Social mobility and the threat to knowledge

The growing belief that the concept of social mobility is an attack on working-class values threatens to divide our education system along academic and vocational lines, warns Michael Merrick. It would be a tragedy if young people were denied access to our wonderful shared cultural inheritance

Michael Merrick

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It is said that if you hold a position on an issue for long enough, fashion will eventually catch up with you. And so, for those sceptical about aspects of the “social mobility” creed, it is with a tinge of satisfaction that this long-fashionable dogma has become the target of thoughtful critique. What was once nearuniversally embraced as self-evident good is being considered afresh; a recognition that perhaps there is another story to tell, an experience of consequences unseen – or thought unimportant – but now deemed worthy of being heard.

Which is all very welcome, bringing nuance to a debate that desperately needed it. In a discussion in which the pursuit of social mobility was the currency of virtue, the loudest voices came from those who had already achieved it, or who most valued it. Those who experienced it as a double-edged sword were too easily dismissed as merely cultivating low expectations. All the more reason then to celebrate the change of heart, as politicians and commentators have shown themselves increasingly sympathetic to the idea that perhaps arguments for social mobility have become too entwined with a dismissive attitude towards the working class, towards those who are socially static but happily so, sowing the idea that the working class must aspire to walk away from their background, from rootedness, from family, from home.

However, it is when a readjustment occurs that new problems can swing into view. Having rediscovered an account of the dignity of the “Somewheres” [thanks to David Goodhart], now some scent an opportunity for an attack on other educational reforms that can be forced into this narrative, too. After all, if social mobility was the empowered deigning to tell folk how they ought to live, then what is curricular reform but the empowered deigning to tell folk how they ought to think and what they ought to know?

This has the potential to knock the wheels off the emerging curriculum revolution. Seeing unjust power dynamics as shaping the curriculum, some would insist that our intellectual and cultural treasures are but the historic self-expression of the advantaged, selected and codified according to the dictates of their privilege and power. As such, insisting upon an academic education for all is the imperialistic imposition of the canon of the empowered – a harking back to an unenlightened past, a deification of Dead White Males.

Developing knowledge

Which, of course, puts the growing focus on developing the knowledge curriculum in something of a different light. Suddenly, the knowledge curriculum is not the sharing of an inheritance common to all, but an implicit denigration of working-class culture, the forcing of (working-class) square pegs into (middle-class) round holes. By so doing, the argument goes, we replicate the problem with social mobility – we assume working-class culture (too often wrongly associated with the non-academic) to be lacking dignity in its own right, and depict middle-class values as the normative reference points by which to judge alternative values deficient.

But this gets it badly wrong. In truth, the imposition narrative is a reductionist fiction; the civic, like the curricular, is not the site of a weighted power struggle, but a forum of collaboration and negotiation of shared norms in which all are invited to participate. The academic curriculum, the knowledge it contains, is not merely the priorities and prejudices of the empowered; working-class children access as equals, as co-creators, not turncoats who must shed their background to enter the arena. An academic education, then, is not merely the creedal formulas of the empowered, but a picture painted of ourselves; working-class children are as central to its composition as any other.

For which reason, it is strange that we would not share with children the greatest fruits of the culture that forms them – indeed of the cultures of the world – and this in the name of their freedom. Denying access to their intellectual and cultural inheritance is denying the opportunity to have mind and imagination shaped by commonly recognised expressions of the good, the true and the beautiful; stopping poor kids from studying high culture, siloing them off into the vocational-but-little-else, restricts them from making meaning from our cultural inheritance and offering back to it their own interpretations of our collective social consciousness – it is to advocate for two nations, a stratified society that cannot but help depict any attempt at shared culture as a power imbalance, rather than a common inheritance that all co-create and own.

In the end, these accounts come to represent nothing but a restating of the old paternalism that thought neither high culture, nor indeed education, was any real business of the poor.

All can benefit

But culture and the curriculum belong to no specific group – they are the fruit of all our collective labours. All can benefit, and contribute, but without shared reference points we only deny a shared language of collaboration and instead divide and segregate. If, as the philosopher GK Chesterton argued, education is the passing of the soul of a nation on to the next generation, then to cut working-class kids out of the common framework of that transmission is not to liberate them but to cast them adrift, to leave them bereft of artistic, literary and linguistic conventions, and so to take away their ability to break them, to reimagine them, to aspire to them, to benefit from them, to have a voice in the future narrative of this thing we call “us”.

The canon, then, developed over the ages, is radically egalitarian: a shared gateway to the development of the mind and of the soul, blind to social class; a gift to bestow upon young people the tools for knowing their own story, for making their own contribution to our collective story in light of it and for successfully living out both.

Social mobility is a fraught concept. I do not think it is something teachers should concern themselves with. They should focus instead on giving to students a rich diet of learning that takes in the best that has been thought, said and written. This is a wonderful gift in itself, and to quantify its value in relation to social mobility would be to judge what is beautiful only by what is useful. If a child wishes to pursue a vocational pathway after school, then good for her, and we should encourage and support her to do so. But she should still know her Milton, her Byrd, her Windrush, because these things are hers, too.

As such, any suggestion that an academic curriculum is foisting middle-class presumptions on working-class children, on the basis of a power narrative concocted by those already socially and intellectually empowered, is to cast academic ignorance as a freedom that those who would promote such narratives would rarely desire for themselves or their own children.

Our children are capable of better, of accessing the fruits of their intellectual and aesthetic inheritance, and are enhanced by them, finding a voice through them. So whatever else we give our children, we should definitely give them this. It is theirs to possess and nobody, however well meaning, has a right to deny them.

Michael Merrick is a teacher and RE lead at the St Ninian’s Catholic Federation, Carlisle

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Michael Merrick

Michael Merrick is a a full-time teacher, working as head of RE in an 11-18 VA school in Cumbria

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