Social Mobility: stereotypes help no-one, says new GSA President

Social stereotyping is as dangerous as gender stereotyping, according to the incoming President of the Girls’ Schools Association, Gwen Byrom, who has said that the independent education sector wants to be part of the solution to social mobility but that stereotyped ideas about ‘posh’ private schools aren’t helping anybody.

Gwen Byrom is Head of Loughborough High School and will begin her 12-month role as President of the Girls’ Schools Association in January. She said:
I believe that independent schools can be part of the solution to giving children a fairer start in life, whether that’s through providing bursary places for children from low-income families, helping to run new state schools, or forming practical partnerships with state sector schools, for example by sharing specialist teachers. But we must get away from the idea that all independent schools are awash with cash with incredibly rich parents, as it’s just not true. Most independent schools operate on a money-in, money-out basis and many have fewer than 200 pupils on the school roll, they are very much part of their local communities employing local people in a variety of roles, and most parents make huge sacrifices to pay the fees. The more we can break down stereotypes, the sooner we can begin to have meaningful conversations that result in projects that help all pupils.”

Social mobility is close to Gwen Byrom’s heart. The first person in her family to go to university – she read Biochemistry at Manchester – she was educated at her local comprehensive. She would like to see the independent sector offering more 100% bursaries to help very low-income families but says there are barriers to applying that need to be addressed. She is in the early stages of an Education Doctorate that aims to unpick these barriers – research that she will resume once her year as GSA President is over:
We need to remember that just because a school offers 100% bursaries, doesn’t mean that families are falling over themselves to apply for them. There’s a big job to be done here and it’s not just about advertising the opportunities in the right places. When I was young, if someone had told my parents the Assisted Places scheme existed, they would have thought ‘that’s not for the likes of us’ and not even bothered applying. It was so out of their comfort zone. There are social and psychological hurdles that we need to unpick before we can start saying ‘give more bursaries’. That’s why partnerships and role modelling is absolutely vital – they break down all those stereotypes, on both sides, and if you can work together at school, you can work together in life. The impact of inter-school partnerships cannot be overestimated.”

Gwen also welcomed Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening’s emphasis on partnership working in her recently announced ambitions for social mobility:
It was good to hear Justine Greening say that the DfE wants to ‘focus on building lasting success through partnership’ because independent schools have much to offer through partnership working and, of course, for some independent schools, their financial situation may mean they are better placed to help through partnerships than they are through bursaries. Most school partnerships happen naturally. Teachers meet at external training events for example and discover ways of helping one another. But it’s not so easy for some which is why I’m really pleased that the government has a special department for helping independent and state schools to ‘find’ each other and create useful partnerships.”

At Gwen’s own school – Loughborough High School – Classics teachers are seconded to a local maintained school so students there can learn Latin and Greek. Her school is part of a foundation of four schools whose teachers and students also run masterclasses in maths, sciences and modern foreign languages for local pupils – something Gwen Byrom refers to as “the usual” as it is common practice among independent schools. Loughborough High’s sixth form students also help out in local secondary school classrooms, providing role modelling for younger pupils, which Ms Byrom believes can make an important contribution to social mobility:
It’s a way for young children to see people from their own community who are doing well and thinking, that could be me. Because social mobility isn’t just about passing exams, it’s also about having the right social and cultural capital to enable you to mix and mingle confidently with a wide variety of people.”


See also:

Times, 19/12/17: Shed elitist image, private schools told

Telegraph, 19/12/17: Poorest families fear children will not ‘fit in’ to private schools, incoming Girls’ School Association president says

TES, 18/12/17: Independent schools should offer ‘a lot more’ bursaries to poorer pupils, says leading head

Shropshire Star, 18/12/17:  Poorer families reluctant to apply for bursaries, leading headmistress suggests

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