Social mobility

This is what I really said about social mobility

Social mobility is complex but the Telegraph’s headline about my speech was the opposite of what I said, writes Katharine Birbalsingh

Social mobility is complex but the Telegraph’s headline about my speech was the opposite of what I said, writes Katharine Birbalsingh

13 Jun 2022, 17:15

You may have read that last week we launched the “fresh approach” which we want the Social Mobility Commission to take over the next few years. The headline which dominated on the day was the Telegraph’s rather odd spin, that “Working class people should aim ‘lower’ than Oxford.” This ran on several media outlets and provoked the predictable reaction on Twitter.   

This was not what was said or implied in my speech (you can see the speech here). I was pleased to see that Schools Week actually read the speech, and came to its own, more balanced conclusion. I am also pleased that they have given me this opportunity to talk directly to teachers about what we are trying to do. 

Of course we all want people to excel, and if this involves overcoming enormous disadvantages to enjoy an ‘elite’ career, then all power to them.  You only have to look at the institutions my Deputy Chair Alun Francis and I both lead to see how high we encourage our students to aim. We want them to be the very best they can be, and want to live in a world where no-one is held back by their background. As educationalists we love to see this and to celebrate it.  But we should not uphold it as the model against which everyone is judged. 

You will all have your own views about social mobility and what it means. There is a huge academic and policy literature which is very technical about how it is defined and measured.  This is one of the things the Commission wants to make more accessible. The problem is that a fair bit of social mobility work tends to focus on a very small group of very talented people making huge leaps from the ‘bottom’ to the ‘top’. Of course we should strive for this to happen as much as possible – and indeed my own sixth form is all about getting disadvantaged kids into Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities.   

But what about those who do not want to go to university, or feel their skills or talents lie elsewhere? What about the fabulous pupils with great character, who work hard, and are good people, but only end up with average grades? What about those who need second or third chances?  

Some may want to say this is lowering expectations

These are precisely the people that we want the social mobility debate to include. These are young people who you work with, and who often move mountains to make progress in their life, but on the current measures would not even be noticed. They only count if they are among the exceptional few, who leap from the bottom to the top – usually through extremely high academic achievement.  

The focus we want to bring to the Social Mobility Commission is to look at how opportunities can be improved for everyone, including those who make shorter journeys. And as part of promoting that we’re particularly keen to focus on the role of family and community circumstances, the choice of pathways into work, and the nature of economies in specific places, in shaping opportunity.  

Some may want to say this is lowering expectations. But that’s not what we’re saying at all. High expectations are the foundation of great learning. Aspiration matters too. You can’t be what you can’t see – which is why I invite such a different variety of role models to speak to the children at Michaela. Of course we want to celebrate those who go to Oxbridge or become top lawyers. But we also want to celebrate those who don’t follow those routes. Life isn’t just about becoming a top banker in the City – we should celebrate that fact and recognise that there are great achievements to be had in other careers and other parts of the country too. 

Having high expectations should not mean we judge everyone by the same measures We want to encourage and inspire everyone to be their best, but we also need to avoid prejudiced views about the occupations and achievements of those who follow a different path. We need to spend as much time on opening opportunities for them as we do for the academically outstanding. There are different social mobility narratives for different people, and we shouldn’t be putting them in hierarchies which implies that some are inferior to the others. We need them all. 

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