Social mobility isn’t about behaving like the middle class

We need to change the entire conversation on social mobility to have a chance of changing people’s lives for the better, says Prof Sonia Blandford

A staggering 2.5 million children and young people in Britain live in poverty, and they are “born to fail” according to social mobility metrics as put forward by those in power. They are the unwitting victims of an increasingly complex and chaotic society that accepts failure and condones exclusion.

This is unacceptable in modern Britain and it’s time we radically rethink our approach to social mobility and remove practices that do not improve the life chances of all children and young people.

As I travel the UK I see entire communities where there is little or no aspiration. Bleak places where people don’t seem to have space to breathe and where children from working class backgrounds are disadvantaged before they are born.

My own experience reflects this: my mother was illiterate and we lived on a council estate where there was little aspiration or self-belief.

Breaking the cycle

As a nation we are obsessed with exam results and pushing disadvantaged young people into universities. Initiative after initiative, the belief is pedalled that for working class young people to “get on” in life, they have to “get out” of their communities.

Yet recent government statistics show that the number of disadvantaged young people who do not continue beyond their first year at university is at its highest level for five years.

Social mobility is about much more than exams and university entry. We need to fundamentally instil respect for local communities and their rich heritage. Families are desperate for change but the path to achieve this cannot be based on the powerful patronising the less powerful. An approach based on mutuality where we listen to and involve individuals would more powerfully engage the working class in determining their future.

If we valued all achievement we would focus our social mobility efforts on ensuring that young people have genuine choices in life, whether that is university, working with the community, an apprenticeship or travelling the world.

Building the core

The gap between disadvantaged children and their more privileged counterparts has widened over the past 10 years.

Our current school curriculum is built upon middle class values. It fundamentally lacks social and cultural relevance for the most disadvantaged children, impacting on their confidence and engagement in learning. The teaching community needs to increase its understanding of how disadvantaged children and those with special educational needs and disabilities learn, and how we can build resilience and aspiration.

Engaging in a meaningful partnership with parents and carers in a structured way helps ensure that everyone is treated as equals. This is an idea that has failed to take root up to now, given that parents and carers are left at the school gate and invited in only for a five-minute talking to at parents evening once or twice a year (and only more if their child has been excluded).

Structured conversations with parents and carers can impact on attainment in a significant way

Structured conversations with parents and carers can impact on attainment in a significant way. As our work at Achievement for All has shown, an improvement of up to 50 per cent in outcomes in reading, writing and maths is possible. If schools can get this right, there will be a huge saving to the public purse and a raise in the life chances of all families, particularly those from working class backgrounds.

If social mobility is about changing the way people think, act and engage, then there is an alternative way to live – one in which everyone can succeed.

Current common practices are clearly having a limited impact on future social mobility. Isn’t it time we moved beyond the damaging perception that the working class have failed and need to be rescued?

The authors of the ‘Born to Fail?’ study, in which I was represented as a child 44 years ago, would never have envisaged that we’d be asking the same old questions which originated in Victorian and Edwardian England.

If we are to discover a lasting solution, and guarantee social justice as a result, we need to recognise that we all have a part to play. Every child across the country should have a choice, an opportunity and a secure future. And if they’re given it, every single one of us will benefit.

Sonia Blandford is professor of education at UCL, CEO of Achievement for All and author of  ‘Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View’

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  1. Two and a half cheers for this. Going further, I think that to “ensure that everyone is treated as equals”, the relevant professionals, the “authorities”, will have to realise that labeling (behind their backs of course!) those they seek to engage with as sexist, racist, xenophobic, bigoted, homophobic, knuckle-draggers or even “white privileged” [sic] etc doesn’t do much to convince people that you see them as equal, or that you have truly become socially & culturally relevant to them. Pretending to listen just so you can ultimately convince them to leave behind their sexist/racist/etc values and embrace enlightened/progressive/liberal/”social justice” values ultimately leads to more mistrust & failure. The working classes are fed up of being the guinea pigs of yet another “government scheme” or “fix it” program by someone who commutes in from the suburbs sticks around 3 years (if you’re lucky) and then sods off again.

    Long term (i.e minimum of 10 years), week-in, week-out engagement; a willingness to accept their views & values as equal & valid; and living amongst them not just “hit & run” tactics. In Christian ministry we call that being incarnational. In fact if only we could convince many professionals to stop being so dismissive of the Church – frequently the only remaining social enterprise with a presence in many of the most deprived communities – maybe you could learn something from their missionary practices past & present.