Why I no longer believe in social mobility

8th October 2018

Social mobility has long been the holy grail in the education sector – so why don’t I believe in it any more? 

“The only conclusion I could deduce as to the point of education was quite simple: the system exists to get me beyond where I’m from”

This quote from Leah Stewart really jumped out when I read it recently in The Working Class. I feel this essay is so relatable for anybody from a community that would traditionally be labelled as disadvantaged but who has “succeeded” in terms of the general educational narrative of doing well at school and university before getting a professional job.  I come from a working class background and am proud of it. My parents took education seriously and I was academic and did well at school. I went on to go to UCL, a high tariff university (my colleague Ellie tells me that this is the correct terminology these days rather than Russell group). I’ve also gone on to have a professional career and do interesting things.

I’m a success story. I’ve moved a few rungs up the social ladder and am now a home owner in an area with a Waitrose and loads of coffee shops. Whoop.

Mobile but isolated?

However, Leah’s essay explores a side of social mobility that I don’t often see written about, but have discussed many times with friends and acquaintances of all generations who are now in a more affluent social class to the one that they grew up in: the isolation and lack of belonging.

Human beings are social creatures: we need community, connection and belonging to thrive. It’s no mistake that the New Economics Foundation has “connect” as one of its 5 ways to wellbeing.

I first started teaching in 2004. I was fresh from my own university experience and ready to enter school in London via Teach First. I was a true disciple of the social mobility doctrine. I wanted all young people from my kind of background to have the opportunities that I had. To be able to broaden their horizons. To not be stuck on the bottom. Education had worked for me and could work for others too.

The failure of social mobility

My thinking has changed in the intervening 14 years. I’m not entirely sure what the trigger has been and I don’t even know in a concrete way what I believe now, but I know that the social mobility project has failed: according to the OECD, people’s economic status in the UK is still “strongly related to that of their parents.”

I’m not even convinced that ‘social mobility’ should be the goal any more. Teachers consider high academic grades and going to university a success story, especially for disadvantaged pupils. I guess because statistically these routes are pretty unlikely. Those of us who have taught in economically deprived communities push those capable to go to elite universities and secretly feel disappointed when students with great grades opt to go to their local (possibly less prestigious) university to stay close to home. “Low aspirations” we mutter.

A narrow version of success

However, for those who ‘succeed’, how much do we prepare them for what they will come across in their new lives at university and possibly beyond? Not academically: of course we do our best to do a great job there. I mean emotionally.  As Dr Sam Baars and Ellie Mulcahy write “working class pupils’ need to apply ‘strategies’ such as concealing their working class identity to navigate the university environment.”Why? Well because throughout their entire school career the inadvertent message they have received is that their environment, their home, their community is not one to be aspired to. As a result, it’s hardly surprising that young people from working class backgrounds might feel the need to conceal their identity in order to be ‘successful’. Personally I didn’t feel the need to do this because, as a working class, Black British young woman on an almost exclusively male Mechanical Engineering course, I was so unusual that there really wasn’t a point in trying to conceal anything at all. But the need to conceal your identity is definitely a sentiment I can understand and have heard many others express.

The upshot is that working class pupils can succeed academically and then find themselves emotionally and culturally marooned in middle class institutions with a loss of identity and no support network. They can find themselves no longer really feeling part of the class or community they have left (and who may actively ostracise them) whilst never truly feeling at ease in the new one they worked so hard to join. At best they may be accepted, but as an interesting curiosity. What impact does all of this have on an individual’s mental health?

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Moving beyond individuals

Having spent 14+ years in education, the majority in schools based in acutely disadvantaged communities, I don’t feel any closer to answering how we move beyond the narrative of improving individual lives through education without painting their communities as places to be escaped from. Poverty is not to be romanticised. Being poor is rubbish. Lack of access to opportunity is rubbish. Having limited life chances because of the family you were born into is rubbish. But transplanting a few individuals into superficially ‘better’ surroundings and magically declaring them middle class, while underneath the surface they may experience real displacement and loss, is not true success.

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Why do I feel social mobility has failed or is a flawed concept? Because of the focus on individuals. Ultimately, no matter how amazing – individuals need communities to succeed. This is the true secret of the wealthy: community and networks which can be called upon by generation after generation.

Any lasting efforts to radically improve life changes for disadvantaged young people must also include parallel efforts to help their families + communities meet their full potential too.

No, I have no idea how that looks and I know it’s HUGE buts that my current thinking.