that if there are really a lot of people apparently on low incomes yet still having all that stuff, there’s some kind of hidden economy going on there.

  2. Great blog John, with powerful argument (and really useful statistics for Yr13 History students looking for synoptic overview to support analysis of Britain, 1951-2007), but worth pointing out that Hutton’s article is 2009, rather than recent.

  3. There is no doubt that income inequality has increased. But that’s money, right? Clearly, social mobility, which in this case appears to mean having the opportunity to fulfil a person’s potential, is linked to money, but is it not more importantly related to aspiration? Society has increasingly associated success with money (inevitable in an affluent society), but is this the association that the education world wants to make? Increasingly the wealthy elites are distanced from the bulk of their fellow world inhabitants. Their lives are almost becoming an irrelevance. I do not think we should be equating becoming a member of an Elite with success or social mobility. It is time to reset what we view as success, and to start to hold this up to students and their parents. Personalised, aspirationaly different experiences cannot be the answer; we need a bigger paradigm shift than that.

  4. I think it’s very difficult to disagree with the quote from Michael Gove, but have his actions, policies and other words actually done anything to improve that situation?
    I agree with Nick that it’s incredibly hard to motivate poorer students and that’s down to a complex set of cultural issues, one of which is the lack of value many people place on education and the work of teachers. Teachers realistically can only have an impact on those attitudes if they’re very lucky or incredibly skilled. Gove has simply made this situation worse by talking down the teaching profession and suggesting that teachers just need to work harder. Anyone working in education will tell you that’s rarely the case.

  5. I agree that inequality is a huge problem, but I don’t think it’s a significant barrier to working class pupils’ achievement at school.
    Consider a pupil currently getting poor grades at school. The first thing they need to do is try, but success won’t be immediate so they will have failed after putting in effort, which is more humiliating than failing having not done any work. If their friends are in a similar position academically, which is often the case, it is likely that they don’t like school because it’s telling them they are inferior. So at the same time our pupil has to overcome a trial of shame before his grades improve, he will likely face hostility from his friends for co-operating with an institution they see as the enemy. The damage to self esteem and social relationships is enough to ensure most, though not all, working class children do not pursue the academic route out of poverty.
    The class system, and with it inequality, is embedded in the idea of ‘social mobility’. We require poor children to say to their friends and family ‘I’m leaving you behind to join a separate, higher class of people’. If we want a more equal society we need many paths to success at school not just one. That’s a direction directly opposed to the one in which Mr Gove is taking us.

    1. Totally agree, Ed. The key is to have socially mobile classrooms where pupils are comfortable with everyone’s contribution and feedback they give and receive. That would help untrue young people with a strength to look elsewhere from peer/parent/community/media expectation and seek one that’s personalised and encompasses the skills and talents they’ve come to realise and had highlighted by their peers over time.

    2. I work with a number of Primary schools and you are exactly right. Some people from a low income background have a culture of low expectation and aspiration. This impacts on their motivation to learn. I can see it in Reception class children. I actually think the only way to address the social mobility issue is to change the culture of learning and the culture of aspiration.
      Teachers are almost all fantastic. But even the best teachers will struggle to identify the specific needs of every child (all of the time) that they work with. It is tough with 30 in a Primary class. I know Secondary teachers who have 100’s of children they see every day!
      The best way to deliver a change in learning culture (in my opinion) is to make high quality childcare free for all (Yes All) from age of 2 Years. Make it a condition of benefits that all children over age 2 are put into a nursery/childminder (so mum or dad can look for jobs and work) for say 3 days a week. Maybe even 5 days a week.
      Children can then experience the relationship of play and learning, experimenting and discovering. All these essential tools to train the brain into thinking ‘trying and failing should be celebrated as much as trying and succeeding. Not trying then becomes a less common trait. At the same time parents should be encouraged and congratulated on the progress of their children. By school age the social mobility gap should be significantly smaller than it is now and the impact throughout their school lives would be huge.

  6. THIS IS VITAL STUFF Gove`s words are at the heart of educational equality I have given him Stan Dehaenes “Number Sense” for 19 years I have worked on this every day, WE NEED TO TEACH PERFECTION IN COUNTING tween 3&4 PERFECTION IN LETTER recognition tween 4&5 then every healthy child will read WELL by they are six http://www.system-one-4-every-1.co.uk/

  7. Solving the problem of teaching basic skills is essential, vital to the world’s future peaceful coexistence, I do hope you will forgive me the presumption of explaining to you exactly how it can be achieved on an international basis, by creating essential memory steppingstones using a small number of low-cost resources, I am proposing to take you gently through these essential memory steps.
    The first step is to create a perfect memory of six individual numbers, education needs to be exciting so use your thumbs up to illustrate Mr five and Mr six, then identify 1 and 10 by simply by tapping your little fingers whilst your hands are held flat over a desk or table.
    Finally demonstrating all finger tips pressed together illustrating three and eight as the middle fingers of both hands, later you can show that the five pairs of numbers all add up to eleven and that 11×5 is 55
    Simply by demonstrating six individual easily recognised numbers you are avoiding the child mixing the names and meaning of numbers.
    Step 1 (six essential numbers)
    Every parent in the world should be able to achieve this simple perfection in demonstration.
    Step 2 (a sum a second)
    Spend a few minutes every day illustrating rapidly changing numbers start by simply holding up the two hands together facing your child you are demonstrating 10 fingers together or two 5`s separately and all other combinations.
    Within one month of this exercise daily, your child will be making two subtractions and adding the totals together automatically. You can then alternate between the creation of the numbers or the addition of the numbers. Building your child’s confidence and abilities.
    Step 3 (Abacus One)
    Teach yourself how to use Abacus One by running through the times tables twice a day for a week, your subconscious brain should be perfected for showing your own child by then.
    Three practical steps every parent can be shown how to use in a couple of hours demonstration, by a well trained demonstrator or an enthusiastic teacher.
    By starting to use these exorcises, with your child just as soon as you can, after they start to speak during their third and fourth years, at four years old they will be primed and ready for learning the essential steps in vital reading memory.
    I have also developed a flat projection of numbers where it can be used as a teaching abacus or as a game to develop children’s perception of counting to ten million, parents using it together with their own children and friends can use it with individually coloured counters using ten sided dice or parents can pick random numbers to develop arithmetic awareness.
    What is Reading
    The instantaneous ability to turn groups of symbols
    into logical meaning
    Logical systematic Essential Memory steps
    Enable us to think efficiently at the speed of light
    In 1945 every parent was expected to teach their own child to chant the alphabet before they went to school, it was a valuable starting point, and essential to build that permanent link between the sound and shape of every letter. When a four year old reads the word ten or one on an abacus it is remembering a picture of a whole word.
    Building perfect letter recognition in normal print size is near impossible for a 3/4 year old, so card sized letters need to be used and a standard layout of the alphabet in order to practise overlying the letters in their correct positions.
    My grand children where able to read before they went to school when they had been taught the first three steps in reading before they went to school.
    Learn to sing the alphabet in alphabet rhythm
    Learn to read the alphabet in alphabet sound
    Learn to read the alphabet in the alternate phonetic
    Learn to read syllables and letter combinations. Repetitious reading of memorable sentences. Reading the Abacus will already have built the neural pathways your child will utilise for reading memorable sentences. We use the child’s own intelligence to decipher and locate memories it is not aware of, e.g. all the numbers your child needs will have already become permanent perfect visual memories.
    Learn to read sentences out loud without fear of
    being wrong in pronunciation
    Learn to read aloud and self correct from the
    content of the sentence
    Learn to read for pleasure and profit, knowledge and
    Satisfaction READING FOR LIFE
    A child stumbling over a simple three-letter word, or a confident speed-reader, are dependent on the same principles for decoding any word.
    “ Knowledge of the letters and sounds.”
    Decoding any word is letter driven
    Unless the reader knows the letters and the alternative sounds they represent, fluent reading will always be impossible.
    Our subconscious mind works at the speed of light.
    Every word in itself is an idea.
    A child first creates a rhythmic memory, independent of sight, (vision). Then the picture and sound memory combination need to become as one.

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