The Education Secretary, Justine Greening, launched the DfE’s ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’, a plan for improving social mobility through education, on 14 December 2017 – the overarching ambition of the plan is to ensure “no community is left behind”.

It’s acknowledged that education outcomes and skills outcomes are one of the biggest drivers of productivity, and areas with lower outcomes can become “trapped in a low skills cycle”. As a result, the DfE is striving to target the areas that are not yet fulfilling their potential to ensure they are receiving sufficient support and resources.

This guidance outlines the key proposals and the actions specifically related to schools that the DfE is proposing to take in order to achieve their ambitions.

The four ambitions


To achieve the overarching ambition, a further four ‘key life stage ambitions’ are outlined in the action plan, which focus on key stages within an individual’s educational life and strive to tackle the key challenges at each stage.

Ambition 1 – close the ‘word gap’ in the early years


For some children in the early years, gaps can arise which can have a detrimental and lasting effect on social mobility:

  • Development gap – on average, 40 percent of the overall gap between disadvantaged 16-year-olds and their peers has already emerged at the age of five.
  • Word gap – by the age of three, more disadvantaged children are, on average, already almost a full year and a half behind their peers in early language development.

All aspects of children’s early development will still be supported; however, a specific emphasis will now be placed on the word gap, particularly focussing on improving early language and literacy to ensure more disadvantaged pupils leave school with the necessary skills.

The actions that the government will take to achieve this ambition that specifically relate to schools include the following:

  • Form a partnership with Public Health England to enable health visitors and early years practitioners to identify and support children’s early speech, language and communication needs.
  • Provide £50 million of funding to create more high-quality school-based nursery provision for disadvantaged children – supplementary funding for maintained nursery schools will also continue until 2019/2020.
  • Develop performance dashboards to identify LAs with low take-up of early education, particularly for disadvantaged children, and work with areas where additional support is needed.
  • Dedicate £50 million of investment targeted towards areas of weak early language and literacy. This will fund the following:
  • A national network of school-led English Hubs with a particular focus on the Reception year
  • A £20 million offer of school-led professional development for early years practitioners in pre-Reception settings
  • Work with teachers and experts to revise the early learning goals, with a particular focus on reducing unnecessary workload and strengthening literacy and numeracy.
  • Identify and share best practice of what should be taught in Reception.

Ambition 2 – close the attainment gap while continuing to raise standards for all


The second ambition focusses on the “crucial” role schools play in levelling up opportunities for their pupils. The key challenges that are faced at this education stage include:

  • Pupils in more deprived areas are more likely to go to a school with an Ofsted rating of ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’, putting them at risk of falling behind.
  • Disadvantaged pupils are behind their more advantaged peers at every KS.

To tackle these challenges, the DfE will focus on two factors: recognising and supporting the teaching profession as the key agent for improvement, and ensuring that the benefits of actions are felt across the country – therefore, support will be prioritised in more disadvantaged areas.

The specific actions the government will take related to schools include:

  • Ensure the accountability system gives credit to what teachers and leaders achieve in challenging schools. This includes:
  • A commitment from Ofsted to ensure leaders who step up to work in challenging schools will get full recognition in the leadership and management judgement.
  • The DfE ensuring progress measures show what schools achieve rather than what pupils they have in school.
  • The DfE and Ofsted working together to reduce unnecessary workloads in schools.
  • Ensure that the consequences of accountability are clear and effective in driving improvement and that the right support is provided to these schools, rather than just implementing sanctions.
  • Increase high-quality initial teacher training (ITT) provision in more challenging areas to train, attract and retain the best teachers in these areas.
  • Provide £30 million to invest in bespoke support for schools with intakes of disadvantaged pupils that are facing significant recruitment and retention challenges – a prototype is currently being tested and further plans will be brought forward in 2018.
  • Strengthen qualified teacher status (QTS) – the DfE released a consultation on their proposals to strengthen QTS and improving career progression for teachers in December 2017. The consultation closes on 9 March 2018 and views can be registered here.
  • Transform flexible working in schools to tackle teacher retention. 
  • Invest £75 million from the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund (TILF) to stimulate high-quality, evidence-based professional development for teachers and leaders in a range of challenging areas.
  • Target the £53 million MAT Development and Improvement Fund towards areas of weak capacity and use it to grow MATs with a proven record of supporting schools to improve.
  • Provide £300 million of targeted, evidence-based school improvement support for underperforming schools – schools with weaker performance for disadvantaged pupils will also be eligible for this support.
  • Increase access to the most effective curriculum support in more challenging areas and schools – this includes investing £33 million to expand the Teaching for Mastery maths programme to 3,000 more primary and secondary schools.
  • Increase the number of good school places by inviting a new wave of mainstream free school applications in early 2018 and ensuring the school system can benefit from the expertise of independent schools and universities.
  • Prioritise work to understand the needs of the most vulnerable children and how best to improve their outcomes – this includes undertaking a review into Children in Need and an external review into exclusions.
  • Bring proposals forward to ensure alternative provision is the best it can be.
  • Ensure that disadvantaged pupils can access core academic subjects – this includes introducing targeted support for schools to encourage the uptake of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and increasing the supply of EBacc teachers.
  • Continue to work with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to drive up the effectiveness of pupil premium spending, and introduce a new £23 million Future Talent Programme to trial programmes and present recommendations on how to best support the most able disadvantaged children.

Ambition 3 – high-quality post-16 education choices for all young people


The third ambition focusses on ensuring that young people can access high-quality post-16 academic and technical qualifications, and that these qualifications act as a “passport to opportunity”. The key challenges that are faced at this stage include the following:

  • Inconsistency in the quality of the technical offer
  • Young people who fall behind their peers by age 16 find it harder to get a good job
  • Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to enter high-quality higher education

To achieve this ambition, the DfE plans to undertake a variety of actions including the following:

  • Introduce the first T-levels from 2020 – the DfE released a consultation on the implementation of T-levels which closes on 8 February 2018 –you can register your views here.
  • Review higher technical education at level 4 and 5, focussing on how it can address the needs of learners and employers, meet the skills needs of the economy, and support social mobility.
  • Introduce a £15 million Strategic College Improvement Fund to provide support to help weaker colleges improve – the pilot phase of the fund was launched in October 2017.
  • Invest an additional £20 million to help colleges and teachers prepare for the introduction of T-levels.
  • Invest in FE college leaders to raise standards – this includes appointing the best leaders as National Leaders of Further Education to support other colleges in their local area, and funding a new Strategic Leadership Programme designed to support principals to develop the skillset they need to be effective leaders.
  • Establish a new Institutes of Technology to act as a beacon of quality provision – this will be supported by a £170 million fund.
  • Invest £40 million in the centres of excellence programme for the FE sector. Further investments will also be made to make colleges centres of excellence for maths and English.
  • Introduce a transition year for 16-year-olds who are not ready for more advanced academic or technical study or employment – the transition year will be piloted to test different offers.

Ambition 4 – everyone achieving their full potential in rewarding careers


The fourth ambition focusses on ensuring that young people from all backgrounds have the knowledge and skills to prepare for a rewarding career. While this doesn’t relate directly to schools, some of the actions the DfE is proposing to undertake are related to schools.

The actions relating to schools aim to tackle the challenge of pupils not having access to high-quality careers provision; the actions include the following:

  • Ensure every young person has at least seven encounters with employers during their education – this will be supported by collaborative ‘careers hubs’ in 20 areas, which will link schools, colleges, universities and others. Our Provider Access Resource Pack contains everything schools need to know about the requirement for schools to provide pupils with access to education and training providers.
  • Improve the quality of careers advice in schools. Schools are expected to use the Gatsby Benchmarks of good careers guidance to ensure their provision is high quality. Additionally, the DfE is providing £4 million of funding to improve careers provision. There will be a particular focus on ensuring disadvantaged pupils are aware of their post-16 choices.
  • Invest £22 million in the Essential Life Skills Programme which will provide extra-curricular activities (such as enterprise activities volunteering and social action projects) to young people who would normally struggle to access them.
  • Fund 39 mentoring programmes across the country to work with over 25,000 young people at risk of leaving education to ensure they re-engage, finish their education and move onto employment.




DfE (2017) ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’