Class Confusion

What is ‘social mobility’ if not a desire to move children from one class into a higher one?

Whether progressive, trad or in the majority of neither, we hear the words ‘social mobility’ banded about in terms of ‘allowing children to reach their potential’ to ‘access higher education and better jobs’ and so on. I have a problem with the idea of social mobility more generally in that it tends to make the assumption that the communities disadvantaged children are growing up in are undesirable and that the aim is to allow them to escape. It would be much better to adopt a process of social growth, where the community is improved – through better social policy, including education – and that it can thrive, while keeping families close together. Many low income families are intergenerationally dependent – for child care, for health care, for sharing resources. Enriching one generation and encouraging them to leave the others behind, is in my view a flawed vision. But that’s not really the main focus of this blog.

There is no doubt that children from lower income families face huge challenges in accessing higher education and professions. The statistics in the excellent Teach First report, ‘Challenging the Impossible’ are stark. For example:-

  • Only 11.5% of children from low-income backgrounds who achieve level five in English and maths SATs at age 11 make it to an elite university. If they progressed at the same rate as a child from one of the least-deprived families, that figure would be nearer 40%. This suggests that, every single year, there are around 2,160 bright but poor children missing out on the education opportunities they are clearly capable of achieving. (Teach First – Challenging the Impossible)

They also highlight the increased number of those accessing HE who drop out. The outrage at these figures is right, but I question the solutions. Entering a culture in which your own background is seen as a societal problem creates all kinds of difficulties. And even if you ‘succeed’ – what does that look like? You enter the middle class. You are, by standards of education and income, now middle class. In effect, social mobility seeks to swell the numbers of middle class people in our society. It makes economic sense while sounding altruistic. But why is it that being working class – i.e. fulfilling essential functions in society but on low pay – is something to be disparaged? Where would we be as a society if those jobs went unfilled because everyone suddenly had a degree? Frankly we’d be stuffed. Why not focus resources on ensuring people get paid enough to live well? On providing affordable, safe housing? On thinking about how families can be kept together so that we don’t have an epidemic of lonely old people who live hundreds of miles away from their kin? Or are these questions too hard? Is it much easier to throw the gauntlet down at the feet of teachers and say that they alone can solve society’s ills?

And once you get there. Once you have climbed the ladder, reached the dizzy heights of middle classdom, what happens? You’re disparaged as elite. Anyone attending Oxford or Cambridge is automatically dismissed as ‘elite’ regardless of how they got there or where they came from. ‘Middle class parents’ becomes a term used as short hand for grabby, pushy, indulgent, selfish and entitled. Look at these views of the middle classes from people who advocate for social mobility.

Responding to criticism on her policy of putting children in isolation as a punishment for their parents not paying dinner money, Katharine Birbalsingh, Headteacher of Michaela Free School, stated “It’s white, middle-class liberal guilt. They are not actually interested in educating these children. They just want to make themselves feel better about their own privilege.”

It may come as a surprise to those middle class people who came from working class backgrounds that their concern over the treatment of children who were like them, is dismissed as liberal guilt. The irony of these words coming from a head who is arguing that her school is all about ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds become, well, middle class, seems to be lost. Similarly, the far right defenders of free speech, Spiked, use the same tactics in defending the appointment of Toby Young to public office:-

“The mob – today this means the middle-class Twittermob – is no longer an occasional violent outburst, as it was throughout history; rather, it is a permanent feature and function of public life in Britain, to the devastating detriment of public reason, political rationalism, individual sense and free thought.”

How very dare the middle classes use their education to speak to power? The right to free speech, it would seem, runs one way. It would seem that the mantra of the ruling classes – the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ still holds true. In short, we want everyone to be middle class so that they pay more taxes, hold up dubious social policies, are comforted into complacency so they don’t ask too many questions, and basically shut up. They have no right to be offended, to defend those less fortunate or offer a hand up. That’s not the point of the social mobility agenda. Quite the opposite in fact.

But there are many of us. Many of us who came ourselves or whose parents and grandparents came out of poverty into relative comfort. And we haven’t forgotten. We won’t shut up. We won’t turn a blind eye to nepotism, cronyism, jobs for the boys, to valuing compliance over integrity, to hypocrisy. We won’t be told that the answer to poverty is Dickensian educational regimes for the poor, or indeed that education alone can solve all those complex issues. We won’t be told that our education was all about securing enough money to keep out mouths and consciences closed. We won’t be bought off. We see the gossamer thin cloak of social mobility and recognise that what lies beneath it is little more than contempt and irresponsibility from a political class unwilling to take responsibility for change. We see the lack of understanding and imagination that leads people to think that moving up and away is an answer, while simultaneously blaming those left struggling in decimated communities for falling further behind.

We know that the real message is ‘we want you all to be middle class but once you are we’ll hate you even more.” We don’t care. We see you.

14 thoughts on “Class Confusion

  1. For me, tinkering with the system so that a few poor people can gain the same advantages as rich people simple perpetuates the British Class system. The whole rotten thing needs to be overturned, a process which I believe is underway but is a little slow.

  2. “Only 11.5% of children from low-income backgrounds who achieve level five in English and maths SATs at age 11 make it to an elite university. If they progressed at the same rate as a child from one of the least-deprived families, that figure would be nearer 40%. This suggests that, every single year, there are around 2,160 bright but poor children missing out on the education opportunities they are clearly capable of achieving. (Teach First – Challenging the Impossible)”

    This paragraph appears to make a clear case that SATs 5+ pupils from low income backgrounds are failed by either their secondary schools or their parents. It is more likely that they are actually failed by their primary schools. Furthermore, within our marketised education system there is nothing that the primary schools can do about it.

    Primary schools are forced to compete on the basis of SATs results and OfSTED reports based on SATs results. The most successful primary schools have catchments and admission arrangements that minimise the proportion of children from low income families they admit. This means that other primaries, located within low income communities admit higher proportions of such children. In the London Borough of Hackney, which has plenty of low income postcodes served by neighbourhood primaries, all pupils take Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) in Y6. There is a clear pattern linking mean CATs scores with parental affluence. This is universally true all over the UK. Hackney, however, is the only LA where all the Y6 pupils in all the primary schools take CATs in Y6, so the pattern is especially clear, despite rarely being discussed. CATs are a form of IQ test, although differences between scores on the Verbal, Quantitative and Non Verbal sub-tests can indicate Specific Learning Difficulties.

    In the absence of the pressures of marketisation, OfSTED and floor targets, primary school SATs (attainment tests) would reflect the CATs profile for the school, and the schools that have the highest proportions of pupils from poor families would have not only the lowest SATs scores, but these would often be so low as to condemn the schools in terms of league tables, OfSTED and DfE floor targets.

    Such ‘school failure’ must be avoided. The only solution is therefore to maximise SATs results at all costs. This can be done by ruthless resort to behaviourist cramming, backed up by the strict discipline needed to keep noses to grindstones. In terms of deep learning for understanding and cognitive development this is a double whammy. It means that six months after the SATs, most is forgotten and the whole anti-educational experience will have deflated all natural curiosity and thus restricted past and future cognitive growth in the interests of school survival and the head’s career.

    Debra hints at recognition of the truth of this, “They also highlight the increased number of those accessing HE who drop out”. This is because behaviourist conditioning does not equip students for any progression beyond passing the next high stakes (for the school) test.

    It does not have to be like this. See

    1. I’d suggest that it is neither their parents nor their schools failing them and more to do with the direct effects of poverty and stress.

      1. Poverty and stress are real factors, but good comprehensive schools can do a great deal to combat such issues. How can primary schools do this at the same time as imposing more SATs related stress on their pupils and parents? The fact that the issues you highlight have resisted all ‘closing the gap’ strategies over many decades suggests that fresh thinking is needed that will not emerge within the marketisation paradigm that corrupts our education sytem.

  3. I agree, though blaming one sector over another is not very helpful. Many primary schools are working to relieve the stress of SATs for children – my own child’s school has been wholly supportive of our decision to boycott them altogether for example.

    1. I am not blaming primary schools or their heads. They and their teachers are trapped by the system, although many Academies and Free Schools are part of the problem. Those primaries with the highest concentrations of children from poor families will be most threatened by OfSTED and the Academising DfE. They need every SATs 4/5 they can get and will apply the most pressure on parents like you to ‘support the school’.

  4. The emphasis on social mobility deflects attention away from social policies aimed at reducing poverty. At the same time it assumes that social mobility is undeniably a good thing. But too often social mobility is confined to moving up England’s class system underpinned by the patronising and insulting assumption that no-one with any sense would want to stay in the working class.
    In any case, education’s role in social mobility is limited.

  5. Debra, a brilliant blog. I was one of those who came from working class families and has ‘made it’. I will not forget my principles and morals in doing so. I love the concept of social growth rather than social mobility.

  6. Whilst I agree with Roger that good truly comprehensive schooling (which we have never had) can offer some compensation at the heart of this is still the categorisation of certain forms of capital over others – we can see this in the “private school ethos” of certain free schools and the assumption that going to an “elite” university makes one a better person, that the eBACC subjects make one more intelligent and cultural that social mobility is hinged on the idea that once you have “made it” you are a better person than those you have left behind as you have now read the right books, know the right things and speak the right language – simply put snobbery – cultural snobbery, intellectual snobbery and social snobbery. As you (and other say) what we need is a society where the fruits of labour are much more evenly shared, to coin a phrase, ‘for the many, not the few”.

  7. This was a good read Debra. I can identify with so much of what you are saying and I think you are right about social growth. I can never understand why success is measured by qualifications and/or earnings or worse still by birthright. I know some people I would consider to be successful because they take care of others and do so without expecting remission. I know some amazing women who have dealt with some horrific circumstances and risen above them with grace and dignity whilst sheltering their children. Success and social growth in communities can only come when we have acceptance that we are all different and not all destined to go to university. We need to respect every person’s abilities and disabilities too.
    As a Headteacher I hate that we are seen as failing in schools when children don’t achieve ARE in SATs at the end of KS2. Well some children can’t and won’t but that doesn’t mean they are unsuccessful or less worthy. That also doesn’t mean that they have been failed by teachers or schools who lack ambition. We need to stop encouraging the idea that a test at 11 years old determines a child’s educational future. We need to let children develop at their own pace and stop trying to make 4year olds jump through educational hoops!
    Sorry, I probably need a lie down now. I’m aware that this wasn’t that coherent but I feel like I’ve vented my spleen.

    1. Ha – vent away. And I agree – the term ‘success’ seems to be applied narrowly in our society. Keep on doing what you can to challenge it for your children and families.

  8. I’m another teacher who “made it” to the middle classes after growing up in a traditionally working class family. I, too, get frustrated by comments like those of Ms Birbalsingh, who then dismisses dissenters like me as middle class and out of touch. I find myself identifying more and more with my students of working class / lower socioeconomic background, who are often made extremely anxious by the mysterious “games” we thrust upon them in the name of education.

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