Why Social Mobility is no sort of Social Justice

Adam Robertson argues that in an unequal society focusing our attention on achieving social mobility can only cement injustice. Instead, in order to work towards social justice through education we need to foreground the eradication of oppression in our thinking.

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Lurking behind much debate and discussion abouteducation in this country is the assumption that Social Mobility is ‘A Good Thing’. Indeed, for many people it has become ‘The Thing’ itself, what the entire education system is geared to produce.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan described social mobility as “the transforming effect of education” in a December 2014 interview for Conservative Home.

Meanwhile the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission’s October 2014 report into how schools could improve social mobility was entitled ‘Cracking the Code’, strongly suggesting that they see social mobility is the very heart of the Commission’s conception of the purpose of education.

Tristram Hunt’s response to this report, in his role as Shadow Education Secretary, was to conflate the achievement of social mobility at a policy level with students from the poorest backgrounds “succeed[ing]”. In this formulation for our schools to fail to enable  social mobility is for our schools to fail.

It is a position which unites old and young, left and right, progressive and traditionalist. Our very own Prince Charles lobbied David Blunkett to reintroduce grammar schools, the former Education Secretary recently revealed, as they would give academically-gifted poor children the “opportunity to escape from their backgrounds”.

But what is social mobility? The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission speaks of “improving life chances”. And this is how it is typically discussed, especially in schools:  in terms of helping to provide students from the poorest backgrounds with as many and as good “life chances” as we can.

And this idea is undoubtedly to be sought and celebrated. A fair society is one in which children are able to fulfil themselves and become who they want to be, whose choices are not restricted by their background. As teachers we should absolutely celebrate every time one of our students achieves what they need to achieve in order to go on to whatever they have chosen to do.

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But I think Prince Charles’ definition sheds more light on what is really happening here. ‘Escape’ is a good word to use. Social mobility is the process by which people who live in tough, rough, poor circumstances, the losers of the lottery of our class-stratified society, those who suffer from oppression, escape the predicament of their social class and get the chance to enjoy more salubrious living conditions.

When people want to champion this process they usually focus on individual stories, like that of my grandmother. A working class girl from South Wales, whose father worked in a bakery, she did well enough at her local school to win a place at UCL after the war, which enabled her to become a teacher, a member of one of the liberal professions.

But it is rarely spoken about in terms of class.

The stories told of social mobility are always told of the escape, but you hear little of the lives that continue to be lived in the backgrounds that others are so lucky to leave behind.

Indeed, social mobility does nothing for these people at all. It is not a process whereby the lives of the most disadvantaged are improved, but one whereby a small number of people who were born disadvantaged have their circumstances improved. Indeed, in the case of true social mobility, those people should be replaced by others moving down the social ladder. There should be no net increase in social wellbeing at all. It does nothing to actually improve the lives of the poorest in society, who remain as poor as before.

Indeed, although social mobility is often trumpeted as one of the triumphs of the post-war settlment in the UK, the really meaningful change in the lives of the Working Class was not the small portion of its number that found homes among the Middle Classes, but the real improvement in Working Class living standards won by organised labour.

But social mobility is worse than ineffective. Not only does it do nothing to improve the wellbeing of the most disadvantaged, but it also provides ideological cover for the perpetuation of their degradation.

If we live in a socially stratified society, as we do, and it can be claimed that social mobility is working well, which is perhaps more of a stretch in our case, then it can be argued, by dipping into old Evangelical, Calvinist and Puritan rhetorical tropes, that people deserve their position in society. Those that apply themselves can rise through the ranks, and therefore those with the most deserve to enjoy all of the perks of  their good life. Meanwhile, if the ladder has been provided, and instructions to climb it issued, those who remain at the lowest rungs of society deserve every degradation that’s coming their way. Social mobility becomes an ideological shield for inequality and oppression.

Instead, if we are serious about actually improving the lives of those who find themselves most disadvantaged under the terms of Neoliberalism, rather than giving a select few a sort of social promotion and declaring that all is well with the world, then we need to switch our focus away from Social Mobility and towards the eradication of oppression wherever we find it.

Obviously, in the short term individual successes of pupils are to be celebrated – against the odds they are managing to fulfil themselves. But for as long as we live in the brutally unequal society in which we do, such a story is never going to be more than a fleeting palliative. A sweetener for an otherwise bitter pill that we’d have to keep swallowing.

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Instead of accepting the terms of a stratified society and gearing our efforts towards enabling bright children at the bottom of society to move upwards, by foregrounding the eradication of oppression we can focus on improving the lives of all of those people who suffer under the current system.

By doing so we give ourselves the ability to add nuance to how we discuss individual students’ experience of the world. A BME student who ‘succeeds’ in the terms of social mobility will continue to experience oppression within our racist, white-supremacist society, for instance. Foregrounding that student’s experience of oppression enables us to go beyond social class in our criticism of the present system.

But making this shift also gives us the ability to articulate the idea that perhaps the best way of improving the lives of our students is to altogether get rid of the stratifications and hierarchies that govern our society and make so many people’s lives worth trying to escape.

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