by Olivia Hanks
Theresa May’s indication earlier this month that she will reintroduce selective schooling has reignited the debate on ‘social mobility’. Tory backbenchers believe the secondary modern system (or the grammar school system, as they insist on calling it) was good for social mobility, but various reports support the opposite view, that selective schooling entrenches inequality. Of the tiny percentage of children from working class backgrounds who attended the old grammar schools, two-thirds did not manage to achieve three O-levels.
What both sides tend to agree on, at least outwardly, is that social mobility is desirable. Yet its basic premise works on two assumptions: that society is a hierarchy where some people are ‘above’ others, and that the best thing working-class children can hope for is to escape their background and ‘rise’ to join the middle class. These views neatly sidestep the real issue: social equality. By buying into the idea of social mobility, as they have done for years, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have muddied the waters on this issue, and given the impression that they want the same thing as the Tories: a few poor kids with degrees, so we can all sleep easy and forget about the rest.
Social mobility is an easy concept to sell because it taps into the hope of so many parents: that their children will do better than they did. While in more equal societies such as Finland and Denmark, children from poor families have a better chance of going to university or becoming affluent, it is in vastly unequal societies that the idea is most potent. In the UK or the US, politicians make a career out of telling poor people they can get rich if they work hard enough; that with enough effort, they can jump the chasm between haves and have-nots.
In the UK or the US, politicians make a career out of telling poor people they can get rich if they work hard enough
As well as being hugely unequal, the UK and the US are both highly individualistic societies. Aspirations for equality are viewed with suspicion, since to many people, fed on Daily Mail stories of benefit cheats, the word implies that things will be taken away from you and given to someone who doesn’t deserve them. The well-worn David Cameron catchphrase “hardworking families” follows the same narrative: not everyone gets rewarded – only people like you who have earned it.
This pernicious ideology sets neighbour against neighbour and tells people that to be working class is to be a failure. Key to social mobility is the idea of upward and downward movement – though, unsurprisingly, politicians never talk about the downward part. It is encapsulated in Boris Johnson’s ‘cornflake packet’ image from his notorious speech to the Centre for Policy Studies in 2013: “The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.” In the same speech, Johnson argued that inequality and greed are essential to the economy, and congratulated his City audience on their high IQs. In his world, more should be given to the most able – a philosophy that might have served Britain well in the Olympics, but which applied to education sums up all that is most sickening about ‘survival of the fittest’ Tory attitudes.
Because why should society leave behind those who are not gifted academically, any more than it should abandon those born poor? Social mobility, even if it could be perfectly implemented, still assumes that those in the first category are undeserving of help, while those in the second with high IQs are somehow trapped in the wrong class, and need the ruling classes to offer them a ladder so they can join their true people. It envisages education as a kind of panning for gold conducted by the beneficent middle classes, where here and there a few valuable human nuggets can be sifted from the murky sediment of the masses.
A system that singles out individuals with certain abilities and helps them, while abandoning millions of others, is a failed system.
The EU referendum showed what happens when a vast section of the population is neglected and ignored. We must learn from what that disastrous campaign has shown us, and start to build a society that works for everyone. A system that singles out individuals with certain abilities and helps them, while abandoning millions of others, is a failed system. Equality means offering everyone the opportunity to live a fulfilling and happy life, whatever their socio-economic background or IQ.
The kind of example of social mobility we are always given is the working-class kid who becomes a lawyer. It is such an appealing narrative, such an indisputable success story, that it is easy to accept the whole ideology along with it. But for the concept to be consistent, it has to be equally possible for a middle-class child to become a bricklayer. The hierarchical vision of social mobility would mean telling that child they had failed (which is why middle-class parents generally fight hard to avoid it happening); but if the job makes them happy, we should see their story as a success story too. Real equality of opportunity means giving people proper information about the options available to them, then respecting the choices they make.
The government’s proposed post-16 education reforms appear, on the face of it, quite sensible. They simplify the current system of technical qualifications, and offer pupils the choice at 16 of an academic or a technical route. Unfortunately, the proposal is completely undermined by the parallel plan to reintroduce grammar schools (not to mention the destruction of adult education), which will ensure that technical and vocational qualifications continue to be seen as a second tier for those who have failed academically, rather than an equally valid choice. Anybody who is serious about social equality needs to stop buying into the hierarchical, hyper-competitive vision of society that the idea of social mobility promotes.
Header image via bbc.co.uk