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'The reason the government is so obsessed with social mobility has nothing to do with education. It's all to do with politics'

The government's social mobility action plan won't improve education – what would improve things for schools, teachers and pupils would be serious questions about the curriculum and knowledge, writes one educator

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The government's social mobility action plan won't improve education – what would improve things for schools, teachers and pupils would be serious questions about the curriculum and knowledge, writes one educator

There is one simple reason why the government’s Social Mobility Action Plan, in which yet again education is identified a key contributor, will not help improve education for anyone – disadvantaged or not. 

And it's because the authors are not concerned with education: the main driver for their obsession with social mobility is political, not educational. Like any educational policy, the action plan needs to be understood in the context of wider political and social policy initiatives which frame our conceptions and expectations of education – and from this, what we expect schools and teachers to be doing. 

For example, in January the government allocated £3.5 million to the Education Endowment Foundation to establish research schools under the remit of improving social mobility "cold spots". These are local authority areas where schools are identified as failing to meet criteria including overall attainment at GCSE level, levels of progress made by pupils between their key stage 2 and GCSE results if they had worked at national-level standards during the intervening years. Lower levels of educational achievement among those sections of the school cohort who are eligible for free school meals is a particular cause for concern.

The uneven distribution of educational goods has been a staple of the sociology of education for many decades and the attempt – if not the realisation – to provide a good education for all pupils has been an integral part of social democratic governance for most of the 20th century.  But this aim is not what is driving the current government’s efforts to strengthen what Justine Greening referred to as "the arch of opportunity" in a recent Radio 4 interview. In this scenario, which nods to the discourse of "No child left behind" in America, or David Goodhart’s "people from somewhere" in Britain. According to one version of this thesis, disadvantaged young people in cold spots have, in the words of one representative of a youth training organisation on the same radio programme, "no hope, no aspiration, no motivation". 

Social mobility report

It is patronising to assume that working-class youth don’t have aspirations and motivations – but they may not be the ones our politicians would like them to have, including remaining in Europe. And it is wrong to assume education is synonymous with any empirically observable events – be it attainment or Progress 8 outcomes, or whether a pupil’s final destination is Oxbridge, a hairdressing salon or a stall in the local market.

In their willingness to trade a commitment to education for an ersatz political fix for their own anxieties, we could justifiably conclude that a serious lack of educational aspiration lies with those at the top of society rather than the socio-economically and culturally disadvantaged.

When the authors of the State of the Nation 2016: Social Mobility in Great Britain report write, "The chickens have come home to roost", they unwittingly suggest that it is political anxiety about their own authority that is behind the surge of interest in the problem of "social mobility" as measured by a raft of changing social statistical metrics. The logical flaws in the document say a lot. If educational attainment has statistically improved nationally over the same period in which social mobility has decreased, then there can be no direct relation between the two. Yet politicians and commentators continue to insist that educational outcomes are a reliable proxy for social mobility. It is Alice-in-Wonderland policy making where ideas for transformational socio-political change, and an intellectually and imaginatively transformative education, for everyone are the disappearing Cheshire cats.

How else can we account for the fact that no attention is paid to questions of curriculum and knowledge – the crucial, intellectual and non-empirical elements of education? A government committed to education would be considering what is the best knowledge for the curriculum? Are our teachers sufficiently educated to be confident about teaching it? Are schools being required, formally and informally, to fulfil criteria which have little to do with education? Are proposed reforms of vocational education and training intellectually and ethically defensible? What models of knowledge and pupils are embedded in the curriculum – are they humane or reductively technicist?

Without such conversations happening more often, in more places with more people, and being taken seriously, you can have all the latest evidence-based skills and learning, long-term memory-improving strategies, all the community stakeholder and business involvement you like – and we have had decades of such initiatives – but you won’t have education.

Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert is an educator, teacher and writer

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