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I’m picking up on a couple of recent themes today.  

The first is the peculiar phenomenon of an apparently doomed Government producing some very worthwhile policy material. Last week there was the Social Care Green Paper and the Low Carbon Transition Plan. This week we will see the conclusions of Alan Milburn’s review of how to improve social mobility in to the professions. Yet the weekend polls confirm that, politically, Labour is in dire straits.

To give Milburn his due he has been making social mobility his personal crusade ever since 2003 when he moved from being Secretary of State for Health. As he is standing down next year this report is his swan song, and, as the good media operator he is, he has been busy stoking up interest in the report.

One statistic in particular caught my eye from the pre-briefing. Parental attitudes to learning are, we are told, four times as important as financial status in influencing children’s educational outcomes.

This was a point I made a few days ago in the content of a post about the RSA’s forthcoming ‘Schools without Boundaries’ report. I pointed out that school pupils spend 80% of their waking hours outside school and that if, in this time, there is little or nothing to reinforce a disposition to learn, schools face a steep uphill task in their 20%.       

I haven’t had a reply yet to my open letter to Michael Gove, although there has been a fascinating exchange about it on my comment pages. But I have been reflecting that Michael and I agree about something even if we draw diametrically opposite conclusions. I agree with the Conservative Education spokesperson that schools are being expected to do too much with the time they have available to influence children. 

Schools working in communities that lack commitment and confidence about learning are like factory workers trying to make a great product when they only control a fifth of the conveyor belt. Not only do they have to do great work in their segment but they end up desperately trying to make up for the shoddy work that was done before, and trying to protect the product from what is likely to happen when the line moves on. Trying to get every young person to be a successful and rounded student, schools end up taking on ever more responsibilities and having to develop a whole range of strategies to engage pupils who are not emotionally receptive to learning.

But while I suspect Michael’s response to this is to emphasise the boundary between the responsibilities of schools – to transfer knowledge - and the community, ours is to bridge that boundary, encouraging schools to explore how they can foster a culture of learning in the wider community.

Milburn’s report underlines that without cultural change among those communities whose children tend to under perform, most schools will only be able to make a difference at the margins.

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