Peter Mortimore on educational inequality in England

Henry Stewart's picture
On 7th April 2014 the RSA hosted a discussion on educational inequality in England. Peter Mortimore gave a passionate call for change and Pasi Sahlberg looked at international comparisons and lessons from Finland. The videos are well worth watching for their entertaining and informative contribution:

Peter Mortimore: Video:  Educational inequality in England

Key points from Peter's talk: "The best teaching I've seen anywhere in the world has been in English schools". And there is a good focus on fun. "I can take you to a primary school whose motto is: learning, laughter and love".

England spends less on schools than the OECD average. "We do well in terms of teacher pay but not in terms of class size". Illustrating international comparisons, Peter describes how some of our children do very well but inequality is far greater than in high performing countries like Finland. In contrast we have too much of a culture of school against school, parent against parent. And the result, in terms of happiness of our children, is not impressive:

He went on to explore the high levels of poverty in England and the high levels of stress for teachers and students. All these pressures being piled on our schools are counter-productive. High performing schools are characterised by more collaboration and less failure.

Peter’s recommendations for a different and fairer world of education:

** fair funding
** common governance
** middle democractic tier,
** open up faith schools to all pupils,
** reformed inspector regime (with trained practitioners, not private providers)
** assessment dedicated to supporting learning rather than quasi accountability
** adequate vocational route for less academic 50%

Longer term, find ways for all schools to get a balanced intake. Peter argues for “fair chance admissions” (random allocation of places) and a culture of evaluation, an expectation that all (students and teachers) are involved in improving outcomes - through, for instance, peer observation, and collaboration.

Key conclusion: “Inequalities in our educational system today will lead to greater inequality in our society in the future.”

Further videos:

See also Pasi Sahlberg on educational inequality

Educational inequality: Video: Q & A
Educational inequality: 5 mins video of Jon Cruddas and Philip Beadle
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Emma Bishton's picture
Sun, 27/04/2014 - 13:39

Inspirational stuff. One of the things which depresses me most about current educational policy is the apparent lack of interest in inequality of opportunity and its implications - not just for attainment but also for individual and societal wellbeing. Politicians from all sides need to spend a bit more time with people like Mortimer, and a bit less time micro-meddling.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 27/04/2014 - 21:35

Henry, thanks for this. As Emma says, inspiring stuff that will sadly, however, be lost on our current political leadership in government and opposition alike.

Emma, I respectfully disagree with you on one point. Rather than, "Politicians from all sides need(ing) to spend a bit more time with people like Mortimer, and a bit less time micro-meddling.', they actually need to step back from attempting to manage education at all, in any way and at any level. As the recently published Pearson Report, 'Making Education Work', made clear:

"To ensure long term planning for the secondary curriculum linked to this strategy, the
creation of an independent body is recommended representing all key stakeholders
(the teaching profession, the employers, higher education and political parties).
Responsibility for the secondary curriculum, its delivery, and assessment should remain vested in government. The role of the independent body would be to provide wide representation and consistency, and mitigate disruption associated with the frequency of change in the role of the Secretary of State for Education, an appointment that has changed regularly over the past 25 years with an average time in post of just over two years. Advice from the independent body should be strategic, for the long term, and must reflect the social and economic ambitions of the country."

That a group of this kind is calling for a change to the governance of education in the middle of a period of the alarmingly undemocratic reform of the service is most telling.

This is a powerful, independent group. However, it is clear from their report that they will need help to recognise that it isn't just the secondary curriculum and the examinations system that has suffered from the 'micro-meddling' you refer to. The whole of the service has suffered the most appalling damage because of the short-term policy changes of successive secretaries of state for education. This is why the Pearson Group needs to support the establishment of a national commission for education as called for in the Ordinary Voices Campaign (

Government in a modern democracy should have as its central aim removing inequality of opportunity. This will never be achieved by political parties meddling in education, looking for wished-for, short-term gains on the international stage. The Pearson Group needs also to redefine its remit to recognise that the best way to support the long-term economic growth of the nation is to invest more in every aspect of early years education and social care, thus contributing to the humanising agenda that should rest at the heart of any outstanding education system.

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