We won’t have more social mobility without more equality

The revival of “Skylight”, a play by David Hare originally performed in the mid 1990’s was one of the theatrical hits of the summer. It’s almost entirely an extended debate between two former lovers, Bill Night as an entrepreneur owner of a chain of restaurants and Carey Mulligan as a teacher in a run down school in the East End of London.

It’s presentation of London schooling is very much of its time – more a battle for survival than a place of learning. But as David Hare has pointed out, the worship of private sector money and the down grading of public service is increasingly of our time too.

But there’s one exchange that shows very clearly how easy it is to miss the whole point of democratic and comprehensive schooling. Carey Mulligan’s character tells us that, for her, finding just one talented child in the sea of dross that is an urban comprehensive makes it all worthwhile. Raising up that one pupil to join the privileged classes is what apparently it’s all about.

This encapsulates in one short exchange the fundamental problem with much of the discussion of social mobility today. It starts from the basic premise that you can only get to live a good life if you pass your exams and get into a middle or upper class profession. So there will never be enough opportunities for everyone and life is a competition to win the big prizes.

This in essence is the case for selection. If you’re clever (ie you pass exams) you deserve to be rescued. If you’re not , you don’t. The trouble is that this argument starts from the assumption that we can’t provide a decent secure existence for everyone. The poor, it seems, will always be with us. The only question, then, is who gets the prizes – and not surprisingly those who have them already have found plenty of ways of making sure they keep them. And so social mobility, defined like this, predictably dries up.

What we really want from schools – and what impressively we actually get from most – is the fundamental belief that every child does indeed matter. We need to be ambitious for them all. There’s an article in this week’s TES by the Director of Inclusion at Katherine Birbalsingh’s free school. It takes a great many words to make the pretty obvious point that we need to be ambitious for all our children.

But this too badly misses the real issue. To begin with there is a long and lingering description supposedly of the life of a child from the wrong side of the tracks. No cliché is too obvious or familiar to be left out – down to the brother who won’t let the five year old sleep by playing games all night. The imaginary mother “wants nothing more than for her children to be lifted out of the circumstances they were born into”.

The answer, according to this article is school. Teachers must make the difference. On one level this is trite and obvious. Any one child might succeed beyond what would be expected. Indeed in London schools for some years very many have. But they won’t all go to Russell Group because there aren’t enough places for everyone. Some will end up unemployed, sick or in zero hour sub minimum wage employment. Not because they deserve it but because we have organised our society so that this has to be the outcome for a great many people.

It’s essentially all part of the argument that says poor people don’t want more money – they want education, support and of course sanctions if they don’t conform. This has to be seen for the vicious con that it is. The reality for the imaginary mother in the article is that she would want to be able to give her child what others get now not just dream of some future fantasy world. And that does come down to money and to security in income, work and housing.

Schools might be able to change the pecking order of society somewhat – though given how the odds are stacked in favour of the existing elite, not that much. But schools won’t enable everyone to earn a living wage, to live somewhere they can afford without fear of eviction and to give their kids the kind of start they would wish. That will take a commitment to a more equal society not just to a rescue act for the lucky few.

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5 Comments on “We won’t have more social mobility without more equality”

  1. Terry Loane says:

    This is a good analysis, John. I think we need to take a strong position of challenging and rejecting the very concept of ‘social mobility’. Social mobility sounds laudable, (just like motherhood and apple pie) but behind the use of this phrase lies the assumption that, in your words, “there will never be enough opportunities for everyone and life is a competition to win the big prizes.” I would say that anyone who claims to be in favour of social mobility is also, in effect, in favour of maintaining the hideous inequality we see around us. One such person, I humbly suggest, is the Labour Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, who said last year:

    “We want to create a society in which the son of a bus driver can go on not only to run but own the bus company.”

    (This statement was described by one journalist as “a ruthless march on to terrain that Tories consider their own.” – yes, indeed.)

    The urgent issue for those of us who care desperately about creating a fairer and more convivial society is social inequality not social immobility. And it is the existence of such extreme inequality, as you imply John, that impedes educational success and fulfilment. For example, to quote the closing words of a letter about children’s reading in today’s Guardian:

    “ ‘… galvanising the nation so parents, grandparents and volunteers play their part in teaching children to read’… will prove no more useful than a sticking plaster unless our wealthy but unequal society can also be galvanised to radically reverse the trend to ever-greater levels of economic inequality, which correlate so clearly with children’s unequal reading levels.”

  2. Paul Martin says:

    This hits the nail on the head. Selection is a counsel of despair, not of hope.

  3. Lucy Wenham says:

    It always saddens me when people advocate the importance of social mobility for exactly these reasons. Thank you for this excellent article. This vital point is so often misunderstood and social mobility seen as a solution even by well-intended and thoughtful people. It must be addressed. We should strive for equality not a ladder for a lucky few in an uneven, so called meritocracy.

  4. chris dunne says:

    Agree with everything you say, but want to add a couple of riders from the vantage point of a life spent teaching in inner London, 21 years as Head of an East End Comprehensive.

    Anyone who has actually set foot in a real East End school knows that the ‘sea of dross’ not only didn’t/doesn’t exist, but speaks eloquent volumes about the values of those who think it did/does. My school had the second highest FSM percentage of any secondary in the country; the students were bursting with ambition and a keen desire to prepare for productive future lives. Wonderful kids, full of talent and invention.

    Secondly, even getting to a Russell Group university doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of the disadvantaged youngster. State-educated students at Russell Group / 1994 universities outperform privately-educated students (20% 1:1 or 2:1 degrees v 18% for private school students) but when it comes to the professions and other top jobs 58% of state-educated students secured them versus 74% of those from private schools.

    Never mind Islamic fundamentalism -14 years in to the 21st century and ‘class’ is still the biggest enemy this country faces!!