Achieving social mobility is hard – schools can’t do it on their own

At the recent Teach First conference (https://www.teachfirst.org.uk/press/alan-milburn-calls-social-mobility-tests-education-policy) Alan Milburn – our social mobility Tsar – claimed that “it will be impossible to make progress in improving social mobility until the educational attainment gap between less well-off and better-off children is closed. Our future success in a globally competitive economy relies on using all of our country’s talent not just some of it.”

Now no one would deny that the gap between the educational performance of disadvantaged pupils and the rest is unacceptable. One of the most noticeable features of English education when compared with other countries is our long tail of underachievement.

But his analysis breaks down in two ways. First, his proposals for closing the gap assume that it can be done by a bit more tinkering with the educational system. A new performance measure. Sack a few more heads. Let a few teachers off their student loans. Set a new target and give Ofsted something new to beat schools up over.

Some of these proposals are extraordinarily muddled – so for example

Scrap tuition fees for teacher training and provide housing support for existing teachers who work in the worst schools in disadvantaged areas. If these are really the worst schools, why would we want to keep and reward the current teachers? Or is “worst” really a synonym for disadvantaged. If so it is really saying something worrying about his assumptions.

The lowest performing 20% of schools to be given intensive support or have wholesale change in leadership if they continue to fail. Unfortunately basic maths says there will always be a lowest performing 20%. Improve some and others will fall into the 20%. And anyway, by what measure will the 20% be identified – something that has baffled educational statisticians for many years.

There is nothing here about educational fundamentals – nothing about the crisis in teacher supply or in teacher morale. Or about the disastrous testing and exam regime imposed by Gove and Morgan. Or about the socially selective admissions system that you find in much of the country. Or about the continued existence of the privileged private school sector.

But even more importantly, he totally ignores issues in our wider society outside education. Nothing about poverty wages, insecure employment, inadequate housing, food banks and all the rest. If children have parents who are seeing their living standards driven down as an act of deliberate policy, they are not likely “to be ready to compete in the modern labour market”.

To pretend that fiddling with school performance measures will counter-balance all this is frankly disgraceful – a cynic would say it’s simply a way of avoiding having to think about what inequality is really like in our country.

There is however an even more fundamental issue. According to Milburn, education is meant to bring about social mobility. This assumption demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand how social mobility works – or doesn’t.

There are basically two ways in which social mobility can work. Sometimes – as in the 1950’s and 1960’s – there is structural change in the labour market which opens up opportunities for some people to move into a different kind of job from their families. The expansion of higher education created opportunities that had not been there before in order to provide the growing demand for professional and “white collar” employment. But there is much less of this in today’s labour market, especially where “middling” craft and admin jobs are increasingly disappearing.

The second way is if there is movement both up and down the class system – a genuine meritocracy. Social mobility is not just about moving up – it has to involve going down too. Making this happen is incredibly difficult. The already privileged have very many ways of making sure that it will not be their children who move down.

Achieving a meritocracy is made harder in our society by the extraordinarily unequal rewards offered for different jobs. For a child from a professional family to move into a non-professional job involves a huge hit in potential income and even more in social status. We don’t value trade and craft skills. And anyone working in an unskilled job can expect insecurity and bullying at a wage that can’t support a family. If this is what downward mobility looks like, don’t expect to see it happen any time soon.

So, no, social mobility will not be brought about by tinkering with the performance tables or by blaming schools in disadvantaged areas for supposed failure. Genuine educational reform can make a dent in the issue and can enable more young people to have some better opportunities. But in the end real social mobility will only happen if we have a more equal society which really values every kind of work and contribution.

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3 Comments on “Achieving social mobility is hard – schools can’t do it on their own”

  1. Don Berry says:

    I’m sure I have vague memories of a suite of policies entitled ‘Every Child Matters’ which attempted to put the contribution that education can make within the context of wider social and economic policy. Alan Milburn, as Secretary of State for Health at the time, might want to remind himself of them.

  2. Richard Pring says:

    dear John

    Thank you

    I attach an interesting letter which says a lot and needs spreading around

    Richard

    ________________________________

  3. Thanks for this – sounds like it was a good conference! And I enjoyed reading your review. Your angle seems to be similar to the one I took in this article for SOSS (Symposium on Sustainable Schools): http://www.soss.org.uk/c5-on-damage-caused-by-efforts-to-improve-social-mobility/ It’s from a personal perspective having worked darn hard in school (2000-2010) because I saw it as the way into a higher level and secure life, only to hit a glass ceiling that existed because of believing the narrative of social mobility being about performing well as a student, and essentially learning to be uncritical of the state education I felt incredibly lucky to receive. All the best with your work. Leah