Alun Francis, principal of Oldham College, has been named as the new deputy of the government’s Social Mobility Commission. Here he explains why it’s a landmark opportunity for FE and also has his say on the government’s decision to appoint a controversial chair
“It is a brave choice.” That is how Alun Francis describes the government’s decision to not only appoint a person dubbed the country’s “strictest headteacher” as the Social Mobility Commission’s next chair, but a college principal from a northern town as her second-in-command.
“[My position] might not necessarily be seen as a qualification for this kind of role. It actually allows us to give the problems we deal with here a centre of attention. So I think it’s a brave decision.”
Francis was announced as the deputy to the government’s preferred candidate to chair the commission, Katharine Birbalsingh, on Sunday.
Birbalsingh is head of the Michaela free school in north London, which has become infamous for its disciplinarian ethos. The headteacher herself certainly divides opinion. Earlier this year she said, “The woke are racist.” She has also accused “woke cultural racism” for “mercilessly attacking” black Conservatives who “betray their leftist masters by daring to think for themselves”.
Critics have said her appointment is another example of the government’s culture wars attack on “woke”.
But Francis urges caution about “newspaper headlines” and insists the government has no hidden agenda behind her selection.
“She will challenge the consensus about how we improve the outcomes for disadvantaged communities and achieve the best outcomes for everybody. I think she’s absolutely fantastic.”
He believes the pair will complement each other by bringing their different experiences to the commission.
“We both value different points of view. We’re both quite likely to put up opinions quite firmly but also listen to the other side. We recognise we come from different but very complementary worlds. Katharine knows far, far more than I would ever about the schools world. I know a lot about FE and towns like Oldham. And so I think the key here is to bring these two universes together and we’ll surround ourselves by other people who will bring other aspects to this.”
FE has a lot to offer policy – colleges are everywhere
Francis, who was made an OBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours in 2021, became Oldham College principal in 2010. Prior to this, he worked in councils, including on several regeneration projects focussing on skills, education, employment, youth and crime.
His view is that social mobility for “too long” has focused on a “fairly narrow perspective of getting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into elite occupations or universities”.
While it is “great when that happens”, it only affects a “small number of people and begs the question about what opportunities are there for everybody else”, he says.
It is the key message in a Policy Exchange paper published by Francis yesterday and titled Rethinking Social Mobility for the Levelling Up Era. “Social mobility should not just be about ladders up into the elite for a few, but a broadly based advance for the many,” he says in the document.
“We need to think about what that means in areas where we need to regenerate the economy, create more enterprise. I think they are the pressing questions of our time,” he tells FE Week.
His view echoes the “renewed focus” the government has placed on the commission, which will be on areas such as regional disparities, employment, education and enterprise.
Francis believes he is well equipped to be at the forefront of the commission to tackle this agenda owing to his background in FE.
“We are a medium-sized college in a town that needs some help to redevelop its economy. And those two things sit together very closely. This is a time when towns like this, and sectors like FE, have suddenly for the first time become high priority.
“We feel it’s right that sometimes we step up in that environment to influence policy. I think FE has a lot to offer policy. Colleges are everywhere, you go in any community, they’re almost like a unique vantage point.
“We’re the only organisation that works with employers but also works with the poorest communities and the highest achieving in many respects. It’s a rich window into what’s happening in the community. So with an issue like social mobility, it feels to me there is something that FE can really contribute to this.”
It’s not my style to make grand gestures
The commission launched in 2010 and hasn’t gone without controversy. In 2017, its founding chair, Alan Milburn, dramatically quit along with his commissioners in protest at what they saw as a lack of progress towards a “fairer Britain” under then prime minister Theresa May.
Francis is adamant that things are different under this government. “I wouldn’t be taking the role on if I didn’t feel they [ministers] were genuinely interested in the challenges that social mobility brings,” he says.
“I think there is sometimes a pessimistic view of social mobility, which sees it as being in decline. And I’m not convinced that the evidence is that it is declining. I think the economy has changed and that’s made it more complicated. But I’m not sure there was a golden age when it was fantastic and now it’s in a terrible mess.”
He continues: “I think they [the SMC] have done some great work so I wouldn’t want to denigrate it at all. I just think that some of the policy focus there has become a bit narrow, and then it becomes very frustrating for people because they kind of feel we’re not making enough rapid progress. I’m just not sure that we’re always focused on the right things.”
Asked whether he would take a stand by quitting the role if he feels not enough progress is being made, like Milburn did, Francis says he would take a different approach.
“It’s not my style to make grand gestures. If I’ve learned one thing of working in FE for a very long time it is that you keep going, you keep working at it, you don’t give up and walk away, you have to stick at it and keep trying. I’m much more likely to be persistent and to keep at it, if it’s something worth pursuing.”