Living the dream: what the heck is social mobility anyway?

After I left The Key I worked briefly with a social enterprise whose perhaps audacious goal is to try to guarantee social mobility for the young people on its four-year programmes. My role was to get them up and running to sell their programmes more effectively to schools and to help them inject more clarity into what schools might need by way of evidence that these programmes do indeed work. It certainly got me exercised about the whole concept of social mobility and in my previous blog post I look at how schools might start thinking about their own engagement with issues of social mobility. The first of many questions to consider though is always the big one: what the heck is social mobility anyway?

The fact is, when you delve just below the surface, the whole concept of social mobility is problematic – for some to move up, others must move aside and make room. And yet some organisations working with young people from deprived backgrounds, schools included, might be tempted to think it starts with telling students that, as Lawrence Samuel put it The American Dream: A Cultural History, anyone can, “through dedication and with a can-do spirit, climb the ladder of success.” We might therefore feel justified in telling our students that anyone can be anything they want in life, they just need to want it badly enough, keep their noses clean and work for it. And there is some truth in this but it’s never that simple, is it?

All too often, being socially mobile or even being a ‘success’ seems to be equated with a rapid acquisition of huge wealth. The media often screams messages of quick ascent to fame and fortune so long as you are ‘in it to win it’. I hear it a lot from teachers, parents, youth workers and the like that young people often need a swift and intensive crash course in the actual reality that isn’t found in the ‘reality’ TV shows and celebrity lifestyles readily available to them as role models. Unpack these celebrity footballers’ and famous personalities’ lives and you see how short-lived, fraught and insecure their riches really are. In fact when you look at the statistics for these outliers, you begin to understand that many young people (and probably an equal number of older ones too) will clearly see this dream crumble before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times the team I worked with started conversations with their Success for Life programme participants with helping them understand that becoming a premier league footballer might not be a viable all-eggs-in-the-basket first option (especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month).

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t encourage young people to dream, to be aspirational, and to set their goals high. But our role as educators is to, well, educate. Are we clear ourselves on the way in which our society seems to reject the notion that social mobility might be determined by forces which are beyond our control? With twisted pseudo-meritocratic themes coming through loud and clear around the undeserving poor, benefits cheats and scroungers have we lost sight of the noble desire for equality of opportunity as a starting point for all our young people? And in practical terms, is there even space in the timetable for existential enquiry around politics, society, history and democracy unless they are part of the curriculum of your chosen GCSE and A level subjects?

Sussex University sociologist Peter Saunders has written extensively on social mobility and on the question of how meritocratic Britain really is. He defined an ideal meritocratic society as one where “each generation would be recruited to a different class position on the basis of individual intelligence”. And schools seem committed to this notion that intelligence is the defining factor in fixing our intellectual and professional status as adults. This is reinforced by the fact that schools are judged by academic outcomes in particular for our students from deprived backgrounds, and ‘closing the gap’ is what it is all about. It seems that we do mean well and that this is embedded in our educational and societal structures. If this is the case, schools don’t necessarily need to see beyond the confines of their contribution to a student’s future success. They are doing everything they can and in that sense, the mantra of ‘work hard and you can get anywhere you want’ does seem appropriate when you are referring to gaining the grades that buy you a ticket from school to the next stage.

But if knowledge is power then there are two things young people need from their education and we need to take responsibility for the fact that it can’t be covered by simply selling the American Dream. The first is a commitment to fearlessly educate them about social mobility itself, the divisiveness of our society and how inequality is embedded at every level. This is not to demotivate or disincentivise our young but rather to empower them to perhaps even be the agents of change. And secondly, we need to ensure young people have a chance to explore their own personal story, their roots, their feelings, and assumptions about themselves as actors not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success, for life.

Four things to help students to think big:

  • Don’t ask students what they want to be when they grow up, but ask them who they are and what makes them excited. Students need to know what sparks their passions and need to build on their strengths. We spend too much time in life trying to improve things that we can’t do well, when we should be spending more time building on our strengths.
  • While we are on the subject of self-knowledge and self-worth, it’s important to make sure that students can not only look inwards and understand themselves – the personal, and the political. They need to know how to articulate what they feel, think, believe and hold dear. Students need opportunities to put across their case and promote themselves as worthy beings with much to say. They need time to develop and differentiate their world view and they need opportunities to try out these thoughts and beliefs on different audiences for different ends.
  • Make sure students know about a variety of people and their professions, from the mundane to the specialised, to the generalists and the quirky. Ensure they understand the skills sets, interests and pathways that led people into these professions. Bring these people into school, take the students out into the world, use low-cost options through social media or the Internet. Get them into the habit of asking people about their journey that led them to where they are now.
  • Help young people to understand that hard graft and dedication are essential and that good grades are your ticket to greater things, but that there is more than this that determines success. And some of that is deeply entrenched prejudice, inequality and injustice. A thorough understanding of society, the barriers and the opportunities we all face in different ways can help empower students to be the agents of change and to build a better future. How good is that?

You can see my article in Teach Secondary here http://www.teachwire.net/news/in-their-dreams-young-people-need-to-be-taught-about-social-inequality

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2 thoughts on “Living the dream: what the heck is social mobility anyway?

  1. How right!! Trying to put reality into student and parents aspirations. Anyway why don’t we applaud the more mundane and less well paid jobs that make all our lives easier. Eg Plumbers, cleaners and cooks.As I get older, being able to be creative, culturally aware and an active citizen is as important as loadsa money and even more fulfilling.

  2. In the analysis of social mobility one key distinction is between absolute and relative social mobility. These are analysed by writers such as John Goldthorpe and Jo Blanden and they and others draw the important conclusion that the extent of relative social mobility is inversely related to levels of income inequality.

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