Last week I participated in a highly stimulating event run by Changing the Chemistry in Edinburgh on what investors expect from boards. Reflecting on the banking crisis from an insider’s perspective, the speaker commented that from a regulatory standpoint, he had always believed in the Power of One, ie the importance of a single voice having the perspicacity to draw out the truth, name it, and speak up, and by so doing, open the eyes of everyone. In a classic example of how our understanding of the world can be enriched when we bring together different spheres of thought, I found myself ruminating not only about how true this is of boards in general, but also about how true this is in schools, and with teachers and school leaders in particular.
Social mobility is very much in the UK news at the moment, with the publication on Monday of an Education Green Paper by the government which prepares the way for a generation of new academic grammar schools, amongst other related policies. Grammar schools were widely heralded in the 1950s as engines of social mobility, but with time and distance, it may well be that we have lost sight of what (or rather who) actually enabled that social mobility – in secondary modern schools as well as grammar schools – namely the teachers themselves. No-one other than a parent has more day-to-day contact with children than teachers, and the power of a teacher’s word is never to be underestimated. Teachers can make a vast difference to children’s lives through their expectations and their ability to encourage (literally, give courage to) children to attempt subjects and activities that they might not otherwise have considered, but which lead them on to paths which deeply influence their lives.
I spent some of this past weekend at the marvellously forward-thinking Ackworth School in Yorkshire, and as I stood up and spoke to an audience of senior school leaders from the area, I reflected on how one of my school teachers in the 1980s had directly contributed to my presence there to talk about social and global mobility, by selecting (a somewhat reluctant) me for the school public speaking team, and working with me to overcome my reservations about standing up in public. Other people over the years, of course, have helped me to be able to speak fluently in public – usually by just expecting me to get on with it – but I particularly remember this teacher because I recall not especially wanting to put myself forward for the team, and yet he persisted, I participated, and as a result I gained enormous confidence (and success – we came 3rd in Scotland in a contest aired on BBC radio). Teachers have the power to shape children’s futures, and because they care passionately about the children in their care, they will often go more than the extra mile just to make sure that children rise to their potential – a potential which, unsurprisingly, children themselves cannot always see.
In amongst all our current political commentary on social mobility and education, which consists overwhelmingly of discussions about systems and structures, we need to remember that it sometimes takes just one person to make a difference to a child, and in so doing to set them on a path which enlarges their horizons and directly affects their ability to choose what they will do with their lives. This is social mobility in action – and the real drivers are teachers. We should laud them and release them to work their magic.
Dr Helen Wright is the author of Powerful Schools: how schools can be drivers of social and global mobility, published by John Catt Educational (2016)