Education and The Social Mobility Myth

Social Mobility

Photo: GETTY/HULTON ARCHIVE

This year I have had some amazing conversations with people around the work our youth leadership company does with young people. We have been asked what difference we think our work makes, how we really can measure the impact we have students and what hope is their for a future generation with limited job prospects. In addition I have been reading a lot on blogs, educational forums and social networking groups about issues such as post riot Britain, youth unemployment, the coalitions government approach to education and a various amount of videos and content on educational reform.

One of the niggling threads through this has been the affect social class has on opportunity and success in the UK.

Level the Playing Field
Britain is very much a classist society. Let’s get that straight. Those who are leaders in business, faith, science and politics in our country are by and large educated at the most selective grammer and fee paying schools and universities. We can complain about it but it is what it is, and it is not going to change in a hurry.

Over the years many organisations and successive governments have aimed to raise attainment across social classes in schools and colleges. From AIM Higher to Gifted and Talented programmes and any other flash name you can think of however, research from establishments like the LSE and Sutton Trust have noted that social mobility has not moved in the last 30 years or so. For me that is a bigger issue but how does one level the playing field? Do we actually need to level it in a way that somewhere like Finland does?

Who You Calling Disadvantaged?
I have a bit of a bugbear with organisations who state they work with disadvantaged students. A lot of our peer companies in the space do fabulous work with students who aren’t open to the economic and social advantages of other social classes but that deprived or disadvantaged label gets under my skin. Would a business coach or consultant say they are working with disadvantaged companies or clients? Of course not! I actually remember running a programme where a student asked me if we were doing this because they were disadvantaged. Another student piped up ‘Who you calling disadvantaged?’ and effectively had to be convinced we weren’t doing him and his colleagues a favour but rather sharing tips that all successful students regardless of background are aware of.

Does that mean that people should immediately change their marketing copy? No I don’t think so but one can’t help but think that if you see someone as disadvantaged you end up treating and speaking to them that way, even if only on a subconscious level. Part of levelling the field is allowing students to see that they are or should be treated equally and not have labels applied to them. If there are any exceptions why not talk in a more positive linguistic tone about potential.

So What Next
There is always going to be a need to address questions of what social mobility means. Our company made a decision a long time ago that the best way to do this was to offer our programmes to all. No advantaged or disadvantaged but all students regardless. We are as comfortable delivering in front of expensive fee paying schools as we are with state schools with serious social and economic challenges. In fact if we were to use the term disadvantage issues of addiction, self esteemm, financial and emotional disadvantage are apparent across all schools and demographics we work with. I digress. When we deliver leadership challenges, host retreats and run focus groups we endeavour to get a good cross section of young people. Often from different backgrounds and experiences. In our opinion this is where deeper conversations can be had. Waiting until they reach the world of work can be a bit too late.

I often wonder why people think that education is a key to social mobility when you realise that whilst the same subjects for CGSEs may be taught at Eton as they are at an East London Academy, the cost of such education, the network and the ethos of the two are very different. The former is more than likely to end up in an Oxbridge university and subsequently part of an influential alumnni that in many ways guarantees connections that the latter would probably never have. Yes schools do have visitations from successful people but there is a big difference from having that once a term to having such an ethos around you every day.

A lot of research shows that student attainment and success is largely influenced by peers. How about we challenge the concepts of social mobility, or what I prefer to see as social parity, by engaging students from different backgrounds in peer activity when they are young? How about biting the bullet and recognising that we are very much a classist society and place more effort on attracting, retaining and supporting the non typical demographic to attain schools such as Harrow, Eton and other schools and in turn they become ambassadors to source, mentor and support younger students from the same demographic to attend?

What is Social Mobility Anyway?
I suppose the real question is really defining what we mean by social mobility?
Have we asked young people what they want? Is it a change in mindset, more material possessions or something that just reinforces that we are a class based society where to be aspirational is all about moving from one to another?

I guess I get so many different definitions on this that I wonder if we have the same thinking. The thing is this, any meaningful change in culture has to be institutional and not the few success stories of stand out state schools and or social enterprises. Until then frankly it is just a lot of air and social mobility remains as mythical as most of us becoming a member of the royal family. A whole other blog.

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