A Memoir of Education and Social Mobility
Social mobility—the chance, through education, to achieve greater success than one’s parents—is a compelling issue of our time. Beginning in 1950s Northern England, this revealing memoir links Andy Hargreaves’s experiences of social mobility to today’s challenges of inequity and immobility.
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A memoir on social mobility and schooling written to inspire a rethink about learning for all today
Social mobility—the chance, through education, to achieve greater success compared to one’s parents—is one of the most compelling issues of our time. In Moving, renowned professor, government adviser, and global change agent Andy Hargreaves shares candid, poignant, and occasionally hilarious personal experiences of social mobility. Deeply revealing, emotionally direct, and intellectually insightful, the book begins in 1950s Northwest England and takes readers up to Hargreaves’s university education in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hargreaves openly shares how class movement has affected him throughout life, links his narrative to classic and contemporary research and realities, and calls on society to reverse the increasing levels of social immobility and inequity worldwide.
- Learn, through the author’s research and firsthand account, how issues surrounding mobility, equity, and education in the 20th century are still reflected in 21st-century life.
- Understand the obstacles of socially mobile students as they negotiate schoolwork, poverty, cultural collisions, and personal hardship.
- Witness how Hargreaves’s experiences of testing, selection, ADHD, inspiring and uninspiring teaching, whole-child inclusion, and elitist exclusion are still alive and well in education today.
- Study three alternative scenarios for the future of social mobility that highlight the best ways to address both mobility and equity and to deal with the strains experienced by students who succeed in becoming mobile.
Product Code: BKF953, EKF516
“A nuanced and heartfelt account of his early years by one of the leading educators of our time. One comes to appreciate the motivations for Andrew Hargreaves’s lifetime mission of improving educational opportunities for less-privileged persons, as well as the approaches that he has taken in pursuit of that essential undertaking.”
“What really makes this book stand out is that Andy can look at education not only from the point of view of someone who benefited from a first-class education but also as a teacher who worked in a range of schools and saw firsthand the impact that poverty can have on educational attainment. … Young people have the right to a first-class education, and the most fundamental element of that is ensuring that we have an outstanding and empowered teaching profession. That is why Andy’s work as a leading educator and proponent of educational improvement is so important.”
“You will not read a more personal, passionate, and powerful account of social mobility. Hargreaves’s moving life story offers universal lessons for us all. The boy from Accrington did good!”
“Brilliant! Using humor, poignant storytelling, and scholarly argument, Andy Hargreaves presents us with his personal journey from humble roots as a young boy in northern England to his current status as a world-class educational leader in explaining the concept of social mobility. This book is a must-read for all individuals who want to understand the role of education in effecting social change such that there are reduced disparities in this world and greater equity and equality of opportunity for everyone. I am personally drawn to Andy’s memoir due to similar geographic and educational beginnings in northern England. Everyone reading this book will see a part of themselves in Andy’s story and reflect on the narrative to consider how they might ensure a better life for all.”
“Sociology in the flesh becomes sociology in the soul. Andy Hargreaves becomes both subject and object in this magnificent autobiography of growing up in small-town northern England in the 1950s and 1960s. It combines the grit of the underdog with the alchemy of evolution. Truly inspiring with a dose of wonderment.”
“A delightful account of Andy Hargreaves’s childhood, family, working-class community, and education. It shows the importance of schooling in opening new worlds to him, and how the love that surrounded him helped him grow into the person he is today. Andy’s metamorphosis has lessons for American educators about equity and social mobility, of never giving up on any child regardless of his or her origins.”
“A moving story of a young life full of challenge, learning, and discovery that illustrates the power of education to create or obstruct people’s pathways to equity and upward mobility. There is no other book like it. I loved it.”
“A mesmerizing tale and a candid introspection of the struggles and courage for social mobility of an accomplished scholar and global change leader that will resonate with so many around the world. Moving is filled with insights about how education can both perpetuate the status quo and move individuals out of their disadvantaged conditions by birth. A must-read for all interested in reversing widening social inequity through education.”
Chapter 8: The Bigger Picture
This final chapter is different from the rest of the book. It has no new autobiographical detail. Instead, it builds on clues arising from this memoir that point to the bigger picture of social mobility as a system. It connects more fully with the wider literature and evidence on social mobility. How does social mobility affect all of us? What do the possibilities for social mobility look like today? How can social mobility be increased, and how can people’s experiences of it be improved? Or is social mobility the wrong answer to the right question of how we can have a fairer and more just society?
The chapter speaks not just to individuals or even schools about how they should strive for and manage mobility. Instead, drawing on this memoir, it also asks what the narratives, hopes, and dreams of other ordinary or “common” people who want a decent and fair chance in life imply for social policy. It addresses the responsibilities that governments, all parts of the public, and members of the wider society have to increase equity and equality of opportunity, through strategies of social mobility and other strategies too. It uses my voice to connect with the voices of other people who come from 145 communities like mine and from other backgrounds of disadvantage. It asks how those who already have advantages and privileges can support progressive social policies that promote mobility so that everyone can have greater success, a better life, and a fairer chance of full development as a human being.
This last part of the book sets out three scenarios relating to social mobility. It asks policymakers and all of us to beware of false promises and easy solutions that proponents of greater social mobility can be tempted to offer. It calls for deeper changes in our societies and educational systems instead—changes that are mindful of the state of declining social mobility today in a world of widening inequalities, and of how it is almost impossible to advance social mobility without enhancing economic equality as well. We need to listen to more voices from the common people below in order to develop better policies at the top.
In the reference room of my local public library, as I searched for a way to succeed in my university-entrance history examination, second time around, it was not the views of history from the top that inspired me—whether these were about kings and queens, admirals and generals, or prime ministers and presidents. Rather, it was the history of so-called common, working people that sparked my curiosity—the history of people who invented and innovated, laboured and toiled, preached and educated, and took the world through great revolutions of agriculture and industry, creating whole towns and cities, like the one that raised me, as they did so.
Almost a half century later, I sat beside my mother’s bed in the local community hospital, created from local workers’ donations at the end of the 19th century, and had days to reflect on the life she had led—a life of being a weaver, a cleaner, a shop assistant, a child- minder, a mother, a neighbour, and a carer for my grandma too. It became clear to me that not only had her own life been worth living but also her life and the lives of women and men like her from working-class communities everywhere were worth writing about. It is now journalists, politicians, sports stars, entertainers, and business entrepreneurs, not monarchs and military leaders, who write personal histories that will be read in the future. So we must work extra hard, once more, to ensure that the lives of people from ordinary families and not just the rich and famous also get a telling and a hearing so that they become part of and help shape our sense of history and our future too.
This history from the bottom up is not just a commentary on everyday life. It also offers a view of what systems of power, politics, and privilege look like from underneath. Social mobility demands a lot of those who are experiencing it—ambition, resilience, ingenuity, perseverance, grit, and much more besides. But the system and those who are in charge of it also have a collective responsibility to go about the business of social and geographic mobility differently. Social mobility is too important to be left to individual effort, ingenuity, luck, or chance. Systems and governments must play their part as well.
This chapter therefore sketches out three contrasting and even competing scenarios for the future of social mobility and examines their implications for everyone.
- New aristocracy
- Economic democracy
Suppose there was perfect social mobility and everyone ended up exactly where they deserved to be, based completely on their achievement, effort, and merit. What would happen then? Surely this is what social-mobility advocates everywhere would want. Everyone would succeed according to his or her talent and ability. School mission statements all over the world stating that every student will fulfil his or her potential would no longer be just an aspiration, a wish, or a cliché. Now they would actually come true. And if there was perfect mobility in each generation and elites did not perpetuate themselves and become entrenched, perhaps all the angst and condescension would disappear as well.
This is the premise of a book written in 1958 by a British social reformer, Michael Young. Young, who later became the aristocratically titled Lord Young of Dartington (a private, progressive school that he attended as a boy), popularized a little-known concept of Napoleon Bonaparte’s—méritocratie. Despite his military triumphs, Napoleon was just a minor nobleman in the French aristocracy. With his heavy Corsican accent, he often suffered insults and slights about his inferior bloodline from his snobbish superiors. “Always alone among men,” he wrote, “I come home to dream by myself and give myself over to all the forces of my melancholy.”
So after assuming military leadership, Napoleon was very motivated to make it payback time for the French upper class. Realistically, though, there were also many vacancies at the top of the military. After all, the French Revolution had already deposed, disposed of, and sometimes even decapitated its aristocracy. The vacancies had to be filled from somewhere. So Napoleon promoted his soldiers according to bravery and intelligence rather than their birthright.
Following Napoleon’s lead, in The Rise of the Meritocracy, Michael Young imagines a society that would be governed “by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.”202 His thesis is not a piece of advocacy, though, but a satire. Excellence, Young argues with droll irony, is not distributed equally. “For every man enlivened by excellence, ten are deadened by mediocrity.” The mediocre individuals who have been protected by privilege, Young asserts, would no longer prevail in a meritocracy. The rise of talent from wherever it could be found would take over instead.
With more precise and accurate measurement tools, talent would be selected and developed earlier and earlier. Selective grammar schools would outlast all-inclusive comprehensive schools. Testing would be preferred over the subjective teacher assessments that had previously favoured children of the privileged who reminded teachers of their younger selves. And any late bloomers could be identified in later life so that further education could be provided for them to enable them to catch up.
Yet once everyone was where he or she deserved to be, what then? Well, Young speculates, some members of the meritocracy might become “so impressed with their own importance” they would “lose sympathy with the people whom they govern.”204 Meanwhile, because everyone gets a fair chance and can be tested, and tested again, those at the bottom might feel the “helpless despair” of their own inferiority, lose their self-respect, and consequently become neither good technicians nor good citizens.
But the threat of resentment and rebellion could be staved off, Young says. Organized labour would lose its leadership once talent had been promoted out of it, so uprisings would be less probable. Frustrated parents could still hold out hopes for the fair chance that their children would have, and they might be prepared to wait a generation for those rewards. Meanwhile, the lower classes would be shielded from disappointment by their own stupidity. “They are unambitious, innocent, and incapable of grasping clearly enough the grand design of modern society to offer any effective protest,” Young predicts. Taking all the talent out of the lowest classes might consign them to inarticulate acceptance of their own diminished but transparently deserved fate.
So this was it, then. No longer would we ever have a Britain ruled by old Etonians and inheritors of privilege, like Prime Minister Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, while the disillusioned masses beneath in the forgotten industrial towns of the North bay for Brexit!
What are we to make of Young’s fable? Some leaders have ignored or misunderstood Young’s satirical intent and taken his ideas at face value. U.K. prime ministers Tony Blair and Theresa May both promoted meritocracy as a policy and a value. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder, was an even more passionate advocate of meritocracy. He vowed to transform his newly established nation from a Third World society to a globally competitive economy in just over a generation—and achieved immense success in doing so. Coming from a relatively modest background, but with a Cambridge University education behind him, Lee Kuan Yew advanced educational and social reform involving meritocracy. In the words of Professor Pak Tee Ng, Singapore’s own leading interpreter of its educational system, Prime Minister Yew established “a highly com- petitive education system culminating in government scholarships, top positions in the civil service and political leadership . . . filled by individuals with demonstrated track records of merit as measured by achievements.”
Prime Minister Yew set out to offset the risks in The Rise of the Meritocracy by providing universal access to health care, affordable housing, and a strong school system that would develop a nation led by three hundred extremely talented people who would in turn promote, by merit, more talented people behind them. Unlike the United States and even the United Kingdom, lack of educational or occupational success doesn’t bring with it the spectre of social and economic insecurity, so dissatisfactions are less likely to surface. More than this, when Singapore teachers discuss their career paths on an annual basis with their superiors, exceptionally good ones are sometimes asked to transfer to schools where many students are struggling. Teachers regard these assignments as a great professional and national honour.
But even when a meritocracy is initially successful, once it is in place, its beneficiaries begin to buy advantage for their own offspring. In Young’s dark denouement, wealthy parents capitalize on advances in earlier and earlier testing to purchase smart infants from the lower classes beneath them. In England and the United States, wealthy parents already seek out homes in upmarket areas nearer higher-performing schools with better-paid teachers and leaders. And in Singapore, as in other parts of East Asia, more recent declines in social mobility have resulted from a vast system of private tutoring for test preparation and cram sessions after school that better-off parents can afford.
In Social Mobility: And Its Enemies, Professor Lee Elliot Major, former executive director of the U.K. Sutton Trust (which is dedicated to improving social mobility), and economics professor Stephen Machin point out that the same trends are now emerging in Britain where a growth in private tuition by one-third between 2005 and 2016 has fuelled an “educational arms race” amongst parents. Those who benefitted from equal opportunities as children now purchase unequal opportunities for children of their own.
And those of us who have been socially mobile, parents and grandparents alike, are all in it together. We want the best for our children, of course—extra classes, more desirable neighbourhoods, funds towards studying at better universities, or a foot in the door for internships with colleagues or friends—but this all comes at the cost of those who don’t have those added educational experiences, high-end schools, or old-school-tie alumni. Writing in the Atlantic in 2018, Matthew Stewart describes these beneficiaries of the old meritocracy as the new aristocracy. “The meritocratic class,” he argues, “has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.”
For all these reasons, meritocracy of talent combined with stark inequities of economic reward eventually start to put a brake on the escalator of educational and social advancement. And it takes little more than a generation to happen. The prospects and pathways for meritocracy and for the social mobility that results from it are now precarious at best. The old meritocracy becomes a new aristocracy. What does this new aristocracy actually look like, and is it inevitable?
One thing worse than the estrangement and resentment that is sometimes incurred by social mobility is the absence of social mobility. From the 1950s and 1960s through to the start of the Reagan and Thatcher years, there was what statisticians and social scientists called net upward mobility. The economy expanded and grew. Investment in public life, including education, created new jobs. The rise of the consumer society produced growth in the service sector. And more women moved into the full-time-work economy, especially once they gained control over their reproductive choices. People moved up without others having to fall back. Mobility was not a zero-sum game.
However, in the leading Western economies, things changed dramatically for those born in and after the 1970s. Mobility slowed, came to a stop, and even went into reverse. In its 2018 report A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development noted how:
Families and communities in many countries seem to be trapped on the bottom rungs of the social ladder, particularly since the early 1980s. This means that children born into the bottom of the income distribution have less chance to move up and improve their occupational status and earnings than their parents and previous generations.
Commenting on the report, the U.K. Guardian newspaper observed that “while income mobility was a reality for many people born between 1955 and 1975 from low-educated parents, it has stagnated for those born after the mid-1970s.” The Wall Street Journal reported similar findings as they applied to the United States.
The combination of income inequality and social immobility is a toxic mix. Increasing concentrations of wealth amongst rich and influential elites reduce economic opportunity amongst those beneath them rather than providing trickle-down benefits. In 2016, professor of economics Emmanuel Saez and his colleagues showed that:
From 1980 to 2014, average national income per adult grew by 61 percent in the United States, yet the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50 percent of individual income earners stagnated at about $16,000 per adult after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, income skyrock- eted at the top of the income distribution, rising 121 percent for the top 10 percent, 205 percent for the top 1 percent, and 636 percent for the top 0.001 percent.
In 1980, the richest 1 percent of Americans earned twenty-seven times more than the lower 50 per cent. Now they earn more than eighty times more. And these are the riches of those who are retiring on their capital, hiding their money in tax havens, and passing on their wealth to their heirs instead of creating jobs or paying taxes that would support public housing, public schools, and the over- all public good that give others opportunities to step up towards a better life. The new aristocracy doesn’t only protect and perpetuate educational and economic advantages for its own children; it also stockpiles its own wealth.
These levels of increasing inequality are not peculiar to the United States. The richest 1 percent of people in the world own 48 per cent of the global wealth, with the remaining 52 per cent of this wealth being owned by the top 20 percent of the rest of the population. Severe inequalities are systematically associated with negative social and health outcomes, such as drug abuse and other addictions, teenage pregnancy, child obesity, and educational underachievement.
In late 2018, the United Nations (UN) poverty envoy, Philip Alston, wrote a scathing indictment of how U.K. austerity policies had increased poverty in ways that were “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous,” leaving one-fifth of the U.K. population in poverty, with the numbers rising. Alston’s 2018 report pointed to calamitous policies in the United Kingdom, such as cutting the funding to local authorities and their ser- vices by half, restricting child benefit to the first two children only, and instituting measures that made claiming financial benefits a long and drawn-out process that pushed many families into destitution and meant that vulnerable claimants “struggled to survive.”
All this is portrayed in director Ken Loach’s heartbreaking movie I, Daniel Blake, about a working-class man plunged into a bureau- cratic abyss of repeatedly failed attempts to claim benefits after a heart attack. After the welfare-benefits system treats him with institutionalized indifference and casual contempt, Loach’s protagonist defiantly proclaims:
My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog.
As such, I demand my rights.
I demand you treat me with respect.
I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less.
The highest and lowest echelons of society are becoming more and more insulated from each other as subsidies are slashed at the bottom and as reduced inheritance taxes, along with unpaid intern- ships covered by privileged parents at the top, widen the gap, or the distance that those seeking mobility must travel. In Social Mobility: And Its Enemies, Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin observe that “the rich have been pulling away from the poorer people behind them” so that “it is harder for people to catch up.” The rungs on the ladder of mobility are getting further and further apart.
Since the 2007 global economic collapse, in southern Europe, economic austerity policies have pushed youth unemployment to astronomical levels. They still stand around 30 per cent in Spain, Italy, and Greece. In the United Kingdom and the United States, meanwhile, university and college fees have continued to rise along with associated levels of student debt. The result is that young people from families with fewer resources tend to live at home and go to lower-status institutions that offer poorer prospects for social mobility than more traditional universities.
Meanwhile the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution is eliminating jobs in all kinds of occupations, from call centres to supermar- ket checkouts and even teaching and lecturing, as online courses and adjunct professors replace tenured or career faculty with digital alternatives. And, as I mentioned before, once the competition heats up, those who have the privilege, connections, and resources protect themselves and one another by acquiring tutors, purchasing second properties in the neighbourhoods of high-performing schools, angling for internships for their youngsters, and even getting fraudulent placements or athletics scholarships for their children at high-status universities in return for donations and bribes.
By inhibiting social mobility and opportunity, these high levels of increasing inequality destroy hope. They also inflame feelings of resentment. In Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey, a survivor of chronic deprivation in the United Kingdom, is not the least bit sur- prised that the poor who eke out an existence on Glasgow’s council estates didn’t shed any tears when the Glasgow School of Art burned down—or that they despise immigrants and are strong supporters of
Brexit, even though very few of them ever actually vote. Their decaying community centres, with their broken equipment and dilapidated buildings, seem to communicate only abandonment by their government. Meanwhile, McGarvey is incensed that the liberal Left that once supported their working-class struggle is now wrapped up in the identity politics of recognizing the intersectionalities of every other marginalized group—refugees; women; gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals; and so on—everyone other than working-class boys and men like him who, he protests, are unreasonably supposed to check their “privilege” as straight white males despite upbringings riddled with poverty, drugs, alcoholism, homelessness, and abuse.
Prize-winning sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild went to live amongst families in the heavily polluted bayous of Louisiana to understand their conservative loyalties and their associated sense of resentment. In Strangers in Their Own Land, she explains how these hardworking conservative families who have been robbed of their fish, family members, and livelihoods by unregulated toxic dumping from the petrochemical industry tend to compare themselves with those who have a bit more affluence or advantage than they have, rather than with those who have lifestyles that seem beyond reach.
Why do they do this? Back in 1966, British professor W. G. Runciman came up with the concept and book title of Relative Deprivation and Social Justice to describe how people tend to identify with those who have just a little more wealth and status than they’ve got, rather than with those whose lifestyles appear to be marked by great opulence. This is one aspect of what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences.” Instead of being outraged about corporate greed and irresponsibility, those who struggle to make a living direct their anger against those who, in their eyes, are creating the problems by cutting in line just ahead of them: immigrants who undercut their wages, welfare scroungers who consume public revenue, and the bureaucrats of big government and fat cats of teachers’ unions with their generous pensions and other undeserved benefits.
So although social mobility can bring problems as well as benefits, having new aristocracies that perpetuate lack of social mobility in the profoundly unequal kind of societies in which many people now live is not an acceptable alternative. It produces a vast range of social problems and fans the flames of resentment against and violence towards outsiders who seem to threaten people’s livelihoods and ways of life.
One answer to this new aristocracy that is the end point of the inherent flaws of meritocracy, therefore, may be found not in trying to improve meritocracy but in reducing the economic inequality that drives people to protect their own privilege in the first place. Let’s consider this prospect in more detail.
When Pitirim Sorokin introduced the idea of vertical mobility, what he had in mind was two kinds of things that could move up or down. One sort of vertical mobility occurred when people moved between layers as individuals, gaining or losing money or status over the course of their lives and in relation to their parents. This is how most of us typically think about social mobility. But there is also a second kind of movement, according to Sorokin. This involves shifts in the positions of entire groups or classes so that the social strata themselves move closer together or further apart, in terms of the size of the income gaps between them, for example.
This is the kind of social mobility that concerns bestselling authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Wilkinson and Pickett have become the global gurus of economic inequality and its pervasive consequences for society. In The Spirit Level, they bring together a wealth of global data to show that increases in economic inequality create greater ill-being and suffering in society in terms of violence, bullying, mental illness, obesity, educational underachievement, sub- stance abuse, and many other problematic aspects of social life. The sequel, The Inner Level, which draws on an extensive review of additional research, spells out what the chief problem is. It’s not destitution, they say. It’s status.
The more economic inequality there is, the more people worry about how they stack up in relation to others and about the threat of falling behind, of sliding down the social ladder. The problems, say Wilkinson and Pickett, “are driven by the stress of social sta- tus differences themselves, stresses which get worse the lower you are on the social ladder and the bigger the status differences.” It’s not just how low you can go that’s the issue; it’s how far away you are from everyone else, including the people nearest to you, that is critical too. Social-status issues and all their consequences get worse “when bigger income differences make the status differences larger and more important.”
Not surprisingly, therefore, “more unequal countries have less social mobility.” In countries with great income disparities, like the United Kingdom and the United States, children from poor or even modest-income families have far fewer opportunities than those in countries with smaller disparities. More equal countries, such as those in Scandinavia, have around half the income-inequality gaps of countries like the United Kingdom and the United States—and their social, psychological, and educational problems are much smaller.
The answer to this toxic relationship between economic inequality, low mobility, and a range of other social problems, say Wilkinson and Pickett, is what they call economic democracy. Economic democracy is about redistributing income and wealth more fairly on a national and a global scale. It is about bringing social strata closer together by ending corporate tax havens, increasing corporate taxes and wealth taxes, and restricting the ability of large multinationals to avoid paying taxes in the countries where they trade by moving their corporate headquarters elsewhere. And there is no good reason why the differentials between CEOs and frontline workers should be tenfold what they were forty years ago, in the executive bonus culture of the 21st century.
Economic democracy is also about allocating greater attention, priority, and resources to publicly or cooperatively run institutions. The democratic nature of these institutions introduces greater eco- nomic fairness in salaries and rewards for employees of different ranks and abilities. The disparities are consistently smaller than they are in the private sector, so a stronger and larger public sector reduces economic disparities and improves social mobility overall. In addition to creating greater equality, employee involvement in company ownership and management also increases innovation and long-term sustainability, they say. And, as I mentioned earlier, the economic democracy of a strong public sector offers fairer opportunities and more transparent pathways to advancement for the upwardly mobile too.
What are the implications for social and economic reform in favour of greater equality? How exactly might smaller status differences in society reduce the intensity of the need for social mobility and also improve mobility rates in society? How can greater equality lead to more mobility? And in the meantime, what can educational institutions do to improve all young people’s opportunities and experiences? This memoir, and the implications arising from it, now ends with practical steps that can and should be taken to move the equity and mobility agenda forward in society and education.
Individuals and institutions cannot combat inequality or enhance opportunity all by themselves. The great majority of the differences in educational achievement that are related to family background are explained by poverty and other social factors. Only about 20 per cent, on average, are attributable to the school. So the greatest levers for improving equality and social mobility are to be found in society and especially in social policy. Here are five things in social policy that can make a big difference to levels of equity and rates of social mobility.
First, stop accepting and promoting extreme economic inequality.
Not only does the increasing individualism and growing resentment that accompany it reduce people’s chances of mobility. It makes their experience of it more and more difficult as the rungs on the ladder get further apart and the people climbing up together shrink in number. Change is possible. Canada, for example, has far lower economic inequality than the United States and the United Kingdom and also double their rates of social mobility. Scandinavia and northern Europe are not the only exceptions to extreme inequality. I grew up and went to school in the golden era of social mobility in the 1960s and 1970s, when economic disparities were much smaller—and the opportunities for mobility were much greater—than they are today. It was hard enough for me and others like me when the whole system was skewed a bit more in our favour. Imagine what it’s like now that the system is tilted the other way.
Second, restore a strong social state and public sector.
Social mobility depends to some extent on individual qualities like resilience. Indeed, my favourite karaoke choice is from a one- hit-wonder band, Chumbawamba, who hail from near my home- town. Their song “Tubthumping,” about individual resilience and working-class resistance, has the chorus “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.” My friends and associates tell me that, as a rule, I’m pretty good at bouncing back from adversity. Stubborn is another word for it. In 2019, just over six months after I’d had surgery on the double break on my ankle that I had sustained while hiking an isolated section of the U.S. Appalachian Trail, I was back up there again, walking up to sixteen miles and climbing thousands of feet a day over the rocky ridges of Pennsylvania and the mountains of Maine.
But all the resilience I might have had in the world as a child and a teenager would have come to nothing without a strong social state. Public investment provided us with welfare benefits when my mum could no longer cope, with a public library where I could read and study, and with enough financial support for higher education so I could go away from home, to the university I wanted, without hav- ing to work in the evenings or at the weekends to support myself. Some have said this is no longer practical, but in northern Europe, especially, where taxes are higher and the social state is stronger, it remains commonplace. And even in the United States and United Kingdom, where university tuition rates have risen the fastest, free or significantly reduced tuition costs are at the forefront of election manifestos once again.
Reinvesting in public education, of course, also means turning away from market solutions to school improvement, like charter schools in the United States, academies in England, and free schools in Sweden. These have been associated with deliberate disinvestment in local communities and redirection of previous public investment towards private profit. Reinvestment means returning to supporting and developing state schools in their local districts and communities so that everyone’s best school will also be his or her nearest school. This is what bestselling author Pasi Sahlberg says is already the case in his own country of Finland, which has excelled for almost two decades on international achievement tests.
Prominent education critic and former U.S. assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch, in her 2020 book Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, summarizes the copious evidence on the relative effectiveness of charter schools compared to traditional local district schools. Charter schools, she concludes, have demonstrated no overall superiority compared to their public-school equivalents. After more than a decade of disruption and distraction, they have also yielded no national improvement in measured achievement or equity for U.S. children. They have done nothing to narrow achievement gaps or improve social mobility. The only yield, she says, has been a lucrative financial one for these schools’ multimillion-dollar owners and suppliers.
Across the Atlantic, a key study by economists Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske of differences in performance between England’s quasi-private academies and the local authority or district schools they replaced also shows that there have been no educational benefits for students as a result of this profound and disruptive system-wide change. Academies, charter schools, and free schools have been driven by individual competitive achievement, choice, and financial gain, not commitment to the common public good that has been the historic foundation of public education.
Ideologies of markets and austerity have cut back the public sector in many countries, weakened trades unions, and outsourced jobs to private contract. Yet a strong public sector is a feature of nations like Finland and Canada, where high educational performance and social mobility are especially robust. A strong public sector of jobs in education, health, public administration, and social services is also a career route for the upwardly mobile that does not depend so much on their having networks and inside contacts in order to get a start in adult life. And it is a place of mission, purpose, and service—the very thing many young people now say they have been missing— where upwardly mobile teachers, public servants, and health workers can give something back to the communities and societies that raised them.
Third, refrain from forcing immigrants and class migrants to give up one identity in order to have another.
A lot of social mobility involves geographic mobility as well— whether this is from the other side of the tracks or the far side of the world. Moving countries entails at least as much disruption as moving classes. Immigrants should not be made to feel that they have to abandon what they were in order to become fully British, American, or German, for example, but that they can proudly be like how many Canadians feel they are: half-Canadian—whether that’s Japanese Canadian, Jamaican Canadian, or whatever. Bilingualism should be treated as an asset, not a deficit. Having two cultures should be regarded as an addition, not a subtraction.
In his 2018 book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Stanford University professor Francis Fukuyama insists that everyone should have only one passport, to set aside ambiguity about how they identify and where they belong. By contrast, in her 2015 book, Teaching Transnational Youth: Literacy and Education in a Changing World, University of Texas–Austin professor Allison Skerrett sets out her research findings that show many immigrant families are actually transnational—simultaneously retaining family connections and obligations in their original home countries and in their new host countries—and she argues that they should be supported in managing those relationships.We shouldn’t force people who migrate between countries to choose between the future and the past—to give up their language, aban- don their values, or hide their traditional cultural pastimes—and we shouldn’t expect people who migrate between social classes to do so either.
Fourth, include the working class in definitions and discussions of diversity.
The working class, some of which is white working class in the countries where I have lived and worked, is part of diversity, not an exception to it. Whatever its history and legacy, it must be given a name and a voice like all other cultures and communities. If it is not acknowledged, known, and treated with dignity, its members will become resentful of others’ opportunities for education and social mobility. The white working class will have less mobility rather than more and will turn against others who, they feel, seek and gain advancement at their expense.
The area where I grew up has been one of the biggest strongholds for Brexit. While governments have invested money for urban and cultural renewal in London’s East End and Manchester city centre, the businesses, schools, and neighbourhoods of former mill towns like mine, or declining coastal towns like Blackpool where my grandmother grew up and where eight out of ten of the poorest neighbourhoods in Britain are now located, have been overlooked and left far behind. If liberal democratic and socialist parties continue to pitch their appeal to the middle class, to urban and financial cosmopolitans, and to a rainbow coalition of historically disenfranchised minorities alone, then the white working class will increasingly turn aside from the narrative of democracy and mobility and embrace the evils of demagoguery instead. In this respect, after U.S. Democrats had spent years avoiding mentioning the working class and referring to them euphemistically as “the middle class” instead, it is a heartening glimmer of hope to hear and read Michelle Obama speak proudly and openly of working-class values and her own working-class upbringing, helping this aspect of her own and other’s identities to come out into the open.
Last, make internships illegal—unless they are supplied through accredited career and vocational programmes in schools, colleges, or other training and retraining organizations.
A 2017 review of employment contracts urged the U.K. government to ensure that “exploitative unpaid internships which damage social mobility in the UK are stamped out.” But the government’s acceptance of this recommendation has been weakly enforced at best. Unpaid and unaccredited internships are doubly egregious. They provide privileged families with inside connections to high-status organizations and with job experiences that give their own children preferential advantages in establishing middle-class careers. They also supply the private sector with free labour that erodes opportunities for legitimate job seekers. An accredited, transparent system for organizing internships will increase the likelihood that high-status opportunities can be accessed by everyone, irrespective of economic circumstances or family background.
Educational InstitutionsAs society changes, and governments alter their approach to equity and social mobility, those who work in schools and universities and whose credentials and credentialing processes profoundly affect everyone’s opportunities cannot sit back and wait for all the nec- essary transformations to occur elsewhere. Poverty and economic inequality may still be the major impediments to social mobility, but the way we organize our educational institutions and systems matters as well. So what positive and concrete steps can educators take to enhance social mobility?
First, give students from poor postcodes extra credit when they apply for university, a scholarship, or some other cherished opportunity.
To get high grades, high U.S. SAT scores, or good examination results, wherever you go to school, is admirable. To get the same grades in a challenging school or community where very few others do so is extraordinary. We already know that students from state schools do better, grade for grade, when they get to university compared to their privately educated counterparts. So, as some universities have already tried to do—though not without pushback from the privileged—we should also regard a slightly lower score from a high-poverty school as being equivalent to a higher score from a more privileged one. If students can do really well when the winds are against them, imagine what they could achieve with the wind at their backs.
Second, overlook and overcome social awkwardness amongst people with great talents.
When young people from poorer backgrounds are being interviewed or taking their first stab at leadership, they may not possess all the finesse of their more privileged peers. But a diffident start or fumbling beginning shouldn’t get in the way of our capacity to identify or enhance their gifts. When I was interviewed for an associate professorship at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto in the mid-1980s when I was still in my thirties, one letter of reference warned the selection committee that I was “raw. And I mean raw!” But the letter went on to say I had other important talents that outweighed my ineptitude in the social niceties of academic life and that were worth investing in. If people commit a faux pas or fail at something the first time round because they are all at sea in an unfamiliar culture, we should help them get better at it next time, rather than hastily write them off as being unfit for the college or the job.
Third, rethink what a strong CV looks like.
The leadership opportunities we expect candidates to take on often presuppose a level of income, privilege, or surplus time that might allow them to volunteer, travel, work as an unpaid intern, or take up an extra hobby or two. For young people from poor families, lead- ership may instead show up in taking on part-time work, caring for sick parents or younger siblings, overcoming a significant disability, and so on. We should find a way for young people in challenging circumstances to be proud rather than ashamed of these experiences, and to provide exemplars and opportunities—another box on the application form or an item in a submitted portfolio, perhaps— where they can give voice to them.
Fourth, ensure that students’ learning is engaging and often connects with their lives.
Redefining cultural capital means redefining what counts as worthwhile knowledge. All students—not just those in private schools, wealthy suburbs, or higher streams or tracks—should be able to work on engaging projects that connect with and also reach beyond who they are, just like in Mary Hindle’s class. It’s important to make the curriculum engaging for everyone. But it’s especially important for students who live in challenging circumstances, where, in order to succeed, they must surmount massive distractions and disruptions like poverty, violence, prejudice, sleeplessness, posttraumatic stress, and other family and community issues. The curriculum for students in schools that serve poorer communities shouldn’t be reduced to preparing for standardized tests and reaching minimal proficiency in basic skills. Nor should young people be confronted only with remote historical figures or abstruse literary texts that are alien to their own experience. Young people shouldn’t have to set their inter- ests and their lives aside in order to succeed.
Equity isn’t just about equalizing test scores or narrowing achievement gaps in literacy and mathematics. It is about getting all stu- dents to succeed, whatever their backgrounds, by making them feel and be included in their schools, their curricula, and their learning.
Last, broaden what counts as cultural capital, in speech, habits, knowledge, and taste.
When I moved to the United States in 2002, I became part of a nation that imagines itself to be far less preoccupied with class or status than the United Kingdom. So I was astonished to discover how selection discussions, academic conversations, dinner parties, and conference receptions were permeated with downright snooty distinctions about which “school,” meaning university, people had gone to—Harvard or Yale, cloistered liberal-arts college or state university, and so on. In more egalitarian Canada, or Scandinavia, by contrast, these comparisons are practically meaningless, as private or ultraelite universities are almost nonexistent. It mainly matters only whether you went to university and how well you did, not which one you attended. Social mobility demands not only new behaviours from those who aspire to reach the top but also less condescending or self-important ones from those who are already there.
This applies in schools as well. Uniforms, prize-giving ceremonies, trophy cabinets, selection criteria for student leadership roles, the content of extracurricular activities, the social mix in a school, and the tendency to conflate elite ethnocultural diversity (which happens in most elite private schools now) with social-class equality of opportunity—all these aspects of school culture, within and beyond the curriculum, should be reviewed to make schools as inclusive and welcoming as possible.
Social mobility is about families who seek better lives for their children. It is often about one generation sacrificing for another. It is also about young people deferring immediate gratification for longer-term reward. Social mobility needs grit, determination, and resiliency in the struggle to succeed. It often needs ingenuity and stubborn defiance to work around and against the system as well.
The socially mobile also need parents who will support them and teachers who will stand by them. They need schools and universi- ties that understand the struggles they have in their lives and that provide interventions and supports to help them cope. They need an engaging curriculum and inspired teaching so that achievement rests on more than stoic endurance—or, in Charles Dickens’s words, being “severely workful” about memorizing esoteric content or taking interminable tests.
A socially mobile life should be a world of both–and, not either–or. It should allow people to have more than one passport. People’s pasts should not be held hostage to their futures. We need a world where high culture and popular culture can coexist, where Karl Marx and the Dixie Chicks can belong on the same page, side by side. Social mobility should enable people to find success without losing themselves. And a more equitable society with smaller gaps, where whole groups and not just individuals move closer to one another, should make all these movements more usual and less stressful.
Moving on up will always have those complications that Curtis Mayfield warned us about. But a decent society with a socially just state that brings people closer together will make the complications more manageable. Whenever I faced a test or a challenge, my mum’s simple advice was always “Just do your best, lad. You can’t do any more than that.” That’s what we must now ask of our leaders in governments, business, and education. It’s time for all of us to do our very best, to reduce inequality, increase support, and foster more inclusive and responsive cultures in our schools, our universities, and our societies. If we do all this, social mobility will become a stronger possibility for more young people and a less alienating experience once they achieve it.
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