What goes up, must stay up – the delusion of social mobility

There are some things that are so obviously a good thing that it would be perverse to argue otherwise – motherhood, apple pie, long walks on the beach, an end to world hunger, social mobility – what’s not to like?

Well, at the risk of appearing perverse, I’m begging to differ. Not about apple pie – you can have that one, and world hunger. But the quest for social mobility, in my view, is a damaging and futile one.

The concept of Social Mobility is built on a fundamental belief about the structure of society, namely that society is structured in a hierarchy, and each of us is assigned a starting place within that hierarchy. Since there is plenty of evidence to show that it can be extraordinarily difficult for somebody born into a lowly position in that hierarchy to move to a higher place, we need to make it easier for that person to move upwards, to a place more suited to their abilities and merit. Social Mobility is most often defined in entirely material terms, primarily income.

Anecdotally, we can all describe people who ‘deserve’ a higher place in this hierarchy – the bright child who couldn’t go to university because they needed to go out and work, the naturally instinctive dancer whose parents couldn’t afford ballet lessons.

One of the problems with the concept of course is the fact that as long as we’re accepting the existence of a hierarchy, we have to accept that for every person who climbs upwards, there’s someone else who slips downwards – it would be nice and convenient if the losers in this process all turned out to be over-entitled Hooray Henrys who’d never done a hard day’s graft in their lives, but there’s probably not enough of those and anyway, justice is rarely served so neatly.

If we are to promote social mobility, what are the criteria that we use for identifying worthy candidates? Talent, hard work, or a combination of both? Working in a shortage area? Ability to make money? All the decisions we make are loaded, based on social constructs and influenced by prejudices, visible and invisible.

I suspect I won’t have convinced everyone yet. So, one more scenario, which I’m posing as the father of a daughter with a significant disability which affects both cognitive and physical ability and therefore potential employment and economic success. Where does she fit in? She hasn’t gone to university and won’t achieve higher-level apprenticeships. She tries her best and is an amazing and much-loved person, but for reasons completely beyond her ability to control, she’s unable to sustain her efforts for as long as the vast majority of her peers.

In a system based on social mobility, I’m assuming her mobility is downwards. Not just hers, but many thousands like her, or others who have different but equally compelling reasons why the race is skewed against them. We may be able to provide a soft landing but it’s downhill all the way, I’m afraid.

Now, I’m not arguing that the system doesn’t need fixing – entrenched advantage in our country means that a small handful of schools and universities provide the majority of people who make the decisions over our lives. Institutional racism blights the ambitions of many people who could be offering so much more. Lack of educational opportunity is repeated in some of our communities generation after generation. What I am arguing is that reshuffling the pack is not the answer.

As long as we insist on ranking people, inequalities and unfairness will exist. As a society we love to do this – Rich Lists, 100 most influential women, Top 20 social media influencers – Sunday papers and magazines sell lots of copies based on meeting this desire. It reinforces one key message – inequality, that some people are better than others. By elevating the value of some, we diminish the value of others.

During the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis, there was a fundamental shift in the way certain roles in society were viewed. For example, it was suddenly realized that workers in care homes, until that point amongst the lowest paid and least-regarded of occupations, performed a vital service. We could survive a few months without access to Michelin-starred restaurants, but we needed our bins emptying. We could even do without watching Premier League footballers, but we needed someone to put toilet rolls on supermarket shelves.

Will this lead to the promotion of care workers in our league table, or increase the possibility that shelf stackers or refuse collectors will become socially upwardly-mobile? Based on previous experience, it’s unlikely.

If we’re not careful, social mobility becomes the enemy of equality. It means not that the best and brightest succeed, but the ones who are best-suited to doing the things to which we give the highest economic value, and it’s the people already in prime position who get to decide what that is.

If we paid more attention to power structures rather than economic status, then we may take a different view, and unfortunately, our education system is one of the factors that is most influential.

Over a period of decades, many well-meaning policy makers have tried to raise the status of vocational education in the UK, with very little success. It’s always seen as the poor relation, the route you take, not because you display a particular talent for practical tasks or problem-solving, but because you’re not clever enough to follow an academic route. The post-war structure of grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns was designed with the best of intentions to guide youngsters along the path to work which best suited them. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way – you took an exam at the age of 11, and if you passed, you went to grammar school. Nobody ever passed an exam to get into a secondary modern. Social stratification had well and truly begun at age 11.

It’s a problem that is particularly marked in this country. In many other European countries, including some with high-performing economies, adults who work in practical jobs are not allocated a lowly place on society’s ladder and therefore students who take vocational courses are not the poor relations that they are in the UK. Given that as a society, we need the full range of jobs to be filled, then seeing only some of those roles as an indicator of success is a recipe for widespread dissatisfaction at the very least. Social mobility comes at the cost of social cohesion.

Is it too much to ask that instead of seeing our society as a race in which there are winners and losers, and in which every person’s success is inevitably accompanied by someone else’s failure, we should instead recognise that there is a place for everyone? That place should obviously depend upon your ability and aptitude, not your class, race or gender, but one role should not automatically be seen as better than another. Wouldn’t it be better to aspire to achieve social justice, rather than social mobility?

Author: Dr Heery

I'm the Chief Executive Officer of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values. My blog is a place where I share my thoughts and ideas on the world of education and school leadership, with the aim of provoking debate and discussion. Click the logo above to read more.

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