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'The government's policy on social mobility is seriously flawed'


Bernard Barker, emeritus professor of educational leadership at the University of Leicester and visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, writes:

There is a widespread perception that social mobility is stuck.

Today’s young people appear less likely to rise in the world than their predecessors in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was ‘room at the top’ for people from humble backgrounds.

Although there are arguments about the depth of the social freeze, students from wealthier backgrounds tend to achieve better examination results and very often find themselves on pathways that lead to prestigious universities and high-level employment.

Talented youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to drop back rather than forge ahead academically, with only 21 per cent of the poorest fifth achieving 5 GCSE A*–C grades (including English and mathematics), compared with 75 per cent of those from the richest fifth.

Since 2010, the coalition government has followed New Labour in regarding apparently low levels of mobility as an unacceptable barrier to social justice and efficiency.

Vast spending on schools and universities has not produced the expected improvement in opportunity for young people trapped in disadvantaged areas. Education secretary Michael Gove concludes that "access to a quality education is rationed for the poor, the vulnerable and those from minority communities" and has declared his moral purpose: to raise school standards so that less advantaged children are better placed to secure high-quality jobs and social mobility.

The coalition’s strategy is founded on three essential propositions about education and social mobility, that our new research evidence – drawn from interviews with 88 students aged 15-18 at two highly-rated suburban English academies – appears to challenge.

Firstly, government ministers believe that students are competitive individuals who can overcome family background through hard work and ambition.

Although our respondents were convinced that, with hard work, nothing could prevent them from achieving their goals, they also saw their families as important sources of guidance and support rather than something to overcome.

Students, including the least advantaged, described the family resources (cultural, social and economic), parenting styles, interests and dispositions that had shaped their identities. They also explained their values and attitudes towards future opportunities in relation to their parents, siblings and relatives.

They were acutely aware of the small advantages – of upbringing, of resources, of family networks – that helped them succeed.

Policy makers are also convinced that high-performing academies can close the achievement gap between rich and poor. But despite the excellent systems in place to raise standards and improve performance at both academies, 36 per cent of the students failed to reach the good GCSE threshold. School level interventions seem to have little impact on the close, graduated relationship between GCSE performance and relative wealth.

The prevailing official assumption is that academy students will be drawn into a culture of high academic expectations and target top universities and jobs.

Our case study academies were indeed driven by high expectations and a strong desire for achievement. The students described themselves as hard working and were keen to achieve the challenging academic and vocational targets set by their teachers.

They believed themselves part of a meritocratic system, where determination and effort are rewarded fairly.

But very few respondents said they wanted social mobility. On the contrary, most told us that intrinsic job satisfaction and family happiness were their prime concern for the future.

A substantial majority were content with their existing family milieu and rejected wealth and social advancement as measures of success.

Our data suggests that academies are most unlikely to overcome family background or much increase social mobility. On the contrary, they seem to embed differences in family wealth, with successful students invariably describing advantages transmitted through their parents.

As we publish our research, we argue that a different approach is required and we recommend that policy-makers need to do a number of things.

More research needs to be commissioned that recognises the family, including women and girls, as a central influence on social mobility.

Policy should be informed by qualitative studies that show the ways in which young people’s dispositions are formed and influenced, and help us understand how small advantages are transmitted between generations.

Structured support, especially through the childbearing years, needs to be provided to increase the proportion of women reaching senior professional and managerial positions.

Thanks to comprehensive education, large numbers of women are already achieving the qualifications and skills necessary for high-level careers.

Sustained help also needs to be provided for disadvantaged parents and carers so that their children’s levels of nutrition, social engagement and extra-curricular learning match those of more fortunate social groups.  

And finally, curriculum, assessment and guidance systems should be designed to encourage all young people and to value their talents and aspirations equally, whatever they are. Excessive testing, negative examination feedback and premature tracking into academic and vocational pathways should be avoided at all cost.

Education and Social Mobility: Dreams of Success (Trentham/Institute of Education Press) by Dr Kate Hoskins (University of Roehampton) and Prof Bernard Barker (University of Leicester) is published on 10 June 2014.


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