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Major new research project aims to address social mobility issues blighting young lives in the South West

From the Centre from Research in Social Mobility

A major new research project will seek to highlight and address the social mobility issues blighting young lives in the South West.

A group of experts will suggest regional and local solutions to tackle issues such as the region’s huge GCSE and primary level attainment gaps. On many social mobility measures the South West performs worse than other regions.

In recent years Government attention has been focused on economic and social mobility issues in the North. It is hoped the initiative – led by academics and educational experts from the region – will mean attention now shifts to the specific needs of the South West.

The project will identify the particular challenges facing the region and examine if innovative practices elsewhere in the country could be effective, particularly those caused by pockets of significant rural and urban disadvantage. Work will focus on the barriers faced at different life stages for younger generations, especially those aged under 25

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, who is leading the project, said: “For those growing up poor, where you grow up in the country matters hugely for your life outcomes. 60 per cent of disadvantaged pupils in the South West didn’t obtain a pass in GCSE Maths and English in 2019 – a crucial qualification for accessing most jobs. This compares with 41 per cent in Inner London.

“The extent of social mobility problems in the South West has been hugely overlooked. People think of the South West as affluent and picture postcard perfect. But actually, although the region has lower than average rates of deprivation, it provides extremely poor outcomes for disadvantaged young people growing up locally.”

The project is based at the University of Exeter’s Graduate School of Education, which hosts the University’s Centre for Social Mobility. Initial funding is being generously provided by the Cobalt Trust. The project team comprises Professor Elliot Major, Professor Will Harvey, from the Exeter Business School, and Anne-Marie Sim, Postdoctoral Research Associate. ​They will be supported by an advisory board comprising Sir Steve Smith (Chair), former Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Exeter, Stephen Dawson, Chair of the Cobalt Trust, founder and former Chair of Impetus, Mary Curnock Cook, former Chief Executive of UCAS, and Dame Suzi Leather, former Chair of the Charity Commission.

Sir Steve Smith said: “Understanding regional and local dynamics is crucial to understanding why a region is failing to provide good life outcomes for its disadvantaged young people. And only regional and local strategies and initiatives can effectively address the specific challenges a region or area might be facing.”

The work will start with research to map social mobility in the South West. The second part of the project will involve assessing potential paths forward to improve social mobility as the region emerges from deeper inequalities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Existing statistics show:

  • In the South West, 40 per cent of disadvantaged pupils passed English and maths at GCSE in 2019 – the lowest percentage of all English regions. This compared with 59 per cent in Inner London.
  • The South West has some of the largest attainment gaps in the country at the end of primary school. Nationally, disadvantaged pupils are on average 9.3 months behind their non-disadvantaged peers,but in Somerset they are 12.5 months behind.
  • The South West has 4 out of the 10 local authorities with the largest attainment gaps in the country at 16-19: North Somerset, Torbay, Swindon and South Gloucestershire. In these areas, gaps are equivalent to between 4.1 and 4.8 A level grades.
  • Only 18 per cent of disadvantaged children in the South West enter higher education by age 19 – the lowest of all English regions. The higher education participation rate for disadvantaged children in London is now higher than that for non-disadvantaged children in the region.
  • Disadvantaged young people in the region face a double bind of poor mobility prospects and a poor earnings outlook. The South West ranks third worst of 19 regions for upward occupational mobility, whilst having five of the top-25 below-Living-Wage local authorities (with between 33 per cent and 41 per cent of jobs below Living Wage).
  • West Somerset has the lowest social mobility ranking of all local authority districts in England.

The research will look at how the South West compares to other parts of the country for educational achievement and social mobility, the distinctive challenges in the region, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will examine if potential regional and local initiatives – for example children’s zones, tutoring, and increased education-workplace links – could improve social mobility.

The team will focus on Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, although statistics will cover the wider South West region. They will examine in particular three areas – West Somerset, Plymouth, and Redruth and Camborne.

The team hope that the research will attract the funding and piloting of initiatives to improve social mobility in the South West. They also aim to carry out further phases of work to develop and assess regional and local strategies and initiatives.


For more news from the Centre, see http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/socialmobility/

Education for in/equality? Challenging the socio-economic gap in educational attainment

The GSE was delighted to host Professor Becky Francis, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, who gave our St Luke’s Day Lecture on October 15th. Professor Francis discussed the issue of the socio-economic gap in educational attainment, particularly in the light of Covid-19. Below, we present a short precis of the presentation, and some useful links to follow:

  • https://nationaltutoring.org.uk/
  • https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/covid-19-resources/national-tutoring-programme/


As well as reviewing current trends in attainment in order to highlight the profound impact of socioeconomic background on educational attainment (and therefore life opportunities) Professor Francis particularly discussed the worrying impact of Covid-19 and school closures. Citing IFS research that suggests that children from better off families spent 30% more time on home learning while schools were closed, she presented the stark prediction that the socio-economic attainment gap will grow by between 11% and 75% as a result of school closures in 2020, more than reversing the progress on narrowing the gap seen over the last decade. The EEF predicts that the gap will widen most in mathematics and for younger children.


What causes the gap?

Social factors – financial capital, social and cultural capital

  • Financial capital – includes access to different options for schooling (e.g. moving to a better catchment area), out-of-school enrichment, tuition
  • Social capital- including parental networks, connections, higher quality work experience and access to internships, knowing how to negotiate ‘the education game’
  • Cultural capital – parents’ positive educational experiences which engender ease and confidence for both parents and children when engaging with schooling, parent and child self-assurance, parents’ ability to have constructive conversations with teachers and to advocate for their child.

Unequal starting points: including school readiness, vocabulary, attention and hyperactivity, early reading

Unequal access to quality provision – children from disadvantaged backgrounds are underrepresented in high attaining schools and over-represented in RI/inadequate schools. The attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students exists across all Ofsted school categories, but disadvantaged pupils in outstanding schools perform as well as non-disadvantaged pupils in schools rated as requiring improvement or inadequate. The impact of teaching quality is particularly strong in influencing educational outcomes, but is doubly strong for disadvantaged students. However, these students are less likely to access subject specialists (only 37% of maths 11% of physics teachers have relevant degrees in some schools in areas of deprivation).

Expectations both in terms of teacher expectations and parental/student aspiration – and the impact of this is particularly pernicious when students are misassigned to low streams or sets: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/setting-or-streaming/

Unequal access to a high quality, bespoke, curriculum

Less likely to access quality support and experience outside of school

What supports disadvantaged students?

Compensatory Approaches to address unequal starting points – not a sticking plaster, but to address profound inequalities, focus on early literacy and numeracy interventions.

Access to high quality provision and high quality teaching, high quality ITE, CPD, Teacher support and retention, policies to incentivise and develop high quality teachers, incentivising teachers to work in areas of deprivation and to stay there, supporting teachers to stay and thrive in schools with high numbers of disadvantaged pupils.

Approaches that address different capitals – to address additional enrichment, curriculum and careers guidance, high quality work experience, educational advice, links, experiences, guidance, not provided outside school.

Challenging stereotypes and low expectations applied to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The importance of research and the aims of the EEF:

  • to provide the best available knowledge about what works to narrow the gap, for teachers and school leaders
  • to inform difficult decisions about how to invest time and resources
  • to protect schools from fads and fakes which create workload but don’t make a difference
  • to support teachers to implement and evaluate new strategies.

For more information about the work of the Education Endowment Foundation, please visit: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/

English and Science teachers – invitation to join a research project

£50 book token for participating!

Focus Groups information for participants


I’d like to invite you to participate in a focus group discussing gene drive, an emerging genetic technology. All participants will receive a £50 book voucher as a thank you for participating. If you decide to take part, we’ll invite you to join an online focus group discussion with up to 7 other teachers for up to 90 minutes. You will also need to watch a short film (18 minutes) and read two short newspaper articles in advance. Participants will decide together when it might be best to schedule the focus group but this is likely to be in November.

Our study looks at the views of English and Science teachers on how to best discuss this novel and controversial technology. Your participation is part of a global study to help us understand how to communicate about new technologies across cultures. I’ve attached more information to this email and am happy to answer any questions you might have.

If you would like to participate, please email by 19th November.

If you have colleagues who are English or Science teachers at secondary schools, please feel free to forward this email to them.


Many thanks,




Dr Aleksandra Stelmach

Postdoctoral Research Associate

University of Exeter Business School


w: https://business-school.exeter.ac.uk/about/people/profile/index.php?web_id=Aleksandra_Stelmach

Challenging Schools- what can we learn from the PGCE trainee perspective?

Corinne Greaves and Heidi Long


Working as school partnership coordinators in the Graduate School of Education we have a strong idea of what the term ‘challenging school’ means to us (not least because we are encouraged to provide trainees with experience in challenging schools during their PGCE), however we are aware that how trainees perceive challenging schools could be quite different and that this might affect their desire to be placed in one. We rely on socioeconomic measures such as Free School Meals and Pupil Premium to identify those schools in challenging circumstances and we know the DfE use Ofsted grades as a measure of challenge (though this is not without issue).

The planning of a new project aimed at encouraging PGCE trainees into rurally isolated challenging schools provided the opportunity to think about exploring what challenge means to our trainees, and what might motivate them to train or work in them. Through a questionnaire to our 19/20 cohort, followed up by focus groups and individual interviews we asked trainees how they defined a challenging school, and if they would like to train or work in one. The initial definition from trainees threw up the expected -Ofsted grade was mentioned many times, as was behaviour, but the most overriding factor for trainees was socioeconomic disadvantage. Through Primary and Secondary focus groups we interrogated the perceptions of challenge and discussions ranged from a challenging school being a bleak place where ‘it was almost certainly raining’ with behaviour issues and tight safeguarding controls, to a place where motivated teachers would go above and beyond for their pupils enabling them to succeed despite their circumstances. Trainees were anxious not to make assumptions about pupil behaviour or attendance though they felt this would be linked to areas of high socioeconomic disadvantage, the factor that they felt was key to defining a challenging school.

Of the 61 trainees responding to the original questionnaire, more wanted to train or work in a challenging school than didn’t (using likert scaling). This was interrogated through 1:1 interviews with volunteers to further understand the motivations behind this scoring. Trainees who wanted to work or train in challenging schools nearly all gave ‘making a difference’ as their prime motivator. Interestingly in the focus groups trainees had talked about demotivation as a personality trait exhibited by some teachers rather than the result of exposure to a difficult working environment. For them a motivated person would want to work in a challenging school to help those pupils most in need, so it is not surprising perhaps, that their strongest motivation was to make a difference. We asked about anything that would worry them about working in a challenging school, and they discussed not being experienced enough to make a positive impact, that they felt the workload would be higher and they were concerned about behaviour management. There was a common theme during the interviews that being in a challenging school would be more difficult and have a higher workload. For this reason, there was some reluctance to be placed in one, or to work in one early in their careers. Some felt it could impact on their own performance during training so therefore impact on their grades. Even the most motivated trainees showed some reluctance to apply for NQT positions challenging schools as felt they needed to ‘learn how to be a good teacher first’.  They thought to address some of these concerns schools should have strong mentor support for trainees (and teachers).

This was a study to one cohort of trainees carried out alongside the promotion of a new project so some of the answers they provided were specifically related to placements in a particular region, however we can see that of the trainees involved most feel that a challenging school is one where the pupils come from underprivileged backgrounds and their motivation for working in these schools is so that they can make a difference. They really do want each of their lessons to ‘shape a life’. This is affirming to hear about our prospective teachers, but it is also important to note that many had worries and concerns, and if we are to support our trainees to train successfully in challenging schools, so that they may one day take a job in an area where they really can make a difference, we need to ensure the right support mechanisms are in place.


DfE (2020) Initial teacher training (ITT): criteria and supporting advice

Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/initial-teacher-training-criteria/initial-teacher-training-itt-criteria-and-supporting-advice#c32-partnerships

DfE (2018) Analysis of teacher supply, retention and mobility. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/682892/SFR11_2018_Main_Text.pdfDfE (2017)

Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: A plan for improving social mobility through education. Ref. Cm 9541. Available online at:https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/667690/Social_Mobility_Action_Plan_-_for_printing.pdfDfE (2016).

Educational Excellence Everywhere.Ref. Cm 9230. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/508550/Educational_excellence_everywhere__print_ready_.pdf

DfE TV campaign 2020, ‘Every lesson shapes a life’

BERA School Research Grant

BCF Curriculum Investigation Grant – Now Open

The BCF Curriculum Investigation Grant is intended to support research led by schools and colleges’ with a focus on curriculum inquiry and investigation. The grant will be launched for the academic year 2020/21, and is worth up to £5,000 for the winner, with £3,500 for two other grants, for a total of £12,000. The amount of grants awarded is dependent on the number and quality of applications received. We would expect the grant work to be carried out in the 2020/21 academic year with the final report being submitted by September 2021.This prize, awarded biennially, acknowledges the importance of research led by schools and colleges.Applications must make clear how the grant will enable applicants to do the following:Identify an issue impacting on the development of an aspect of the curriculum in their school/college;Design, implement and evaluate a response to the issue identified;Disseminate the processes and outcomes of the inquiry/investigation within the school/college;Develop a strategy to sustain curriculum investigation/inquiry within the school/college;Contribute to research and scholarship in the study of the curriculum;While it is possible that the applications will include collaborative partnerships with HE institutions we are keen to support schools and colleges led research and therefore ask the primary applicant to be based in a school or college.Deadline for applications: Friday 19th June 2020

The Impact of School Closures

The Centre for Research in Social Mobility at Exeter has created a set of surveys to explore the impact that school closures are having on students, parents, teachers and admissions/widening participation professionals. The surveys are targeted at these different groups, with the first question taking respondents to the correct survey; each should only take around 10 minutes to complete, and we are donating to ChildLine for completed surveys.

If you are a parent of a school-aged child, a teacher or someone who works in admissions or widening participation, please consider taking part:  https://universityofexeter.researchfeedback.net/s.asp?k=158532671971

Student Voice

Could conventional, democratic, approaches to student voice be undermining pupil’s engagement with school?

I spent a year observing pupils in a South West school and found they had good relationships with teachers when there was mutual recognition of the issues faced by both parties. Student voice works best when pupils understand the role of their teachers. Children know teachers run the school and are in charge. But they also feel the school should be run in their interest, and they should have a share in decision-making. There is a danger that if they don’t feel they are listened to they will exercise their voice in a negative way, by not complying with rules.

Schools must do more than only pay lip-service to student voice. They should do more to really listen to pupils. Children know very well that they hold the power to be disruptive, and teachers should to more to work with them to use this power in a constructive, rather than disruptive way. My research suggests good relationships with teachers is more important than any mechanisms to introduce an element of democracy such as student councils, which are not sufficient to promote student voice. Just creating democratic structures isn’t an effective way for the voice of students to be heard. The quality of relationships is the foundation of effective voice. Students need to recognise and be recognised. The perception of student councils is often that they are easily co-opted into simply following the agenda of a school’s senior leadership and this often leaves pupils disengaged, choosing to exercise their voice through non-compliance instead.

Efforts to increase “student voice” in schools need to be better organised to give children a genuine chance to have their say. Teachers should focus on working on a smaller scale in order to provide different ways for pupils to air their views in a positive way.

Non-compliance as a substitute for voice is published in the journal Research Papers in Education. To read the full article (for free if you are one of the first 50 people to use the link!) go here: https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/M7UHFnTx7Fbj9T5YDrmr/full?target=10.1080/02671522.2019.1633564

Tom Ralph is Senior Lecturer in Education, Subject Leader Secondary Mathematics PGCE and PGCE Secondary Programme Director at the University of Exeter: http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/education/staff/profile/index.php?web_id=thomas_ralph

Event: Exploring Data Analytics in Schools


See above for a free day event at the Met Office in Exeter, exploring how schools can use data analytics.

Analysing data is one of the most important skills in our society, and in this half-day conference we will provide innovative ideas for teaching data analytics in schools. This includes workshop sessions where we will share our experience of teaching data analytics and demonstrate our newly developed toolkit. Further our partners in the Met Office will reflect on the importance of data analytics skills to their own industry and to the Future of Work in general.

This half-day event will showcase free new teaching materials developed in partnership with colleagues in Spain and Turkey and developed in partnership with the ERASMUS+ strategic Partnerships Programme.


Metacognition: What’s all the fuss?

by Shirley Larkin.

What does metacognition look like? And how can we facilitate it?

Try a thought experiment. Turn your mind to think about your own memory. Is it a good memory? Can you compare it to someone else’s? Can you compare within yourself eg. I have a good memory for faces but not for names. Ask yourself how you remember best. Does it depend on what you are trying to remember. Think about short term and long term memory. Don’t conjure up a memory, just focus on memory itself. When you have had enough come back to reading.

If you did the above you have just experienced the shift in thinking we call metacognition. Metacognition is thinking about our own cognitive processes. So we turn our thoughts inward to what is in our mind rather than what is in the world.

The cognitive processes are: thinking, knowing, believing, guessing, imagining, remembering, understanding, attention, concentration, perception.

But of course we can’t see people make this shift in thinking. We can only interpret what people are thinking from what they say or what they do. So if we want to develop better metacognition in the classroom we need to provide activities that require students to shift their thinking to the meta-level. We also need to have some way of being able to see this shift happen.

We know that activities that are complex, open-ended, with no one right answer, which are novel and authentic are more likely to require this shift in thinking than simpler, familiar and repetitive tasks. We don’t need to be metacognitive all of the time. Tasks become automated for a reason eg consider reading, driving, walking. But making decisions, taking account of different perspectives, solving complex open ended problems do require a shift in thinking. We can use our metacognitive knowledge of how we think best to help us with such tasks. We can also monitor our progress and where necessary change the way we are thinking, drawing on strategies that we know have helped us in the past.

So to facilitate metacognition we first need to provide the right kinds of activities. Secondly we need to show students what metacognition is by modelling it. Thirdly we need to equip students with the language to talk about their own thinking. Fourthly we need to consider the classroom environment and turn it into a space where the focus is on good thinking rather than only good answer.

Biography: Dr. Shirley Larkin is a senior lecturer at Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter. She has researched metacognition since 1999. You can see her profile and contact information here, if you would like to get in touch:


Shirley researches and writes about metacognition, self-regulated learning and thinking skills extensively. For a recent publication written for primary school teachers see Metacognition, Worldviews and Religious Education.

Prof. Daniel Mujis on the Research Behind Ofsted’s New Inspection Framework

On 18th October we welcomed Ofsted’s Head of Research, Daniel Mujis, to talk about the concept of ‘quality of education’, discussing research into pedagogy, teacher effectiveness and how this relates to student outcomes – but also how these are insufficient indicators of quality of education.

He discussed the wide body of research into the concept of ‘teacher effectiveness’ – which is often cited e.g. by this Sutton Trust document. This an excerpt from one of Daniel’s slides:

  • There is clear evidence that the effectiveness of individual teachers has a significant impact on student outcomes. Explains up to 75% of classroom level variance in pupil performance
  • If one takes two pupils with identical background (SES, gender, …) and test scores at beginning of year, the pupil taught by the most effective teacher will score 25% higher at the end of the year than the pupil taught by the least effective teacher (Muijs & Reynolds, 2001).

We also know that the quality of teaching is more important for pupils disadvantaged by socioeconomic background, for lower achieving pupils and for pupils at risk.

Of course, trying to pin down exactly what characterises ‘effective’ teachers is more problematic. Teaching is obviously a dynamic, interpersonal process which resists simple quantification. However, there are some clear indicators of what ‘effective practice’ might look like which highlight the particular benefits of: direct instruction, metacognition, classroom climate and relationships (warm but learning-focused), feedback and assessment (how do we make sure that assessment is built into and informs learning, that feedback is effective).

Recognising the deformative impact that Ofsted has previously had on school performance measures (creating ‘Ofsted’ lessons and criteria matched closely to perceived Ofsted grading criteria), Daniel went on to discuss why focusing simply on pedagogy – as the research discussed above does – is not sufficient when considering quality of education. Instead, he argued, we need to consider not only howsomething is taught but also whatis taught. Here’s another excerpt from his slides:

  • What if we use good pedagogy, but don’t have good subject knowledge?
  • What if we use good pedagogy to teach harmful content?
  • What about what happens outside of the classroom?
  • What do lessons mean in isolation?
  • Can we effectively teach poor content?
  • There is a relationship between teacher subject knowledge and teaching behaviours/strategies
  • But we can teach poor content well!
  • What do we need to do to ensure the what, as well as the how of teaching are addressed?
  • What if we teach harmful content?

Daniel discussed how the interaction between what happens in the lesson and outside the classroom is also important, and also the limitations of observing a snapshot of learning in a single lesson, and the importance of how learning builds in sequences over time. All of this, was used to justify and explain the Ofsted focus on the curriculum – why curriculum matters.

He also touched on the contested issue of ‘cultural capital’ – offering these views…

Cultural capital:

  • The symbolic elements (knowledge, tastes) we possess, and typically share with others
  • Provides us with more or less access and social mobility in a stratified system
  • Cultural capital is not equally shared, but valued forms are more present in some social groups than in others
  • Education can help to provide what is not present in the home, which can help provide social mobility

But we will write about Cultural Capital in a separate post…

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