Book review: Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View

A manifesto that comes with more questions than answers

David James

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Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View
Sonia Blandford
John Catt
202pp, £14.00 (paperback)

The title of Sonia Blandford’s book is taken from the influential National Children’s Bureau report of the same name, published in 1973, written by Peter Wedge and Hilary Prosser. The authors of the original admitted in their preface that there was no general agreement about what defined social disadvantage, but that “three factors seem fundamentally important: family composition...low income, poor housing”.

Education did not feature. This is where Blandford’s book differs. For her – and probably most readers – education is central to social disadvantage and social mobility.

But what does social mobility look like? For Blandford, it doesn’t mean that the working class aspire to middle-class lifestyles, or to shallow materialism. No, for Blandford, “social mobility involves changing the way people think, act and engage”. Few would disagree with such requirements if they clearly led to tangible progress, but many would ask for a little more detail about the shared goal, if it is not to be defined – and confined – by economics.

Political problems

A more important and political question is: who is responsible for redressing social inequality? Broadly speaking, Conservatives see social change as something individuals instigate themselves, whereas Labour – especially Corbynites – see such change as the responsibility of government. Blandford is too astute to align herself with either tribe, but it is clear there is a sense that birth is destiny and the individual, if denied “choices”, is unlikely to see much improvement in their prospects. But is such a view innately middle-class? And is the Tory-socialist divide a false dichotomy used for reductive political ends?

My own family encapsulate the problems of trying to find easy answers in this area. My father started life as a miner in South Wales, and my mother, although clearly bright, left school at 16 to work and then raised her family. A levels, let alone university, were never realistic options for either of them. But both my parents moved up into the middle class through a combination of hard work and the social reforms of post-war governments. I benefitted from their mobility, but my own children cannot take for granted any of the advantages I have, let alone improve on them, which partly explains the political turmoil so many affluent but stagnating economies now find themselves in.

So, Blandford’s book is timely. She raises the right questions, but her answers sometimes lead only to more questions. She writes passionately about “choices” and “inclusion”, but such statements need to be fully explained, costed and detailed. They seldom are. And when she writes that there has to be a “focus on everyone, and at every age”, that is not focus but a wide-angle lens that leaves everything blurred and undefined.

The cornerstone of this “common-sense manifesto” is inclusion. For Blandford, the fact that nearly 6,700 children were permanently excluded from schools in 2015-2016 shames the system. For her, “exclusion in whatever forms is unjust, unnecessary and should be removed from practice in our education system”.

But what would be the consequences of such a change in school policy and practice? What impact would retaining these children have on the education of the children whose lessons they disrupt? How might that help retain the many teachers who leave the profession every year because of disruptive behaviour in the classrooms?

At no point does Blandford blame the parents of the disruptive children for the damage they do, nor are the children considered responsible for their own actions. Society and schools are to blame. They are to blame, too, for curricula that are not “socially and culturally relevant” to all children, which do not “engage children in learning”, a line of argument that eventually leads to cultural relativism and leaves all children impoverished.

Despite my disagreements with Blandford, I ended up respecting her position. She is the personification of social mobility and rather than sitting in an academic ivory tower, she has committed herself to helping others.

Yes, her questions are sometimes unanswered, but that does not mean they should not be asked, or answers not searched for. Given the crisis we are facing, we don’t have any alternative.

David James is deputy head (academic), Bryanston School. He tweets @drdavidajames

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David James

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London

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