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‘Making teachers responsible for social mobility is political cowardice’

Anyone who thinks any education system can solve social inequality needs to think harder about what 'inequality' and 'educated' really mean

Damian Hinds must focus on adult numeracy and literacy to boost social mobility

Anyone who thinks any education system can solve social inequality needs to think harder about what 'inequality' and 'educated' really mean

If there is one idea that exposes just how profoundly intellectually impoverished, unimaginative and technocratic, contemporary political thinking is today, “social mobility” is that idea. As though something as subtle and challenging as changing one’s class could be achieved by hopping onto the kind of adult, electric scooter, obese Americans increasingly rely on just to get about. 

Like obesity, social mobility is a transatlantic ailment. Latching onto some kind of tepid, ill-thought through version of the American dream, politicians of all shades present themselves as champions of the poor and working class, that vast majority of ordinary men and women born without a silver spoon anywhere to hand, never mind stuck firmly between fat, pampered lips. As though the mere act of being born into an ordinary, working class family condemns a child to a life not worth living. What a preposterous and ignorant idea. How stupidly blinkered do you have to be, to really believe that a child can’t be loved, cared for, or treasured on the basis of what some spreadsheet bothering geek at the OECD has to say about their parents’ income on some glittery slideshow entertaining guests at the launch of the latest think tank report?

The very language politicians use to discuss social mobility reeks of shallow, materialistic greed, arrogance and ignorance. People are considered “less fortunate” or “just-about managing” as though nothing really matters in life but the size of your monthly pay cheque. A comforting, middle class lifestyle: good school, university, own home and safe profession is vaunted as the perfect life to aim for, even though in any 21st century western economy a “safe profession” is increasingly vapid nostalgia and a university “education” all too often nothing of the sort.

And of course, the more you say it, the more people believe it. Tell the working class they are “disadvantaged” and watch them clamber for support.

Greed isn’t good and neither is envy. They have never been good and while of course poverty is one of very few things elected politicians really should concern themselves with, the only way to eradicate it is through job creation and a vital economy.

Foisting the responsibility predominantly onto schools and teachers as both main parties are eager to do, is political cowardice as well as incompetence.

Does anyone seriously believe that those obdurate Radio 4 listeners descended from tea planters and imperial civil servants, the real English middle class, embody moral or social values we should all aspire to? Is that really a cultural or societal vision worth fighting for?

Our current flock of politicians bleats about social injustice with utopian zeal but offers dystopian thinking. They are incapable of seeing that technocratic solutions inherently undermine and degrade our essential humanity. Modern western societies are complex, multi-layered structures in which families and individuals can so easily drown the second they relinquish the essentially human, emotional bonds and desires which unite us all, regardless of class. Child neglect, like any disease, isn’t interested in class boundaries.

Yet how much effort seriously goes into nurturing and consolidating the health of those fundamental bonds at the point at which it counts, birth and pre-school? State-funded yoga or mindfulness classes aren’t exactly much of a sticking plaster when the only building block any healthy society has to build upon, the selfless human family, is dismissed and attacked as a social construct subject to whatever contortions greed and selfishness seek to impose on it. 

Instead of this obsessive pursuit of a fantasy, middle class lifestyle, what if working class men and women weren’t made to feel ashamed of being “less fortunate” but were respected and acknowledged as equals, citizens with one vote like everyone else?

What if that was the starting point for political engagement? Equal citizens under the law not under parliamentary privilege. What if ordinary men and women “just about managing” were encouraged to understand, celebrate and enjoy who they are and where they come from?

Anyone who thinks any education system can, or should, solve social inequality, needs to think a bit harder about what “inequality” and “educated” really mean. Because if all you’re really talking about as a politician is the number of zeros on a pay slip, then don’t be surprised if the society you create turns both ugly and inhuman.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue.

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