Social mobility: 'We must end this obsession with working class gentrification'

Professor Sonia Blandford, founder and CEO of Achievement for All, discusses why education often doesn't matter to the working class and the importance of closing the attainment gap

Professor Sonia Blandford

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There is no doubt that Britain’s social mobility has stagnated over the last half-century.

In the early 1950s and 60s, children from the Allied Estate in Hounslow where I was growing up participated in Born to Fail, a study which provided a disturbing insight into the lives of disadvantaged children and the enormous inequalities we suffered in comparison to other, so-called "ordinary" children. 

But here I am, in modern-day Britain, reflecting on the questions asked nearly 50 years ago in Victorian and Edwardian times and finding that, shockingly, they are still pertinent today.

If we want the one in six children who are currently living in poverty to have a fair chance to achieve, we must radically re-think our approach to social mobility. It is time to challenge the outdated and "exclusive" mentality that too often holds progress back and ask the following questions:

Why are the working class STILL not valued as partners?

If, as a nation, we truly cared that many children continue to underachieve or fail, we would begin to engage in a partnership between parents, carers and the teaching community in a structured way, treating everyone involved as real equals.

We would value all parents and carers in terms of the contribution they make to both the upbringing and education of their family, not to mention the rich heritage they bring from their communities. Such an approach would undoubtedly be preferable to carrying on the obsession with working-class gentrification. This is an idea that, unsurprisingly, has failed to take root up to now, given that our society leaves parents and carers at the school gate, inviting them in only for a five-minute talking to at parents evening once or twice a year – and only more if their child has been excluded.

One section of our population should no longer be deciding what to prescribe for another. Instead, there is an alternative way to think about social mobility, based on mutuality. This way involves listening to, engaging with, and involving the working class, allowing them to determine their future rather than having middle-class values and ideals projected onto them.

Why do working-class children not achieve?

There is no evidence that the working class cannot achieve – in areas including education, employment, housing and health – but there is a lack of societal ambition outside of spurious targets set by decision makers, such as university entry. Often these targets concern only 50 per cent of the population at best.

There is a need to refocus teacher training and increase understanding of how working-class children, disadvantaged children, and children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) can effectively learn and work.

It is time to value achievement in all its guises, whether that is attending university, learning a trade, continuing with further education, working with the community, completing an apprenticeship or travelling the world.

Why is school considered irrelevant by the working class?

The current school curriculum in England and its pedagogy – how teachers teach – are built upon middle-class values. They lack social and cultural relevance for the most disadvantaged children and families. They present more barriers than opportunities.

We must work collectively to break down those barriers by offering all children the chance to participate in social and cultural activities, such as sport, the arts, debating, volunteering, wider community-based provision, museums and trips. Developing children’s core strength and resilience can improve confidence and engage them in their learning.

How do we meet targets to get more working-class young people into university?

The answer to this question is simple: we don't. At best, university targets for the working class are a distraction. At worst, they are blocking the path towards real and positive change. It is an enormous injustice that, in modern-day Britain, the prevailing view, particularly by those in power, is that the working class are failing and need to be rescued from their situations. Leaders, employers and policymakers need to wake up to the fact that social mobility is about much more than achieving five grade A-C GCSEs, or getting a place at university.

Millions of pounds and extensive national resources are ploughed into schemes or initiatives peddling the belief that, for working class young people to "get on" in life, they have to "get out" of their communities. Instead, we need to put the same amount of time and resources into improving education and employment opportunities throughout Britain, instilling respect for local communities as we go.

Who can ensure another generation of working-class children is not failed?

The power to improve the lives of working-class children rests within us all. With new thinking, mutuality, respect and collaboration, this generation can succeed from birth: in school, in post-16 study and in the workplace. 

We must move fast and galvanise society to act against what is the greatest social injustice of our time.

Professor Sonia Blandford is the author of Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View, out today. The CEO of award-winning charity Achievement for All, she is also one of the UK's leading educational practitioners. In 2016, she was named on Debrett's list of the Top 500 Most Influential People in the UK. 

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