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If life is a lottery, then school and university admission should be, too

If we truly want to promote social mobility, we cannot let the anecdotes of middle-class politicians obscure the facts about school and university admissions, says Ann Mroz

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We all love a good story. A personal account is powerful. Narrative speaks to the heart, data to the head. The former wins almost every time.

It’s the reason that the grammar-schools-rescue-poor-clever-children story had such resonance. Because, for the very few, it was true. They succeeded in life to become politicians and public figures, and to tell their stories.

And their stories were compelling. The personal is potent. The problem is that everyone has a story. Everyone has been to school so everyone has an opinion on education. Parents have children who go to school and they, too, have their experiences to recount. Their stories are as multitudinous as schools are.

How many times do we say that data is not the plural of anecdote? But how many times do we allow anecdote to dance a jig on a public stage unchallenged? It happens so often that we scarcely register it anymore, but is it fair when the stakes are so high?

Is it right for politicians and senior figures in education to use personal experience on a public platform when discussing education? At the party conferences, currently in full swing, you can’t move for such anecdotes.

Yes, of course the stories humanise them, they make them more relatable. But theirs is just one story about one school and, sometimes, it’s one from a distant education past. More importantly, their story is invariably not the story of the children in your class and their context is not your context.

The child of the middle-class parent sent to a failing comprehensive will probably still do well in life; the child of a poor, white, working-class parent? Probably not. Children in London’s schools, on the whole, fare better than those outside the capital. But that’s where most public figures will be educating their children. If we keep getting anecdotes from them, we learn only of their experiences. They may once have been working class but, by virtue of their success, their children are not.

I am not trying to dismiss anyone’s experiences. I am saying that they are just one of many, which means it’s hard to garner anything meaningful from them. It’s why student surveys are a nonsense: how can you say if the institution you attend is better than another when, in all probability, it’s the only one you’ve ever attended? You may have done well, but how do you know you wouldn’t have done better elsewhere?

Politicians are there to represent the many, not the few. We should expect more of them. Their currency should be facts and figures. We talk about children from poor backgrounds having no aspirations as though it’s their fault, and say it’s hard for them to succeed because “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. But there are none so blind as those who will not see. If we are listening only to middle-class stories about education, how on earth can we see life through the eyes of the disadvantaged? These stories may obscure the truth but the numbers don’t lie.

More importantly, how do we do anything about it? For real social mobility to occur, some middle-class children, including those of politicians, will have to go down to allow poor children to move up. But middle-class parents will do almost anything to help their children succeed, as Lee Elliot Major describes in his powerful essay.

When life is a lottery and some children win by virtue of their birth and where they live, the way forward, he suggests, is to give poor children another chance by putting numbers in a Lotto machine for school and university admissions. It’s fair and it’s just. The right-wing media will hate it and Guardian journalists will love it until they realise it means their kids, too.

And that’s why, as equitable as it may be, it will probably never happen: politicians just won’t have the balls to do it.

Ann Mroz is the editor of Tes. She tweets @AnnMroz