I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it’s your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like (Lillicot, 2016).
Despite a massive increase in educational qualifications over the last fifty years, the quality and productivity of jobs available for most people is in decline
During her speech setting out her vision for the future of the state education system in England the recently appointed Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May (2016-ongoing), stated that her key aim is to achieve a fair and meritocratic system. Such a vision is commendable. However, successive prime ministers and their government ministers have espoused their desire to help all young people, regardless of their background, to achieve their potential through what they perceive to be an inclusive education system that does not simply reproduce advantage and disadvantage. Yet in reality, government policy interventions to create favourable conditions for absolute intra-generational and inter-generational social mobility (e.g. through economic growth that leads to better and more numerous job opportunities), and/or to improve relative mobility chances (e.g. through education reforms to increase school effectiveness), have so far had limited success. Despite a massive increase in educational qualifications over the last fifty years, the quality and productivity of jobs available for most people is in decline. Household incomes have fallen, inequality has grown and politicians have accepted that relative mobility rates are ‘low and falling’ (Blanden and Machin, 2007). The positive correlation between disadvantage and under-achievement is as strong as ever (Hoskins & Barker, 2014).
In our recent work, Barker and I argue that these negative indicators of social mobility stem from the flawed models adopted by most policy-makers and propose an alternative conception of social mobility based on intergenerational family patterns. We contend that successive governments have over-estimated the ‘importance of teaching’ (DfE, 2010) and education reform to improve social mobility and have discounted sociological evidence that disadvantaged young people lack the social, economic and family capitals to fulfil their potential, however good their schools (HM Government 2011). Underlying structures, such as those related to family background, social class background and relative poverty, have had a greater impact on health, opportunity and life chances than reforms believed to encourage mobility. Education tends to operate as an agent of social reproduction rather than as a catalyst for improving or transforming society (Hoskins & Barker, 2016). In our current project, we explore the balance between agency and structure in our participants’ response to current circumstances and to opportunities that occur over time and we highlight some of the attributes, dispositions and capitals that tend to improve or hinder mobility chances in favourable or unfavourable social conditions.
social mobility is a flawed concept, premised on reproducing and justifying social inequalities for the majority to improve social mobility for the supposedly lucky few
Our work, along with the work of the other contributors to this blog, reveals the extent to which social mobility is a flawed concept, premised on reproducing and justifying social inequalities for the majority to improve social mobility for the supposedly lucky few. We contend that government initiatives are thwarted by a ‘failure of the sociological imagination’ that has led to an unjustified stress on simplistic notions of individual agency (Wright Mills, 1970). Theresa May, the incoming post-Brexit Prime Minister, and her government, have continued to present people as authors of their own lives, miraculously released from disadvantage by talent, hard work and education (Lillicot, 2016). This naïve optimism disregards much research into the impact of relative poverty and shows the urgent need for a reconceptualisation of how individuals are influenced by their families, personal circumstances and the wider social environment (Hoskins & Barker, 2014).
In the blog entries that follow, we provide a critique of the concept of social mobility and reveal the inherent inequality that informs the educational social mobility agenda. We also problematise recent policy initiatives to improve social mobility through education and argue for a reconceptualization of social mobility to provide a more socially just education system in the post-Brexit world we now inhabit.
Blanden, J. and Machin, S. (2007) ‘Recent Changes in Intergenerational Mobility in Britain’, The Sutton Trust. Online: http://www.suttontrust.com/wpcontent/uploads/2007/12/ intergenerationalmobilityinukfull.pdf (accessed 20 July 2015).
Department for Education (DfE) (2010) The Importance of Teaching: the schools White
Paper. London: The Stationery Office.
Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) (2011) Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: a strategy for social mobility. London: Cabinet Office.
Hoskins, K. and Barker, B. (2014) Education and Social Mobility: Dreams of Success, London: Trentham/Institute of Education.
Hoskins, K. & Barker, B. (2016) Aspirations and young people’s constructions of their futures: Investigating social mobility and social reproduction. British Journal of Educational Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2016.1182616 [published on line May 2016].
Lillicot, A. (2016) ‘Theresa May’s ‘meritocracy’ is a recipe for Darwinian dystopia’. The Telegraph 12 September. Online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016 /09/12/theresa-mays-meritocracy-is-a-recipe-for-darwinian-dystopia/, accessed 1 October 2016.
Wright Mills, C.(1970) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford. Oxford University Press.
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