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The full spectrum of social mobility

Published on 01/03/19

A great many of those involved in education state their aim as being to aid social mobility.

Regardless of whether you see yourself as part of any particular group or ideology, this aim is often brought up to explain or justify beliefs, values or actions. In fact, it may be the only thing that unites those most unhelpfully applied terms “prog” and “trad” and indeed a raft of education secretaries.

The idea of social mobility has jarred in my thinking with Baudelaire’s notion of education as cultural reproduction, since it was first suggested to me as a question to put to E D Hirsch when Inspiration Trust hosted him in 2016. Most recently it has resurfaced when reading Sonia Blandford’s book, Born to Fail in which she raises the question posed by Freire among others, as to whether we are genuinely enabling social mobility if we are simply suggesting that those who are currently disadvantaged can become more socially mobile and in some way ‘bettered’ by mirroring a different social group or class – most likely our own.

Blandford challenges us to ensure that we are making mutuality a focus for our attempts at developing this mobility. She stresses that this is not “middle class people dipping their toe into a life of disadvantage and then going away feeling that they understand enough to call the shots.” It is about “valuing them [the disadvantaged in society] and allowing them to develop their own way, where they are now, or where they want to be.” Not about rescuing but valuing. It is this that she says is genuine social justice.

Dialogue, and its importance in the development of others is also part of the Haltung philosophy of Janusz Korczak and echoed through the work of Gert Biesta and his “Beautiful Risk of Education.” Korczak, a Polish Jew who ran orphanages in the 1930s, was offered the chance to avoid the gas chambers but chose instead to go with his children to Auschwitz. He said of young people that “the unknown person in each of them is the hope for the future” and that “if you want to be a pedagogue you have to learn to talk with children instead of to them. You have to learn to trust their capabilities and possibilities.”

This notion of self determination is linked to wellbeing by the work of Ryan and Deci who wrote in 2000 that “by failing to provide supports for competency, autonomy and relatedness, not only of children but also of students, employees, patients, and athletes, socialising agents and organisations contribute to alienation and ill-being”. 

It is of course, not always the case that those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds will suffer from low self esteem but  for those of us who work in these communities the correlation is hard to miss. In my town of Great Yarmouth for example, we have four times the national average proportion of families open to children’s services. We are 15% below the national average for people with Level 2 qualifications and have half the average for Level 4.

To rely on extrinsic motivation without the development of intrinsic motivation through competency, autonomy and relatedness in these circumstances is unlikely to raise aspirations.

The use of the curriculum to raise the chances of social mobility is a common and well-supported approach. Some suggest that the adage of knowing what the people in the club know is ignorant of the knowledge that these communities already hold, and as such stands to alienate rather than include. Others suggest that while these interventions may be alien they are entirely necessary for enabling a different sort of opportunity. I wonder though, if there is a danger of these interventions reinforcing differences and divisions for those who aren’t able to access this curriculum. This may stem from obstacles to learning such as literacy, or because we have behaviour systems that assume their lack of engagement is a choice to reject what is being offered, and as such lead them to be excluded from this curricular access.

In his editorial for a recent issue of Impact, the journal of the Chartered College, Michael Young reflected on the introduction of a curriculum of the kind most commonly associated with independent schools in the state sector commenting that, “schools could be (or already may be) forced to adopt forms of discipline and pedagogy that bear little relationship to those found in the schools on which their curriculum is modelled.”  He was talking about the lack of resources in state schools in comparison to their independent equivalents but I think there are also points to be made here that link to Blandford when she says that, “we would be wise to recognise that social mobility shouldn’t be seen as migrating to a different class, but about life chances for everyone.” 

It’s simply not enough to assume that the curriculum can deliver everything. Alongside this we must consider a wider interpretation of resources such as the resourcefulness within the students, and the self regulation and self esteem that are almost taken for granted among students in the independent sector. When we make this assumption about the power of a curriculum to transcend where these may be lacking among our students we may be leading them to fall foul of the forms of discipline that Young appears to refer to. Without considering what else we need for students with different needs, the enabling opportunities of this curriculum are only available to those without the barriers that are prevalent among those who need mobility and justice the most. 

This in itself is based on the assumption that the dominant curriculum is indeed the most effective one for supporting social mobility. Recently there has been a good degree of comment around the importance of religious education in terms of understanding large amounts of the rest of the curriculum. From a society that has for centuries been dominated by religious doctrine or relationships with it, this is hardly surprising. We shouldn’t forget though that one of the reasons for this was a church that maintained power over the lay through the fact that they ‘knew’ what others didn’t and as such were to be listened to and obeyed. This raises two important questions. 

Firstly, if we continue to reinforce the importance of this doctrine (albeit through the context it gives to other information) without question or challenge around why it is so influential, are we not giving it a high status and perpetuating the position of dominance and control by this set of beliefs and values? And secondly, if we are teaching any sort of knowledge without the potential to challenge, question and subvert, are we not leading to knowledge and the possession of it being seen as authority and the source of power in a rather unhealthy way? Unhealthy, because the relationship between teacher and student is based around one knowing what the other does not and can not, unless I chose to share it. As such, the authority and power of the teacher comes from this. When the knowledge is questioned then the authority too becomes questioned and the student then becomes a challenge to not just the idea, but the teacher, leading to the employment of disciplinary measures of the sort that Michael Young was referring to.

In these situations, where the fragility of the teacher’s authority is based around being the smartest one in the room then the powerful knowledge isn’t being delivered in a way to enable or in a way that will do any more than reinforce existing positions and keep those that we aim to emancipate in  subjugated positions. I want you to develop and show your potential – as long as it doesn’t start to exceed my own achievements or definitions. 

If we don’t encourage, or even allow, challenge and question in our classrooms then we are never going to use powerful knowledge as an enabler of social mobility, and we will indeed be simply encouraging social reproduction. At its most extreme when learning what the teacher is saying and repeating it without question or interrogation (and as such limited understanding) we are in greater danger of not even reproducing the culture, but merely imitating it through pedagogical methods that produce a proxy for learning. As with the disciplinary approach already mentioned, this could not be further from the approach of the independent schools which we cite as being the best examples and are seemingly aiming to recreate – which of course has its own issues in terms of genuine social mobility. If “memory is the residue of thought” then some thinking must be taking place. 

None of this is to question the vitality of a curriculum that enables others through powerful knowledge. Rather to suggest that there is a need for something more alongside this. In his Learning to be Human lecture delivered in 1958 John MacMurray talked of how schools as communities needed to do more to teach children how to interact successfully and develop as individuals, something reiterated by Read in 2000 who stated that “having the capacity to care and to attune to individual children has now become the responsibility of care-giving settings beyond the family.” It's simply not enough to say ‘I’m a teacher not a social worker’. If we as teachers are committed to social mobility and ensuring that all students in our care receive the education we say they are entitled to, then we must think about how we overcome barriers, be they learning or relational based and commit ourselves to whole child development and education. If this isn't done then there is little point in investing in a high quality curriculum.

And if we genuinely want to use that powerful knowledge to enable social mobility then we should be prepared to do more than replicate what has gone before. We must resist pushing our frameworks of what success means on those that we are intending to liberate – even if that means once they have learnt from us they choose to remain. As Hirsch said in response to the cultural reproduction question: “It’s not enough to get them in the club by telling them what the people in club know. Once they get in there we should be encouraging them to use this to blow the doors off the club and build a new one.”