Bernard Barker

Social Mobility and the Family

Bernard Barker University of Leicester Tuesday 29 November 2016

Social mobility has become an essential policy solution, an apparent panacea for inequality, injustice and unfairness (Hoskins & Barker, 2014). The idea of individuals transcending their circumstances appeals across party lines, not least because the phrase contains a vague promise rather than precise meaning. Tony Blair claimed that mobility was ‘the great force for social equality in dynamic market economies’ without pausing to debate whether the opposite might be true (Blair, 2002). As education secretary, Michael Gove insisted that academic teaching and a strong emphasis on English spelling and grammar would enable all hardworking students to climb the social ladder. Unfortunately, he seemed not to understand the bell curve and failed to explain how every child can be above average (Gove, 2012). Theresa May is equally keen to make ‘this country a true meritocracy – a country that works for everyone’ but has no idea how to square the circle (Stewart & Walker, 2016). Academic selection is by definition exclusive, while upward mobility within a status hierarchy must also entail downward movement.

substantial evidence that occupational background and family milieu continue as powerful influences on young people’s academic and vocational choices

Our earlier work (Barker & Hoskins, 2015; Hoskins & Barker, 2016) challenged the proposition that school reform enables students to overcome disadvantage and achieve enhanced mobility. We also questioned the loose generalisations and glossy paradoxes to be found in political debate around social mobility. Interviews with 88 students aged between 15 and 19, enrolled at two high-achieving academies, provided substantial evidence that occupational background and family milieu continue as powerful influences on young people’s academic and vocational choices, while their aspirations are often at variance with government plans for them.

As we listened to our respondents, we became increasingly critical of large-scale labour market studies that emphasise male earnings and discount the role of women and families. We came to agree with Bertaux & Thompson (1997: 6) that ‘at their narrowest, statistical studies of social mobility resemble the observation of a carnival through a keyhole’. Our evidence confirms that mobility is indeed ‘as much a matter of family praxis as individual agency’ (p. 7).

This led us to question the individualist focus on personal agency to be found in labour market models and to wonder whether social structure more closely resembles a coral reef with a variety of layered niches than it does a ladder or ‘greasy pole’ (Blake, 1966: 479, referring to Disraeli becoming Prime Minister). Our data persuaded us to follow Bourdieu (1986) in believing that people are embedded in families and family relationships to which all household members make important if varied contributions. These influence and transmit relative status and access to economic capital (income, investments, property), social capital (peer group, networks, contacts), and cultural capital (knowledge, skills, dispositions). Over time, the historic interactions of family members with these elements tend to produce a spatial distribution that resembles the form of a coral reef. Layered niches of varying depth and quality provide diverse habitats for myriad creatures in complex relationships with one another.

Individual trajectories through education and work should be understood, therefore, in relation to their family’s occupational pattern and trajectory over time

Each niche, and the creatures within, adapt and evolve continuously in relationships with one another and the wider reef, and also in response to the changing conditions that shape its context. Successful families provide their members with mutual aid and support, and gradually accumulate small advantages that help them benefit from changing conditions and opportunities (Gladwell, 2008). Unsuccessful families and communities are caught in adverse niches and struggle with the darkness, pressure and tidal flows that impede their growth and erode their security. Individual trajectories through education and work should be understood, therefore, in relation to their family’s occupational pattern and trajectory over time.

Our latest research project, a case study of family patterns and influences as experienced and reported by undergraduate chemistry students at a Russell Group university, aims to investigate the factors that enable intra-generational social mobility. What role does the family play in the formation and unfolding of academic and vocational aspirations? How do local contexts shape the possibilities for intra-generational social mobility? How do circumstances create advantages that are transmitted between generations? We plan to work with a family-centred paradigm that draws on neglected conceptual resources to inform and guide an inclusive, more complex understanding of social processes and how they impact on people’s lives and mobility patterns.


Barker, B. & Hoskins, K. (2015) Can high-performing academies overcome family background and improve social mobility? British Journal of Sociology of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2015.1073104 [published on line August 2015].

Bertaux, D. and Thompson, P. (1997) ‘Introduction’. In D. Bertaux and P. Thompson (eds) Pathways to Social Class: a qualitative approach to social mobility’. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1 – 31.

Blair, T. (2002) ‘Full text of Tony Blair’s speech on welfare reform’. In The Guardian 10 June. Online. (accessed 5 June 2013).

Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. Trans. Nice, R. In J. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education, New York: Greenwood Press, 241 – 258.

Gladwell, M. (2008) Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown.

Gove, M. (2012) Uncorrected Transcript of Evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee, 31st January (to be published as HC 1786-i), available at:

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].

Stewart, H. & Walker, P. (2016) Theresa May to end ban on new grammar schools, Guardian, 9th September, available at:


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Bernard Barker is Emeritus Professor of Educational Leadership and Management at the University of Leicester. He was principal of community comprehensive schools in Peterborough and Leicester before joining the School of Education to teach masters and doctoral degrees around the world.