Battle in Print: Should schools be engines of social mobility?

Sally Millard, 25 November 2011

Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove argues that ‘schools should be engines of social mobility, helping children to overcome the accidents of birth and background to achieve much more than they may ever have imagined’ .  For such an ambitious sounding project, it has attracted very few critics. Whilst there are some disagreements over the policy detail, the idea that schools can (and should) be helping to make Britain a ‘society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise.  Where birth is never destiny’  (in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) has achieved a wide consensus.  It is worth interrogating whether this as ambitious as it first appears.

What do we want from our schools?  As a parent of a 10 year old currently wading through the mire that is the school application process, this is a question that has been at the top of my mind.  I recently asked my mother-in-law, who attended grammar school in the 1950s, what she thought she had gained from her education, her response was that she had gained knowledge; the subjects that she had studied at school had given her a broad knowledge and understanding of the world and the way it works.  This meant that she could look at problems and issues from a more objective and critical standpoint.  She explained how this had widened her horizons, helped her to think and form opinions.  This is what I want my children to get from their education.  I want them to have access to knowledge and ideas that will take them out of their immediate surroundings (nice as they are) and open their eyes to a wider world.

Michael Gove does seem to have recognised that school life has become skewed against teaching knowledge to a new generation, and he has said that he wants schools to be rewarded for pursuing a more academic curriculum.  The English Baccalaureate (BACC) has been introduced as a (limited) technique to reverse the decline in school standards and promote more rigorous academic subjects.  However, there is a long way to go before that will be achieved, and unfortunately, the idea that at the same time schools should be ‘engines of social mobility’ has muddied the waters somewhat.

For those not versed in all the research and policy documents on the subject, the term social mobility is generally understood to mean social advancement. The Coalition’s Strategy for Social Mobility, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers, however, argues for a narrow focus based around two concerns: The first is intergenerational social mobility, defined as ‘the extent to which people’s success in life is determined by who their parents are’, and the second is relative social mobility, which refers to ‘the comparative chances of people with different backgrounds ending up in certain social or income groups.’  The overarching theme is that the earnings and behaviour of parents closely determine the opportunities for their children.  Wider social influences such as the role that the economy might play in the opportunities available to us, or the role of politics in influencing our interests or ambitions more broadly, are ignored.  Also absent is influence, authority or any sense of ‘making it’ through any means other than earning more money.

In the hands of politicians, social mobility is not about wider economic or social development that might make everyone better- off, it is a zero-sum game.  As David Skelton of Policy Exchange argued in a Battle of Ideas discussion on this very subject , wealthy people have to give up some of their advantages too.  Add these assumptions to the pre-occupation with an apparent (although not uncontested)  decline in social mobility, and the focus of policy is established; to remove the ‘strait jacket’ of family and background on our ‘life chances’ in the hope that children’s income will be less closely related to that of their parents.  When politicians talk about schools and social mobility, this is the framework they are imposing on them. 

Schools are expected to advance social mobility in two ways; by narrowing the attainment gap that exists between rich and poor students at school; and by narrowing the destination gap (the jobs, or higher education their pupils move into) when they leave school.

That an attainment gap exists is widely recognised.  The figures quoted in the Coalitions strategy for social mobility are that ‘only 75% of the poorest children reach the expected level by the time they leave primary school, compared with 97% of the richest children. And just 20% of the poorest children gain five GCSEs at A*-C, including English and Maths, compared to 75% of the richest children.’  This gap is indeed an indictment of the current education system.  It is unlikely, though, that adding social mobility to the list of issues schools have to concern themselves with will solve this problem. 

Concern with the attainment gap encourages schools to focus their attention on children from poorer families.  The aim of policy is to raise their educational attainment, relative to the rest of the student population; to narrow the gap between rich and poor, not to improve education per se.  The result is a distortion of the teacher’s priorities away from educational needs, to the needs of improving social mobility.

When education policy becomes focused on narrowing the attainment gap even policies which appear to be about educating children, such as the proposal by Nick Clegg to introduce summer schools for children who are falling behind, end up being about something else entirely.  In this case, Clegg sees this policy as a solution to the summer riots, to help young people, who he says have lost touch with their future , but it is also informed by one of the key themes of the literature on social mobility, that children are disadvantaged because of their parents.  As Barbara Ellen argued in an Observer debate on this subject, ‘underprivileged children, who hold their own during the academic term but fall behind every summer because they miss out on the stimulation and structure better-off parents are able to provide throughout the holidays.  It’s disadvantage piled upon disadvantage – how is this fair?’ 

The idea that the attainment gap is a result of parents’ background or behaviour has won increasing influence in education policy and practice.  Advocates of this view have pointed to a correlation between such factors as the number of books in the home, parental (especially the mothers) attitude towards education, and parenting style with the attainment of children.  A review of the literature on the impact of parental involvement published in 2003 points to the 1997 government White Paper, ‘Excellence in Schools’ as first setting out the then Labour Government’s strategy for securing parental involvement in their children’s education .  Since then there has been a steady increase in the drive to involve schools in their child’s schooling and education, with home-school agreements; the provision of lessons for parents to teach them how to help their children with their homework; and campaigns to get parents to spend 15 minutes reading to their children daily just some of the techniques employed .  More recently, Children’s Minister Sarah Teather announced at the Liberal Democrats conference that the government would be piloting parenting classes for parents of all children under the age of five, stating they were a response to those parents who say they are under pressure, and would like more information on what to expect, more ideas on how to cope, and more ideas for helping children learn and develop Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers takes up this cause: ‘Children with more engaged parents are more likely to succeed.  Many schools that have successfully raised the attainment of disadvantaged pupils have successfully engaged disadvantaged parents in their children’s education.’ 

That parents’ educational and cultural capital might have an influence on how well their children do in school is hardly surprising, but it doesn’t follow from this that attempts to change how parents bring up their children, or even the number of books in a house, will change how well their children do at school.  Attainment is the result of a number of personal, social and educational factors and it is bizarre to think that enforced reading for 15 minutes a day can transform these, nor does it follow that schools should take on responsibility for influencing the home lives of their pupils.  Historically there has been more sensitivity about schools interfering in the family, because of the potential of damaging parental authority, but as more and more non-educational policy priorities have been heaped on them schools have been driven to look elsewhere for a solution to the one area that perhaps they should take responsibility for – education.  This is summed up by a comment made by Nick Clegg in September 2011, ‘We already expect our teachers to be social workers; child psychologists; nutritionists; child protection officers. We expect them to police the classroom, take care of children’s health; counsel our sons and daughters; guide them; worry about them, and, on top of that, educate them too ’ For Clegg, the solution is for parents to do the educating, but surely a more logical approach would be to let parents get on with all the other stuff, while schools teach?  This would mean putting aside the concern that parents are somehow damaging their children’s potential, and just trusting them and their children to do well enough on their own.  This is an unimaginable leap of faith for most policy makers today, who tend to see parents in the role of unworthy care-takers of their children, rather than loving Mums and Dads. This attitude is expressed by the increasing proclivity to call the home a ‘home learning environment’, rather than a family.  Once the family home is conceived of in this way, the role of schools easily slips to one of policing the extent to which parents fulfill their obligations to teach their children.  Tony Blair’s missive ‘education, education, education’ has become a moral value that parents must adhere to. 

It is not just parents whose behavior has to change to advance social mobility.  The Coalition argues that ‘wider society has a role to play in raising aspirations in schools’ .  The idea that some children end up NEET because their families did not go to University or have professional jobs has resulted in a swathe of initiatives that attempt to address this.  These include; ‘Inspiring the Future’, which will ‘get up to 100,000 people from all sectors and professions into schools and colleges to talk about their jobs and career routes’ ; ‘Speakers for Schools’ which will provide state schools with access to high profile speakers (including Cabinet Ministers); and mentoring programmes.  Apart from ignoring the fact that many people end up NEET because there are just not enough jobs, these patronising schemes assume that children (and their parents) will not be able to make the ‘right choices’ without armies of semi-professional do-gooders to help them. Schools are the conduit through which this ‘level playing field’ is be established, and they will be accountable for how well they do under Gove’s new ‘destination measure’.  This destination data ‘tells us if students are moving into high quality apprenticeships, satisfying jobs or good college and university courses’ .  It puts schools in the role of employment agency, and means that even the choice of subjects to be taught is discussed in this framework .  For teachers and students alike, the purpose of school becomes a narrow and instrumental obsession with obtaining the right certificate, experience, contacts and skills for a job in order that the criteria of improving social mobility can be met.

In truth schools already see themselves as “engines of social mobility”, where children’s failure to achieve is understood as stemming from a home life deficient in parenting skills, knowledge or opportunity.  The result is that a teacher’s traditional role of passing on knowledge to the next generation has become a side-act to the demand of creating a fair society, but this is a project in which schools can never succeed.  Schools cannot transform the job market, and neither will their interventions in family life have the outcome of improving children’s educational attainment, but by constantly sending the message through the social mobility discussion, that their parents aren’t good enough, they will manage to undermine the authority of parents in the eyes of their children.  One thing that schools can do is teach their pupils knowledge in the first place.  This requires educationalists to reject the attempt to turn schools into ‘engines of social mobility’ and to concentrate on what they are uniquely able to do – teach subjects to the next generation.


Cabinet Office (2011) Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility, London, Cabinet Office

Department for Education (2010) The Importance of Teaching, London, HMSO

Desforges C, Abouchaar A (2003) The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievement and Adjustment: A Literature Review, London, Department for Education and Skills, Research Report RR433

Patterson C (2011) Parenting Matters: early years and social mobility, London, Centre Forum

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