Should England’s schools become ‘engines of social mobility’?
Whilst sociologists and statisticians have continued to argue over the facts of social mobility, a political consensus has emerged as to the solutions. Understandably, perhaps, education has come to be seen as the primary mechanism by which a more mobile society might be created. Politicians might dispute the particulars, but few question education secretary Michael Gove when he argues that schools are ‘the means by which we liberate every child to become the adult they aspire to be’.
It is of course true that schools can inflate one’s aspirations and that academic success makes it easier to progress in life. For these reasons every teacher worthy of that title promotes achievement and seeks to broaden the horizons of the young. In doing so, students grapple with foreign ideas, experiences and sentiments and intellectual mobility is promoted. Cultural vistas are widened, great minds are encountered and pupils learn to expect more from themselves and life. You are a brighter and perhaps better person after you have studied Jane Eyre.
But when Gove suggests that schools should become ‘engines of social mobility’, this is quite a different matter, as it implies that schools exist to serve an economic purpose beyond education itself. Approaching education in this instrumental fashion encourages us to ask the wrong questions. Instead of considering what it is that all students need to know, it directs us to a far narrower set of concerns. And let us be clear about these. A socially mobile society as the government defines it is one in which the labour market is functioning efficiently and fairly. A reasonable policy objective perhaps, but hardly a great motive force for education.
To me, it seems likely that positioning schools as a means of addressing our economic concerns can only result in distorted curriculum priorities. This is perhaps best illustrated by the government’s education white paper The Importance of Teaching. One of the most significant changes it announced was the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a new way of measuring secondary school success at GCSE level. This quite correctly pushes academic subjects and suggests that curriculum breadth is important, but it also argues that priority should be given to ‘strategic subjects’. This results in an unwelcome bias, as those disciplines that are most typically favoured by employers, such as maths and sciences, are rightly given a heavy weighting, but those that have a more ambiguous relationship to UK Plc are given far shorter shrift. Students have the option, for example, of studying either geography or history, but are not required to do both, while English literature, as a discrete subject, and all of the wider arts, count for nothing.
In the recent period, politicians have asked schools to address a very long list of policy objectives. New Labour, for example, required teachers to improve civic participation, social inclusion and community cohesion, while the Coalition, which shares and has re-badged many of these concerns, has given a particular emphasis to tacking crime, disorder and political extremism. It is perhaps unsurprising that there is little evidence of any of this working, as these are all problems of the adult world which have been outsourced to schools.
The government’s social mobility strategy should be set in this context. Its key document Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers suggests that amongst other initiatives a renewed focus on academic subjects, extra funding for disadvantaged pupils and better careers advice, will help make England a more mobile society. Personally, I have my doubts, even if these initiatives are laudable in their own terms. Most particularly, I am unclear as to how changes within education can reform the labour market outside of it. If we want to promote mobility, then surely more radical and comprehensive action would be required, which is why it is curious that Opening Doors says so little about what happens to us in the world of work itself, or in terms of strategies for economic growth, where surely the main drivers of mobility are to be found.
There is a really rather fine paragraph on page 41 of The Importance of Teaching. It states that the National Curriculum is important for students and must ‘embody their cultural and scientific inheritance’ and ‘the best that our past and present generations have to pass on to the next’. It warns us that it should not ‘try to cover every conceivable area of human learning or endeavour’ or ‘become a vehicle for imposing passing political fads on our children’. Social mobility is today’s major political fad and it’s simply wrong to position schools as the solution to the problems of the labour market. This undermines the integrity of education and seems unlikely to achieve the outcomes intended. I think that Mr Gove would do well to read this paragraph again.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Toby Marshall teaches communications, film and philosophy and is the Programme Development Secretary for the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT). He has produced the Battle of Ideas Satellite session Should England’s schools become ‘engines of social mobility’, organised in partnership with SCETT, which takes place on Thursday 6 October.Tagged in: education, opinion, school
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