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.