Social Mobility and Through the Looking Glass
Nancy Gedge blogs on social mobility ahead of the launch of our report this evening: Through the Looking Glass
What is social mobility? What do we mean by it?
Sometimes, when words and phrases get bandied about a lot, and this is true for all walks of life, not just education, it does us good to stop and think about what it is we actually mean when we say, or write them. Increasingly, I find myself doing this every time someone, somewhere, mentions ‘social mobility’.
Now, it may be because I have a weakness for historical fiction (I was going to be a romance writer, once), that the concept of social mobility has long been connected in my mind with marriage and wealth, or it could be that I have long been interested in personal stories of societal change, but it seems to me that social mobility, as an idea, is connected with notions of identity; with who you are and who you aspire to be and, especially pronounced in the UK, with class. And when I looked it up, to see what greater minds than mine had said, it was the ‘mobility’ part that took centre stage; the way that people move up and down the social strata, as their economic fortunes take them.
What troubles me, though, is that today, when we hear the phrase, ‘social mobility’ what we mean is something quite different, and something much narrower. If you care to look, you can even find organisations devoted to its new, specific meaning.
Today, social mobility does not seem to be something that applies to us all, something that happens, when we take a course, a job, a marriage, a status denoted by the house we live in or the car we drive. Instead, it seems it is something entirely to do with low income and low social status. Indeed, when you stop to think about it, it’s not even to do with everyone who finds themselves in that group, but a certain kind of person within it; a certain kind of child.
The bright poor. The deserving.
What is education for?
A while ago now, the Commons Select Committee for Education launched an enquiry into the purpose of education. In many ways, it astonishes me that it should be something that is up for debate, but, given that we live in an age of almost unprecedented educational change, I shouldn’t be, I suppose. Notions of education, what it is for, and our understanding of childhood itself are constructs that each new generation frames for themselves, and much is dependent on our own circumstances. If you look at the evidence submitted, you will find a whole host of ideas, from various interest groups, attempting to answer this question.
We hear, ‘work ready’ and, ‘secondary ready’. We hear of performance on international league tables, ever rising attainment scores; children dance to an adult melody, doing their best to please, despite their ignorance of the forces at work that play the tune; the compliant ones congratulated on their abilities, the difficult ones quietly shown the door.
We see the effects in our school system, one that feeds itself, serves itself and congratulates itself upon its own cleverness with attention paid to exercise books and provision maps; children metaphorically sacrificed on the altar of looking good, teachers struggling under the pressure of the cognitive dissonance of trying to do the right thing and yet being prevented, a profession haemorrhaging talent and experience.
Occasionally we hear of the opportunity to fulfil potential; but to which children is this opportunity offered?
To all? Or to the select few?
We know the answer: the bright poor. The disadvantaged.
What is disadvantage?
Although ‘the disadvantaged’ appear repeatedly in social commentary, they are rarely defined. We know, vaguely, that it is something to do with money, but it could also be something to do with bedtime stories and the fact that Father never gets home in time to read one. Most of the time they are made out to be homogenous, like a pint of milk; the same all the way from the bottom to the top.
And, when it comes to breaking disadvantage down, levelling the economic playing field, education is promoted as the answer; that disadvantaged children and young people can catch up, even though we know otherwise. Segregation is the latest magic pill, even though we know that it further entrenches inequality.
Time and again economic disadvantage is drawn as both the principle marker and the determining factor in educational outcomes, but while we focus on it and it alone we miss out mentioning that disadvantage occurs in degrees, and with other circumstances, such as SEND.
And that’s before we get to the close relationship between SEND and poverty, SEND and family stress, and SEND and heritability.
It might be nice to look at the world in simple terms, to assume that all children need the same thing, but unfortunately for us the world rarely seems to want to play the same game. We might want to split the poor into the deserving (those golden few who can pull themselves out of the mire with the assistance of their own bootstraps) and the feckless (the ungrateful, the ones who throw the gift of education back in our faces), but anyone who has ever worked in a school, and especially anyone who has ever worked in a challenging school, knows that it is never black and white. It is never a case of either or.
Real mirrors aren’t the sort you can step through. Real mirrors aren’t magic, only telling us what we want to hear.
There is always SEND. And it must always be a factor. To ignore it is to ignore our own reflection.
Our Research report out today looks at our aspiration as a society for all children to have literacy skills and questions why we fail to achieve this.