An unconquerable soul isn’t enough to scale the social ladder

To help children become socially mobile, we need to make sure they all have access to the same cultural capital

Ann Mroz

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"I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul."

The final two lines of the poem Invictus are an assertion of self-determination, of being in control of one’s life and fortunes.

But for young people taking their GCSEs and A levels, it can feel completely the opposite. No matter how well-intentioned, the recounting of the academic failures of the rich and famous does them no favours. Brace yourself in the coming weeks for supposedly inspirational tales of how “I failed all my A levels but I now live in a £6 million house and run my own business” and “I never went to university and I’m now a multi-millionaire”.

There have of course been many stories written about successful people who didn’t bother with university or who dropped out – Richard Branson (pictured), Alan Sugar, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few.

But while the stories are plentiful, their numbers are not. They attract media attention precisely because of their scarcity.

A study in the US of 11,745 leaders, including CEOs, federal judges, politicians, multi-millionaires and elite journalists found that while it’s true there are successful dropouts, they accounted for only 6 per cent of the total.

And like the Sutton Trust research over here has shown, it is rare to find people in positions of power who come from extremely poor or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Where the experience diverges is with higher education. In the US, a degree from an elite university “really does catapult you into the professional elite,” says Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust.

Here, however, that’s sadly not the case. “If you’re a state-school-educated student, even having a Cambridge degree you’re still less likely to progress up the professions than your independent-school counterpart.”

This brings us back to William Ernest Henley’s Invictus. It is part of a list of certain works of literature and pieces of music that has been put together by a number of state schools, with the aim of bestowing cultural capital upon students. This knowledge is integral, they say, if disadvantaged children are to be able to hold their own at top universities and in the higher echelons of society.

You can dispute the poem’s inclusion in a canon, as does Bernard Trafford, head of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, but to argue against the justification for the compilation of such a canon misses the point.

A student may well think Skepta is more “relevant” than Shelley, but they need to have studied the Romantic poet as much as the millennial grime artist to make the comparison.

You can only debate effectively from a privileged position. You can take issue with something only if you know it exists. You can move up in society only if you know something of the life to which you aspire.

Social mobility is hard. At primary, we may have narrowed the attainment gap between children with free-school meals and those without, but at GCSE it hasn’t budged. It was 27 percentage points a decade ago and it’s 27 percentage points today. Yes, more disadvantaged youngsters are going on to HE, but so are more people of all classes.

And if you look at the numbers going to the most selective universities, the picture has hardly improved. Students from poor families made up 19.5 per cent of the intake of Russell Group universities in 2005. Ten years later, it was 20.8 per cent. Pupils from independent schools are still two and a half times more likely to go to a leading university than their state-educated peers.

To argue against efforts to begin to equalise opportunities through cultural capital is to swipe away an essential crutch underprivileged children require to lift themselves out of their situation. They need all the help they can get.

In this country, being the master of one’s own fate is certainly possible when you come from a privileged background. For the poor, however, fate still remains a cruel and unfair master.


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