'Social mobility' ignores what really holds pupils back

Instead of collating statistics about social disadvantage, teachers should look at what kinds of disadvantage permeate their communities, says Joe Nutt

giraffe on a tighrope

My publisher recently put out a collection of essays written by authors under the age of 24, covering money, mental health, sex, gender, equality, education, crime and the future.

One of the essays, by someone who describes herself as a “typical leftie” should be compulsory reading for anyone keen to offer an opinion on schools and level playing fields. 

Entitled "University Ain't For the Likes of Us", her essay details her decision to try to earn a place at Cambridge, coming from a working-class background with minimal funds, and with neither parents nor teachers caring much what she did with her life. The journey she describes brings the reader uncomfortably close to some of the most powerful organisations on the UK educational backstage, and unmasks the political naivety that has hogged the centre-stage for decades now, regardless of who’s throwing the party. 

Reshuffling the cards

Along the way, she meets figures who, like her, have eagerly embraced the idea that a degree from a top university will reshuffle the crap cards life has dealt her, and put a royal flush in her humble hand. 

Her path out of “the shithole I grew up in” is smoothed by a range of people dedicated to helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study at top universities. But, however cleverly they shuffle the pack, the further she goes, the more visible the barriers become. The more progress she makes, the more the disadvantages she started out with come into play.

In the end, what this poignant little slice of life tells us is something politicians and policymakers must wake up to. Foisting social mobility on to educational policy and debate is lazy, superficial thinking, because it ignores what really holds children back. 

Perniciously potent

Educational disadvantage is far more real and perniciously potent than anything with the word “social” in it. It isn’t innately determined by class, and suggesting schools are the key to social mobility is like expecting police stations to reduce criminality. It damages those you say you care about most. Stop it

Some children, regardless of their social background, enter mainstream schooling as though they were genetically designed to thrive there. Others are unable even to participate. And there is a child on every imaginable point on the scale in between. 

Schools are highly conventional institutions. They can only function effectively under specific conditions. They need knowledgeable, skilled teachers, supportive parents and cooperative children. Educational disadvantage kicks in when any one of these is deficient and those deficiencies, and only those, are what politicians should concern themselves with rectifying.

Mixed bag

Some schools will be in the enviable position of knowing that not a single child who walks through the door in September is likely to arrive already educationally disadvantaged. For secondary schools, this is the extraordinary educational advantage that genuine selection delivers. 

Other schools will expect a dramatically mixed bag. That is what the ideology behind comprehensive schooling delivers. Many primary schools, courtesy of a cruel postcode, will expect almost all of their pupils to arrive burdened by something that inhibits their potential to learn. 

Understanding the precise nature of that disadvantage, as soon as possible, whether it applies to many or to few, is the most intelligent thing any school can do to help students like my young Cambridge aspirant realise their academic ambition and potential. These pupils shouldn’t have to wait until they get to the sixth form before some well-meaning charity offers to reshuffle the cards with special courses and summer schools. If the state thinks education matters, then it has to matter from the first classroom and the first lesson.

Radical policies

Schools often dedicate time and resources to identifying the economic disadvantage of their communities, as though that in itself was a positive, educational step. It is of course much easier to use things like free school meals or pupil-premium budgets as proxy measures. But they tell you precisely zero about the nature of the educational barriers real children are facing in the classroom, never mind providing information that might help the school to quickly remove these barriers.

Instead of dedicating time and energy to collating statistics about social disadvantage to placate the inspectorate or external critics, with inhuman value-added or Progress 8 labels, how much more valuable would time spent be, if teachers were discussing and agreeing on what kinds of educational disadvantage permeate their local community or distinguish individual children? 

I suspect there are some schools that have been doing this already. They did it when they instituted radical whole-school policies about behaviour, teaching or communication with parents.

Schools everywhere could do far worse in the post-exam afterglow and run-up to September reopening than to dedicate time to thinking hard about the precise nature of the local educational disadvantages they are trying to overcome. 

So here’s a reminder for technocrats everywhere who think the cure for every “social” ill is a good graph: there is scant benefit to intervening in anything, unless you know what it really is. 

Joe Nutt is the author of several books about the poetry of Donne, Milton and Shakespeare and his new book, The Point of Poetry, was published in March by Unbound

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