Schools and social mobility: a grammatical error?

Saturday 22 October, 16.00 - 17.15 , Frobisher 4-6 State and Society

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Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

‘A welcome consensus has begun to emerge that schools can – and must – be engines of social mobility,’ said schools minister Nick Gibb in a speech to the Sutton Trust earlier this year. Theresa May seems to agree. In her acceptance speech after becoming prime minister she set out a vision for a country ‘that works for everyone, not just the privileged few’. Her subsequent decision to overturn Tony Blair’s 1998 ban on new grammar schools suggests she sees a fresh wave of selective schools as a means of boosting social mobility. In response to the critical furore, with even former chief inspector of schools Sir Michael Wilshaw proclaiming that ‘Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids,’ the proposal is to open the new grammar schools in working-class areas.

Despite the heat of the rows over grammar schools, Nick Gibb is right that that all sides seem to agree that social mobility is the objective of education, rather than its by-product. There may be disagreements within this consensus, with the right talking about ‘social mobility’ while the left prefer ‘social justice’, but both sides more or less agree that (to use the right’s language) schools must better equip their pupils for the workplace and a successful career in an era of Britain Plc. The idea need not be expressed in such ‘neoliberal’ terms: ‘progressives’ often talk of focusing on early-years education as a more productive way of undermining the stranglehold of privilege, while ‘improving the life chances of disadvantaged kids’ has become the moral purpose around which much of the teaching profession is organised. And Gibb was able to cite a recent survey revealing 93% of teachers were motivated to join the profession by the prospect of ‘making a difference to pupils lives’. That may well be a noble goal, but what about education for its own sake? Is making a difference to young people’s lives really about preparing them for a good job rather than educating them in the best that has been thought and said?

Even if grammar schools made gains for education in the past, is looking to them today little more than a nostalgic retreat? If Gibb is right about the new consensus, does this mean the traditionalist idea of education - that schools should focus on scholarship and the intellectual development of children - is now defunct? Are the two sides in the long-standing debate about the intrinsic and extrinsic purposes of education - the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake versus schools as engines of social mobility - mutually incompatible? Should political and economic goals like social justice and social mobility be left outside the school gate? Or would ignoring pupils’ social backgrounds in the name of meritocracy be ultimately unfair in an unequal society?