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Education and Social Mobility


The good news is that we now know more about the pupil-level strategies that will close the social class gap. The challenge is to make sure they are used in the classroom.’ Estelle Morris, MP

Schools should be engines of social mobility, places where the democratisation of knowledge helps vanquish the accidents of birth.’ Michael Gove, MP

‘It [a more dynamic society] is the impulse that lies behind our education reforms, including the pupil premium. Education is critical to our hopes of a fairer society.’ Nick Clegg, MP


To which I reply: b*ll*cks, basically. Education is not about social mobility. I mean, it can also have that happy consequence, of course, but that is not what it fundamentally is about. Nor, indeed, is that what it is fundamentally for.

And thank goodness for that, quite frankly. As I will explain.

But to start with, the point is that too much of the modern hand-wringing approach toward education gets this wrong. Really wrong. Since education has long since become a Royal Rumble for the CHECK OUT HOW CONCERNED I AM ABOUT THE POOR crew, so the aim of helping the poor be clever enough to get a job that means they are no longer poor appears to have become this week’s educational Nirvana

Govian revolutionaries are particularly good at this, and very much resemble the liberal left when they do so (no surprise there). Determined to display their compassionate credentials, they commandeer the moral outrage of the firebrand to present their reforms as self-evidently enlightened because self-evidently about helping-poor-people-actually-get-a-job-more-like-ours-for-a-change. The intellectual furnaces from which this framework is forged are not much into the pursuit of intellect for the sake of human flourishing and expression – no, it’s about social mobility. Or, about getting a better job. Or, having whatever it is that your future employers might want you to have.

Call me a desperate romantic, but I rather fancy that somewhere, both John Keating and Crocker-Harris are crying. On one another’s shoulder. Whilst reading Browning.

And so one begins to whiff the rotting carcus of Education, now little more than a host for the parasitical feasting of a legion of wonkeries telling us all how to make sure our kids are more employable. Education herself, once the goddess we worshiped and adored as life giving and realising, has been subjugated by the new god Money, and the maximization of our chances of being able to accumulate it.

What use within a marketised utilitarianism for appeals to refinement of intellect? Once we justify education through appeal to future life outcomes, we retreat from the front line and spend the rest of our lives desperately trying to convince our victors why our kids should not just be learning whatever it is that we finally decide 21st century skills happen to be. Or, to quote: ‘Overcoming educational inequality is a huge challenge. However, we know the cost of doing nothing. It’s bad for social mobility and ultimately bad for Britain’s economy.’ Take a bow, Mr Twigg.

Dear Lord, Spare me the cold utility of the educationalist who wishes to justify intellectual aggrandizement with a costs benefits analysis of future earning potential. Amen.

Schubert? Blake? van Gogh? Died in poverty. Cry me a river. Clearly failed by the system. Don’t know how their teachers sleep at night.

So, we have the order of the day: let’s help poorer kids get clever because then they can all be richer than they would otherwise have been. Which means they’ll be more socially mobile. Which means the country will make more money. Which is what education is all about, n’est-ce pas? The demands of the market are uppermost, but the new morality is about helping the poorest cope more effectively with those demands. And if you think this will not percolate down to what we decide it is that they need to know, then I have some fresh air in a bottle here at just £5 a go – interested?

As such, the cold logic of the market utilitarian frames the education debate, and those who would argue that kids should study Latin or theology are destined to lose. Not that they won’t sometimes be agreed with – the revolutionaries will often say they should have such opportunities because their more socially mobile peers do – but they cannot really give good reasons why. Which means they will not try especially hard to ensure it happens. Which is also why, for a great many, it won’t. Funnily enough, the culture in which those socially mobile peers operate very much know why. And study such subjects accordingly. But then, they don’t go on about social mobility all that much.

Which brings us to an impasse, in which those toiling against the shallow moralism of the ‘reformers’ face unfavourable odds the magnitude of which would give a Rorke’s Drift veteran the shakes. Still, in the face of the BUT WON’T YOU THINK OF THE CHILDREN (NARROWLY DEFINED AS THEIR FUTURE EARNING POTENTIAL) brigade, the line must be held. Education is about making everyone more clever than they previously were. It is about giving everyone the intellectual refinement to engage successfully with the world around them. It is about helping in the pursuit of the Good Life, to succeed in the art of living well. Or, for those of us for whom zeal originates within metaphysics rather than the economist’s spreadsheet, it is about using what was given to reflect on those things for which it was made: ‘God wouldn’t have given us an intellect if he didn’t want us to think straight.’

To conclude, we might as well fire a parting shot: the very notion of social mobility is deeply problematic. The original Red Tory surge saw that, just as the Blue Labour counterblast did too. That for too many this is the sole criterion upon which to advance education reform is a worry. Not least because its natural logic is to diminish standards, not build them.

So, as a teacher, you’ll forgive me for not planning into my teaching strategies to ensure the improved social mobility of those who sit before me each day. That’s not my job. My job, indeed my goal, is to help children be cleverer when they walk out the door than they were when they walked through it. I’ll let the social mobility bit take care of itself. And fire off the odd salvo in futile protest.

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