“It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.”
In recent years, the concept of ‘social mobility’ has been at the forefront of the agenda for education. Schools are paid pupil premium money to try and achieve it for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The teacher training charity Teach First seems to have been set up explicitly with this goal in mind. And yet, as this report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed in late 2016, the number of people living in poverty in a working family is at an all-time high. In our supposedly civilised country, 21% of the population live in poverty, a percentage that has barely changed in a decade. It’s interesting to note that many of the organisations charged with changing these statistics are constituted as charities. The Government seems to have decided that the redistribution of wealth through general taxation is not an option, and has passed over responsibility for ‘closing the gap’ to everyone else. Wealthy philanthropists (who presumably sit near the top of the ‘socially mobile’ ladder) pass on some of their money to those ‘below’ them on that ladder. Rather than the Government stopping people being poor in the first place by ensuring decent wages, job security and support for those who cannot work, the poor must strive to ‘earn’ their socially mobile status for themselves.
But when you start to pick it apart, ‘social mobility’ begins to look like a really strange concept. For a start, on the ladder of ‘social mobility’, who sits at the top? Is it the Prime Minister, the Judges, the Queen? Do you have to have gone to a Russell Group university and become a banker/lawyer/politician/doctor to have proved yourself to be socially mobile? (What even is a ‘Russell Group’ university?) Or maybe it’s about being a famous, well paid celebrity? Or could it be about the people you mix with, the amount of money you earn, or how little tax you can get away with paying? Or maybe it’s about how you speak, the aristocratic families you’re connected to, or where you send your kids to school? Or is it about moving between the ABC classifications, or from a ‘blue collar’ to a ‘white collar’ job, or from lower to middle to upper ‘class’? Or maybe it’s just about cash, pure and simple? The class system is so tangled up with the British view of life that it’s hard to know what to do to be a socially mobile person. I start to worry that I might have dropped down the ladder since I went from a profession (teaching) to a vocation (writing). And what if I give it all up and become a gardener? Or a nun? (unlikely) What then?
The next strange thing about social mobility is the assumption that everyone wants to move upwards in the first place. Yes, if you live in poverty, you most certainly want to get out of it. But when so many people who are in work are also living in poverty, probably the last thing on their minds is becoming a politician/lawyer/banker. There’s a lot of pressure at the top of the tree, where the branches are fragile. Not all of us want to climb the tree, even for all the money in the kingdom. Some of us are motivated by very different things (family, job security, an easy life, the chance to travel, to name just a few). But let’s say for a moment that everyone did want to climb it. Everyone was equally motivated by money, status and prestige. Where would we be then? What if all the nurses, and the plumbers, and the ambulance drivers, and the shop workers said “we want to be high court judges too!” Of course it’s lovely to have the choice, and the more exams you get, the more possibilities are open to you. But that doesn’t mean I would have ever wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, even if I could have been.
And then I think for a moment about the people who I’m told have reached the top of the socially mobile tree. A politician, say, like Boris Johnson. (Bear with me.) He went to the ‘best schools’, he talks in the poshest of voices, he’s a descendant of King George II. Even his name (“Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson”) sounds socially mobile. And yet, look at his character! How is it possible to be so well connected, so high up the tree, and yet so apparently incompetent at your job? Shouldn’t he be sliding down the ladder by now? Or does no one have to come down to make space for others to go up? Similarly, I guess it would be fair to say that if you get to be President of the United States, you have basically won the socially mobile game. That if you achieved that goal, while also being a successful business person, like Donald Trump has, then you could officially be considered to have ‘reached the top’ of the tree. I don’t like to be rude, but if that’s what you end up with if you’re a socially mobile person, then please count me very much out.
And what about the notion that you have to earn your social mobility (or at least you do if you start out at the ‘bottom’ of the ladder; those at the top often seem to get a free pass)? That you have to somehow deserve it, especially if you’re poor. This bit confuses me a lot. I’m not completely clear whether we have to earn our way to the top through hard work, or whether we only get there through intelligence, or perhaps if some people believe that hard work is all that stands between most of the population and being the Prime Minister. For anyone with any kind of learning disability, the idea that ‘all it takes is hard work’ and that they have to ‘earn their way’ out of poverty is downright insulting. How could it possibly be fair if the only people able to dig their way out of disadvantage were the high attaining, grammar school headed, few? And finally there’s the debt that young people are getting into, in pursuit of their way up the ladder. I’m lucky in that, if my kids decide to go to university, I should be able to offer them some measure of financial support. But what about the struggling families, the ones we are meant to help to be socially mobile? How does it help them if their children begin their working lives £30,000 in debt?
Many (perhaps most) teachers come into the profession to ‘make a difference’. It’s a fine and noble motivation, and teachers definitely can and do make a difference to the children they work with. Schools definitely do help children get the chance to do something different with their lives. I am eternally thankful to my own teachers for doing this for me. But this sense of vocation can sometimes run the risk of over reaching itself; of making us assume that we can change the world for every child, if only we could find the right way to go about it. Of taking far too much on ourselves, and not handing enough responsibility to those who really should be taking it. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the first question we need to be asking ourselves is not what pedagogy we should use, nor what behaviour systems we should have in place. It is not what tests we should be giving, or how our accountability system should work. It is not what Ofsted wants, or what crazy thing the DfE has asked us to do this time around. It is not even how much marking we should be doing, or what the causes of excessive workload might be. I think we need to stop and ask ourselves a couple of far more fundamental questions. Ones that all those dead cats being chucked on tables are making it hard to spot. Why the hell are we taking on a job that a Government is meant to do for its people? And why on earth do we collude with a narrative that says children have to work their way out of poverty, themselves?*
*If you’re wondering what I would do instead, I would probably start with this.