'We still have a mountain to climb on social mobility - but it must come from education'

I FIND school a very emotional experience, writes Jayne Dowle.

School pupils

Every time I go to an event at the academy which my son and daughter attend, I end up shedding a tear.

I think it’s a combination of regret at my own difficult secondary school days, pride in my children’s abilities to rise above personal challenges and sheer awe at the patience of the staff who nurture every pupil in the school.

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Here they are in one of the most socially-deprived areas of Barnsley. And yet every day they turn up to teach and push their young people forwards and onwards. There’s no such word as “can’t” in this school and for that I am eternally grateful.

If Education Secretary Justine Greening wants to find outstanding examples of aspiration and social mobility, she could come and speak to our headteacher. He’s a Geordie and, as he’s fond of reminding us, grew up on a council estate very similar to the one where his current school is located.

He understands that there is potential in every child, no matter how challenging their background. I’m sure that Ms Greening, who went to a comprehensive school in Rotherham, would find him interesting.

She’s been speaking at a Teach First conference in London this week. The audience heard about her first-hand experience of social mobility; her ambition to become a lawyer was supported and encouraged by her teachers.

She made a point I agree with, that talent in our country is spread evenly. As she put it, there isn’t one community creating all these “amazing children that are going to go on and do brilliant things – those young people are all over”.

She also said that our current education system allows them to make the best of themselves wherever they’re growing up. I definitely don’t agree with that. Only a few days ago, a

Freedom of Information request submitted to Oxford University by David Lammy MP revealed a startling truth about this prestigious institution’s admissions.

Despite all the money and hype thrown at widening opportunities between 2010 and 2015, Oxford made more offers to applicants from five of the Home Counties (Surrey, Hampshire,

Hertfordshire, Kent and Oxfordshire) than the whole of the north of England put together. This includes both state and independent schools.

A fair system allows every able youngster an equal chance at whatever they choose to do. No avenue should be narrowing before their eyes.

My son is not even thinking of university, but maybe his friend next in line this evening would like to try.

It’s Jack’s final official parents’ evening, so I’ll definitely need my hanky. This is the one where the cards are on the table. We’ll be having a series of realistic discussions about what he is expected to achieve in his GCSE results next year. We will also be trying to establish just what path he is likely to take when those results come in.

He’s undecided. He’s still considering a career in childcare, but he’s also toying with the idea of working in the media. Whatever he does decide upon, I am so grateful to his teachers for providing him with the intervention he needed to improve his literacy and gain confidence in his own ability to learn. Whatever the official Ofsted report might say, this has been a “good” school for my son.

However, now it’s crunch time. As those GCSEs loom ever closer, I want to make sure that no-one takes their eye off the ball. Somehow the importance of committed study and revision has to be driven home to Jack. He knows this. In fact, the stress of what lies ahead has already brought him to tears on more than one occasion. He doesn’t want to let himself down.

However, I can’t go into the classroom with him. This evening, I need to be convinced that his teachers have put in place every possible strategy to ensure that he is prepared for the rigour of GCSEs. This is where I worry. Can they pull off what seems impossible right now?

As we stand there tonight waiting to see each teacher, I will look around the sports hall and try to guess what is to become of each of Jack’s friends. I’ve known some of these young men and women since they were in nursery school. I’d like to think that each of them feels confident that they are moving forward with a clear purpose in life, each step mapped out before them.

I know it’s not the case. There are still so many myths and misunderstandings about education. What I find, speaking to Jack’s friends, is that too often no-one sits down with them and explains what they will need to do to achieve their ambition. This needs addressing as a matter of urgency in our schools.

And whether they want to be a lawyer, a plumber, a vet or a beauty therapist, I would like each of them to feel that they have been given an equal opportunity. We have a mountain to climb on social mobility, but let’s empower our young people to take the first step.