May’s message to the 75%: ‘Know your place – social mobility’s only for the top 25%’

Janet Downs's picture

Prime Minister Theresa May says more grammar schools are essential for social mobility.  That is nonsense, of course, evidence shows grammars weren’t the agents of social mobility they were claimed to be.  And the few that remain still aren’t given the low number of disadvantaged children that broach their doors.

But leave that aside, what does May’s statement tell us about how she views social mobility?  If increasing the number of grammar schools is essential for this, as she claims, then it is a route only accessible for the 25% at the top of the ability range.  The remaining 75% would be prevented from travelling.  And that would be decided on the results of a couple of short tests, tests for which children can be coached and tutored, taken at age 11.

It appears, then, the 75% must know their place: social mobility isn’t for them.  That is the implication of May’s insistence that more grammars are essential to shove people up the social ladder.

The Department for Education insists creaming off pupils will not affect schools who lose their top-performing pupils.  Any new or expanding grammars must take measures to help schools who educate the 75%.  But grammars, like selective independent schools, have no expertise in teaching middle- and low-attainers.  Neither have they much experience in dealing with challenging pupils – they can just expel them.   To suggest that grammars have much to offer the entire intake of non-selective schools is patronizing.

But let’s return to social mobility and May’s implication that it’s something that isn’t so important for the 75%.   Perhaps May thinks those who aren't disadvantaged or who aren't 'just about managing' are already comfortably situated on the social ladder.   But social mobility can go down as well as up.  That’s what we’re seeing now with the first generation of young people more likely to be poorer than their parents. 

Extending selection at 11 will not alter this – it’s likely to make it worse.  Telling 11 year-olds that some of them are bright enough to attend so-called centres of excellence while the majority aren’t quite so bright and can be sent to centres of not-quite excellence is not only divisive but a waste of talent.  It sends out a message to the unchosen 75% that they are somehow less worthy, less capable and less regarded.  And this holds whether they're disadvantaged, just about managing, or advantaged.

They should know their place.

NOTE:  Education’s role in social mobility is actually limited.  That's something consecutive schools ministers have refused to recognise.  Placing all responsibility for social mobility on schools allows politicians to sidestep their responsibilities to set up policies which help alleviate poverty.



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agov's picture
Fri, 30/09/2016 - 12:02

"They should know their place."

And with our Norman class system many of them do. That's why Kent gets away with it.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 30/09/2016 - 16:04

Janet - You are right to draw attention to the implicit assumption of the grammar school lobby that the bottom 75% of the cognitive ability range are fit only for a non academic education and consequently must be satisfied with a very limited role in society throughout life. This would be a shocking conclusion if applied to humans at any age, but to base such segregation on a crude IQ test screening of the school population at age 11 is obviously nonsensical; so obvious in fact that the more that the proposal is in the public spotlight, the more certain it is to be rejected by the majority of the population as well as by virtually the whole of the world's professional education community.

Fortunately, the Labour opposition, at last freed from the distraction of the failed coup attempt by many of its MPs, can now get down to the serious business of holding the governmentment to account, and we should all look forward to May's grammar school plan being the first target of its united campaign. This would not be possible without, at last, a shadow Secretary of State for Education, Angela Rayner,  who not only understands the issues, but can discuss them from an authentic personal perspective, as she did did so brilliantly at the Labour Party conference. You can read her speech in full here.

However I do not agree with your suggestion, and that of  John Goldthorpe, that schools have only a limited role in promoting social mobility. This may well be true in a historical sense as schools have been engulfed by the marketisation culture of the Global Education Reform Movement, resulting in the corruption of the curriculum and the degradation of teaching methods. I make these arguments in this article and in this Review of the latest book by James Flynn, which you can also read on LSN.

Those familiar with my book and my articles will not need to be reminded of my arguments, for which there is not enough space to repeat them all again here.

Please at least read my Review of James Flynn's book for a short cut to the main issues.

This is the essential argument.

1. Piaget is correct in principle in terms of the development of intelligence in distinct, identifiable stages.

2. At any given age and moment in time the national population is distributed between the stages, 'Pre-Concrete, Concrete and Formal.

3. As society has developed, social mobility has been driven by a nation state education system enabling  increasing proportions of the population to progress up this cognitive development heirarchy resulting in the Flynn Effect of rising mean population IQs throughout the 20th (and probably also the 19th and 18th) centuries, driven by the increasing cognitive demands of cultural life and the changing vocational requirements of making a living. It has very little to do with class or ethinicity-based discrimination. The global digital revolution has supercharged this process at the same time that the marketisation paradigm of English schools has largely cut cognitive development out of the pre-16 curriculum with the associated degraded pedagogy driving the 'Flynn Effect' into reverse.

Don't agree with me? Fine, but please tell me where my arguments and evidence are fallacious.

So Janet, the thrust of your agument is absolutely correct. Selection at 11 formalises the waste of human resources and potential in the crudest possible way, but cramming pupils for the latest SATs and GCSE 'C' grade thresholds is doing the same things especially in our Academy and Free Schools that have adopted the 'knowledge based' approach that priorities and defines 'Abolute Return for Kids' in terms of maximising exam results rather than facilititating and encouraging cognitive development. The latter in action looks nothing like the former. This is what my book 'Learning Matters' is about, but you can also get an insight here.

No clearer example, that is smacking us all in the face, is the outcome and consequences of the Brexit referendum.

This is not me saying that the working class are too thick to be trusted with making vital  decisions about the future of our nation, but rather that if referenda require the consideration of complex, multi-factoral, counter tuitive issues and Piaget's formal operation thinking is needed in order to produce a rational decision, then use them with great care, especially if the prime motivation is driven by Party politics rather than the national interest.


Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 01/10/2016 - 09:15

Roger - I was interpreting social moblity not as cognitive development but moving out of poverty.   I believe that is Goldthorpe's interpretation as well.  There's also an assumption that social mobility means moving up the social class ladder.

The message given to children  is that if they'aspire' and work hard they will succeed in getting  'good' results which in turn lead to a 'good' job.  But nearly 50% of pupils don't achieve the magic 5 'good' GCSE passes.  Are we to conclude these pupils didn't work hard and only have themselves to blame?  What a message to send to the majority which did work hard.   And what a message to send out to workers in essential but low-paid jobs (rubbish collection, social care, cleaning) - jobs which those who benefit from this work judge as not 'good'. 

The tendency in England to test and label people is abhorrent.    Tests are important, yes.  But at the right time (end of lower secondary) and for the benefit of pupils.  They should not be used to judge schools.  Nor should they be used to make assumptions about the worth of people based on results alone.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 01/10/2016 - 13:50

Janet - But it is cognitive development that drives social mobility. See this Civitas publication by Peter Saunders.

I discuss my differences with Peter Saunders in Sect 1.3 of 'Learning Matters', but he is right that IQ is the driver of social mobility.

You write, "The tendency in England to test and label people is abhorrent.    Tests are important, yes.  But at the right time (end of lower secondary) and for the benefit of pupils.  They should not be used to judge schools.  Nor should they be used to make assumptions about the worth of people based on results alone."

I absolutely agree with you. Cognitive ability is just one of hundreds of human traits that are continuously variable in the human population. The 'C' grade at GCSE is no more significant a place on the Normal Distribution than any other grade, so the proportion of school students attaining that grade can never be a valid measure of the success of a school or an education system. This is especially so when the GCSE grade distribution has been distorted and corrupted by the artificial and arbitrary imposition of very high stakes onto the the 'C' grade, which has the effect of corrupting assessment so degrading the entire education system.

However cognitive ability is an especially empowering asset in the modern digital world and not just for driving social mobility. Last week I received a phishing email purportedly from HMRC informing me that I was due a large tax rebate. I did not click on any of the links, which would have requested bank account details etc. I forwarded the email to HMRC 'phishing' office and its scam nature was confirmed. How do you recognise a 'phishing ' email? Some deductive reasoning is required. Thousands fall victim all the time. There are very large numbers of very clever people whose concept of 'innovation' and entrepreneurialism consists of thinking up clever scams. This is an arms race in which cognitive ability is needed to build the essential defences. This is what I write in Section 1.3 of 'Learning Matters' .

"The current economic crisis and its imposition of austerity, contrasted with the escalating gross rewards of the ultra-rich, have brought equality and meritocracy firmly back onto the political agenda. These concepts have been researched, aired and debated by Will Hutton, Observer columnist and Chair of the Big Innovation Centre at ‘The Work Foundation’, who is now Principal of Hertford College, Oxford. While accepting the need for rewards linked to talent and hard work (meritocracy), in his 2011 book, Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why we need a Fair Society, Hutton calls for limits on the multiplier between the lowest and highest paid in every employing organisation, even when very high rewards can be justified by the profits earned for the company (as in the case of financial commodity traders) or the alleged need to compete for the best skilled managers and executives in a global market."

Cognitive ability develops at a different pace in different people and does not reach a ceiling at any particular age (not, 11, 14, 16, 18 or 70) or level. However such development is always a GOOD THING at every developmental level and so far as schools are concerned the same degree of resource and teaching expertise should be available of pupils at every level, whose individual progress should justify the same degree of investment by the state and the school.

Obviously the educational investment must be of a nature that works in enabling that development. Not only do we have an education system that has been so corrupted that developmental pegagogy is being abandoned to meet destructive and invalid attainment targets all across the ability range, but the bottom 75% are being sieved out of the system to be robbed of their educational entitlement in favour of the top 25% in a process so flawed and misunderstood that the latter do not benefit either!

A monumental catastrophe is in the making and it will be made possible by the shock troops of Multi Academy Trusts that are now limbering up and salivating over the bonuses and profits to be made from this social and education destruction. See this brilliant article by Disidealist, whose return to the battle is so very welcome.

Mark Watson's picture
Thu, 06/10/2016 - 10:13

Quick question Roger, are you under a contractual obligation to plug your book in every comment you make or is it just coincidental?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 07/10/2016 - 15:57

Hello Mark

The clue is here.

"Those familiar with my book and my articles will not need to be reminded of my arguments, for which there is not enough space to repeat them all again here."

The arguments are complex and too long to cover in a reply to a post. My book and my website are the only places where you will find the argument, learning theory and the supporting evidence that marketised schooling degrades teaching methods so denying pupils their entitlement to cognitive development.

I can assure you that it is not a 'business venture'. I also give loads of links to free on-line stuff and other people's books.

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