Social mobility and attainment – what can Middle Leaders do?

Social mobility and attainment – what can Middle Leaders do?

What teachers and schools can do to help

Author: Julie Cully/05 June 2017/Categories: Blogs

In the UK today, there are areas where a staggering one in six children are currently living in poverty (Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission).

These children are falling foul of a vicious circle where their ability to socialise and feel confident in their abilities is impacted by coming from a working class background. They can often find learning challenging, develop differently and have limited participation in society. This affects their performance in school, and subsequently their social mobility.

Each and every occurrence of underachievement or exclusion piles onto the label of being seen as a failure. We need to break this cycle!

What do we know about social mobility and attainment?

We know that social mobility is inter-generational – that generations of the same family, often from low-income groups, can get caught in the poverty trap, unable to change their situation. It’s worth remembering, though, that just as in a game of snakes and ladders, social mobility can go down as well as up!

Low-income families often start behind other families in our communities and children born into low-income families may always struggle to catch up. The gap is quite significant in the early years – children have problems with socialising, the environment, speech and language and play, and they have problems with learning. This gap continues to grow as the children move through the education system.

By key stage 2, at least one in four of those children born into low-income families has difficulty in learning, particularly around literacy and numeracy. By key stage 4 the gap is increased further – currently there is a difference of up to 28% against outcomes between the most vulnerable and most successful children.

For those children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) the gap is even wider - whether looking at early years, key stage 2 or key stage 4, the gap reaches almost 50%.

Teacher support

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data shows that good early years and primary school experience and better home learning actually increases attainment at age 11. Those children and young people who are from low-income families are less likely to be low performers if they have supportive teachers whose morale is high, and are provided with extra curricula activities.

Over the past five years it has become increasingly apparent among the 100,000 targeted children and young people engaged in Achievement for All programmes that the common starting point in breaking this vicious circle and enabling their progression is the need to build core strength, i.e. the confidence and ability to learn, develop and participate in society.

Teachers in the UK have an undeniably challenging job of teaching our children and young people. Working in partnership with the third sector, business and the community, they can be supported to instil change, to make a real difference, but teaching professionals need to be supported – and that’s where middle leaders come in.

So what can teachers and schools do to help, and what can middle leaders do to support them to ensure they are motivated and engaged?

  • Middle leaders can support… teachers in the classroom through detailed, innovative curriculum planning, observations, internal and external research
  • Middle leaders can support…leadership across the school, sharing curriculum goals, pupil targets and high expectations for all pupils
  • Middle leaders can support…through representation and development of their teams, providing access to external support set within their teams improvement plans
  • Teachers can… engage parents and carers with training and support through continuing professional development, coaching and research
  • Teachers can… ensure an inclusive teaching environment so no child gets left behind, using data and planning to generate learning for all children, measuring progress lesson by lesson using a ‘traffic light’ system of assessment i.e. Red = no progress, Amber = support needed, Green = revised targets and additional support
  • Schools can… provide children with extra curricula activities, ensuring that all children are engaged in at least one activity such as sport, music, dance, drama and trips. Ask the question, are our school teams representative of the school population?

Teachers are on the ground, doing the doing, which undeniably has direct effect on the children that they teach. Middle leaders have the benefit of having a broader overview, enabling them to support their teachers and the children in their classes not just on a day-to-day basis, but on a year-to-year basis, allowing for progress right from the time a child starts school, to the time they leave.

For a child or young person to believe in themselves, the adults around them may need to alter their behaviour. It is axiomatic that any behaviours that encourage, challenge, support, nourish and develop will be beneficial alongside behaviours that are values driven and inclusive. Focusing on what a child can do, rather than stalling on what they can’t do will have a positive impact on their self-belief.

Ultimately, we need to enable children and young people to feel that they belong – that they belong in the school and that they belong in a learning environment. Irrespective of where they started in terms of their learning journey, they need to know that they can, and will, succeed.

Achievement for All, in association with Oxford University Press is running The Every Child Included conference, taking place at Newbury Racecourse on June 14th 2017.

The conference will explore how education practitioners from early years to post 16, home educators and parents and carers can collectively unite to ensure every child is included, regardless of background, challenge or need.

Parents and carers of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities  (SEND) can attend the conference for free by emailing

Further information on the conference can be found here

Professor Sonia Blandford is one of the country’s foremost experts on Improving the education and aspirations of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. She is currently founder and CEO of the award winning educational charity Achievement for All, and professor of education and social enterprise at UCL Institute of Education. 

Sonia was named in Debrett’s 2015, 2016 list of the Top 500 Most Influential People in the UK, and was among the 2016 Women of the Year. She is Chair of the Blackpool Challenge and also a Founding Trustee and Vice Chair of the Chartered College of Teaching. Sonia is currently a leading researcher in the European Agency OECD Raising Attainment project.

Follow Professor Sonia Blandford on Twitter @SoniaAFA3AS



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