Former Darlington MP Alan Milburn yesterday unveiled radical proposals to help schools unlock social mobility. Joe Willis reports.

ALAN MILBURN says he is not being paid by the coalition Government to be its new social mobility tsar. He is also keen to point out that he will be assessing how the Government’s policies impact on reducing social inequality – rather than advising them on the issue.

That said, the former Labour Cabinet minister has plenty of ideas of his own to improve the nation’s social mobility, which he describes as the current Holy Grail of public policy.

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Mr Milburn yesterday unveiled his proposals during his first public speech since taking on the part-time role.

He told teachers at the Schools NorthEast 2010 summit at Wynyard Hall, near Stockton, that schools held the key to increasing social mobility.

Mr Milburn, who grew up in a council house in Tow Law, County Durham, and rose to become Health Secretary, said he had been motivated all his life by the goal of an open mobile society where all had a fair chance to progress.

He said he was proud to have served under a Labour government that had made progress towards that goal.

However, he said the glass ceiling had been raised rather than broken.

The education attainment gap between rich and poor has narrowed, but low-ability children from wealthy backgrounds still overtake high-ability children from poor families during primary school.

And the UK’s professions have actually become more, not less, socially exclusive over time.

“It is not just that three in four judges or one in two senior civil servants have a private school background,” he said.

“Tomorrow’s professional is today growing up in a family richer than seven in ten of all families in the UK.”

He told the conference that this was an issue for what former President Bill Clinton called the forgotten middle class, as well as those at the bottom of society.

“If that growth in social exclusivity is not checked it will be more and more middle class kids, not just working class ones, who will miss out.”

Mr Milburn used internships as an example, which he said went to the few who have the right connections, not the many who have talent.

“Of course not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer, and not everyone will want to be, but those with ability and aptitude need a fair crack of the whip to realise their aspirations.”

While there was no single lever that on its own could make Britain more socially mobile, schools could make the biggest difference, he added: “Education is the motor that can drive social mobility.

“Time spent in education – including the vital early years – is the most important determinant of future status.

“Success in schools is the most important factor determining mobility.”

According to Mr Milburn, this is reflected in the figures.

Only 37 per cent of the lower socioeconomic groups gain two or more A-levels, compared with 59 per cent of the higher socioeconomic groups.

Only one third of children from the lower socio-economic groups get five GCSEs at A to C. While more than half of secondary schools in the ten per cent of the most deprived parts of England are what the previous Government described as failing.

“In my view that is not just a social injustice, it is a moral outrage and it has to change,” said Mr Milburn, before outlining what he believes should be the top five priorities for change.

● Targets MrMilburn said the twin objectives of raising educational standards and narrow educational inequalities should be enshrined in educational policy.

However, the educational attainment gap would not be closed by good intentions or warm words, he added.

He said concerted action was needed and the only way to make change happen was to focus effort and deliver results by effective targets.

He called for five-year targets for reducing the gap in attainment between children from less well-off and better-off backgrounds.

● Social mobility programmes in schools Mr Milburn said he would like to see a new national raising aspiration programme in schools, building on the best practice of the Aim High, and Gifted and Talented programmes.

Among its aims would be to take pupils and their parents to visit universities and run professional work taster sessions and summer schools.

● Teaching soft skills As well as focusing on the educational basics, particularly maths and English, Mr Milburn called for schools to help students build up a CV of “soft skills”. He said this was what employers and universities were increasingly looking for, suggesting that schools should offer a range of extracurricula activities, which they would be assessed on by Ofsted.

● Empowering schools with more freedom Rather than rush to give successful schools more freedom and autonomy, Mr Milburn believes schools at the bottom should be the main priority. He said: “They are the schools that are failing children today. They are usually the schools that serve the most disadvantaged communities.

“They are the schools where national effort most needs to be applied.”

He said no single model was necessary – academies or trusts, parent-owned or community controlled, run by social enterprises formed by teachers or by chains run by voluntary or even private sector bodies.

● Allowing poorer parents the right of exit Mr Milburn’s final recommendation is his most radical.

Giving poorer parents the right to remove their child from a poorly-performing school would give them the same options as wealthier parents who can move house to find a better school, he said. “None of the political parties have been prepared to grasp this nettle – it is time they did,” he added.

The proposal is ambitious: parents with children in consistently poor schools would be given an education credit worth perhaps 150 per cent of the cost of educating the child in their current school.

The parent could use this credit to persuade a better performing school to admit their child.

The admitting school would get a financial benefit, while the losing school would face a sharp financial incentive to improve by losing the money it costs to educate the pupil.

MR MILBURN said he knew his last proposal would be seen by some as “unacceptably harsh”.

However, he added: “If education really is to be the motor of social mobility, then poorer parents, not just wealthier ones, need the power to fulfil their aspirations for their children.”

His comments were warmly received by the audience at Wynyard Hall yesterday.

The big question for Mr Milburn is whether the coalition Government is willing to listen to its new social mobility tsar.

And if they do, will they act, or politely remind him his job is to assess rather than advise?