Tony Sewell gets some things right, but his rhetoric on social mobility should be approached with suspicion, says Garth Stahl

Last week at the Festival of Education, Tony Sewell, chief executive of Generating Genius, made some interesting assertions regarding working-class youth, social mobility and the role of education.

Sewell discussed his aggressive zero-tolerance approach to the academic achievement of Afro-Caribbean males enrolled in Generating Genius. He described his programme as “unashamedly a Pygmalion exercise” where he highlights how – through academic rigor – he has made the young men in his care “middle class”. In a conversation with Laura McInerney, the editor of Schools Week, Sewell highlights: “What our kids are able to do is that they are so confident, they are so exposed to the world – the same world as their middle-class counterparts…”

not all working-class children want to be middle or upper class

He says that we must guard against “stagnation” and reward those who have the “courage” to climb the social mobility ladder. This is a rhetoric closely aligned to current education policy.

Furthermore, in challenging deficit views of working-class children, Sewell claims that for working-class youth to aspire beyond their social position is the equivalent of “coming out sexually”.

This is, of course, highly problematic.

However, before I draw attention to the errors of Sewell’s approach, it is important to remember that education has always been about changing people.

Students from working-class backgrounds have always been constructed through deficit where their lack of achievement has served as a proxy to reaffirm the higher achievement of their middle and upper-class peers.

Despite the social justice sentiment, Sewell’s rhetoric should be approached with suspicion from anyone wanting the best for working-class children. And propelling working-class children to middle-class lifestyles should be questioned. I will focus on three key reasons why we should remain sceptical:

it is less about Pygmalion and more about the Icarus

1) Treating education and academic attainment as a “Pygmalion exercise” can lead to well documented, long-term psychological effects, a phenomenon known as “John Henryism”. Briefly, when goal-oriented, success-minded people strive ceaselessly to become socially mobile in the absence of adequate support and resources, they can confront serious physical and mental health challenges. Therefore, it would seem it is less about Pygmalion and more about the Icarus.

2) Generating Genius’s approach focuses on promoting social mobility through experiential learning (such as visits to Russell group universities) and degree level qualifications. Sociological research today consistently shows that social mobility is heavily impacted by place and social capital, two things that schools serving working-class communities have found difficult to counteract. Furthermore, it is worth noting that social mobility is also dependent on economic opportunities, which are very restricted in the United Kingdom.

3) What Sewell ignores is that not all working-class children want to be middle or upper class. Many see their working-class identity as remaining true to their roots. One would think working-class youth – and all youth for that matter – want to see themselves as worthwhile, regardless of what their aspirations are. Despite being constrained by opportunities and barriers, aspirations are choices. Gay, bisexual and transgender youth do not have a choice about their sexuality and I think we can all agree that was a very poor choice of words.

Educators should work to ensure all students have the right to question standard views of aspiration as well as the people who promote such views.

Narrow neoliberal conversations about the aspirations of working-class youth do us few favours. We should be suspicious of the words that pundits of social mobility use; “genius”, “excellence”, and “competition” are innately problematic. Educators should also ensure all aspirations are validated and they should open up spaces for students to feel working-class pride.

Regardless, Sewell does get a few things right. He draws our attention to toxic peer groups that restrict aspirations as well as forms of UK schooling that can only, at the best of times, be considered Dickensian. The lingering question Sewell forces us to consider is: Can we raise student aspirations without depreciating their working-class culture?

Garth Stahl is the author of Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration: educating white working-class boys (Routledge)