I want to question the injustice of the current prevailing view of social mobility, which is that the working class have somehow failed and they should become more like the middle class. That is, pass the required exams to go to university, get a degree or two, buy their own house and live a healthy life, contributing to society and the economy. Not too dissimilar to my own story in some ways, but lacking the notion of family, and the tribal effect of the working class.
What is needed is an alternative way of thinking about social mobility – a way of thinking that crucially listens to, engages and involves the working class in determining what their future should be. An alternative way that values partnership, mutuality and collaboration and which, by doing what is right, creates opportunities for all. What would happen if we responded to old questions with new thinking?
Why do working class children not achieve?
The need to understand how and why children can learn is fundamental to pedagogy – how teachers teach. Getting teaching right for the working class remains an ongoing challenge in many schools. An appropriate starting point might be to increase understanding of how working class, disadvantaged children, as well as those with special educational needs and disability (SEND), learn, refocus teacher training and professional training on this, and identify what is needed to prepare children for work. We need to change the mindset of the adults and services around schools to improve outcomes for all children. If you change the attitudes and behaviours of adults you improve the attitudes and behaviours of the child.
Why isn't school considered relevant by the working class?
A curriculum that is not socially and culturally relevant to working class pupils, that presents more barriers than opportunities, will not engage them in learning. The national curriculum in England has been developed based on the knowledge and experience of the middle class. There are solutions to this dilemma that, if implemented, would address the needs of all children.
The first is to break down barriers to learning by providing opportunities for all children to participate in social and cultural activities, sport, the arts, debating, volunteering, wider community based activities, museum trips and more.
The second requires us to relate the curriculum to the social context of the child and their future. All communities have a rich heritage, which can help shape the curriculum.
Thirdly, we should introduce learning about the workplace in primary school, which will raise ambitions, break down barriers, and provide relevance to learning.
Increasing access to learning for all children should be the benchmark of a successful school.
Why do working class families not participate fully in early years provision?
Sure Start Children’s Centres were the main vehicles for ensuring good quality family services, and provision was located in accessible places and welcoming to all. The aim for every Sure Start Centre was to improve outcomes for children and families. There are some fine nursery settings that take that approach today. If we want working class families to fully participate in early years we need to see more of the same: institutions that share the benefits of early years education by building a respectful relationship with families, and sustain that to help ensure growth and school readiness.
Why isn't there the will to stop the growth of disadvantage among the working class?
Part of the problem is that the context of UK poverty has changed. Poverty is no longer just an issue for people out of work or living in social housing. It impacts on people with disabilities, people who’ve become ill and had to give up work, people in work, young people (including some just out of university), people renting from private landlords. The drive for welfare reform has been seen as an answer to the problems of disadvantage, but it’s failed to understand this changing context and therefore the necessary solutions: better housing, investment in communities - or reinvestment where cuts have decimated good work - and a continued drive to grow employment and provide good jobs that provide an income on or above a living wage.
Why is working class success only measured by exam results?
The annual media frenzy that follows SATs and GCSE exam results only serves to remind the majority of the working class families that their children are disadvantaged, with private and grammar schools forming the majority at the top of published league tables. The minority of working class students who do meet national performance measures demonstrates that passing exams is a possibility at primary and secondary, but a lack of social and cultural capital makes this harder: recent primary SATs serve to prove the difficulties for those without that capital to respond to questions in the English exam.
The Education Policy Institute (EPI) report, Closing the Gap, reminds us that it will take decades to ‘close the gap’. A more meaningful assessment at secondary phase would include destination outcomes, measuring students’ outcomes by where the examinations take them.
Why is there a lack of ambition for the working class?
There is no evidence that the working class cannot achieve - in education, employment, housing and health. There is also no evidence that the working class are any less likely to have a desire for success than others. What there is, though, is a lack of societal ambition outside spurious targets (like university entry) that only concern 50 per cent of the population at best. To increase ambition for the working class there needs to be a mutual understanding of what is available in terms of alternatives, and engagement with the working class about what they actually want. By talking and listening, ambitions can be met - a do with rather than do to approach.
So, are the working class born to fail?
Research would indicate that rather than reducing the chances of failure within the working class over the last forty years, we have increased the possibility in housing, education and social care. This should not have happened, nor should it be allowed to continue. Back in 1973 The National Children's Bureau's report, Born to Fail, referenced RH Tawney, the English socialist: ‘The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right, but that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong. Those who have the power to remove them do not have the will, and those who have the will have not, as yet, the power’.
We can change the way we tackle social mobility. Ultimately, it is about taking responsibility, and creating a shared moral purpose, ambition and integrity, owned by the working class, that can provide the opportunities and resources needed for all children and their families to achieve. This is social justice in action, and possibly, social mobility that really works.
Professor Sonia Blandford is the author of Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View, is now available. The CEO of award-winning charity Achievement for All, she is also one of the UK's leading educational practitioners. In 2016, she was named on Debrett's list of the Top 500 Most Influential People in the UK.