Two comments from Sean Coughlan about the inherent complexity of social mobility are developed in this latest piece. First off, he wrote, "education and university access is a proxy for lots of non-educational forms of advancement, whether social or financial."
This corresponds directly with my own view that the whole notion of education as a proxy for personal advancement has been unconsciously amplified in wider society for so long that it has become the accepted narrative. Sean makes the interesting point that if social mobility was working, as he suggests it was to a great extent in the post-war period, we wouldn't even see it. In periods of austerity or general contraction of the economy, focus on this narrative is heightened because disadvantage becomes more visible and more widespread. During economic downturns and structural adjustments, such as the current spread of AI and automation in industry, the old order is destabilised.
If such events persist over time, in looking for ways out of this socioeconomic slump, it is understandable that policy-makers turn their attention to education. It's the classic no-brainer. When, as we have done in this country, instead of exploring ways by which education can be developed to improve the quality of life for all citizens in this new landscape, instead it is seen as a means of solving the underlying problem of inequality of opportunity. Right now, we are making this very mistake at great cost to a whole generation of young people.
Since the emergence of the education market, developed under Margaret Thatcher, extended by New Labour and expanded, unchecked, to its present incarnation, under successive governments, reform of education has been seen as the primary, I would argue, only means by which socioeconomic inequality of opportunity can be resolved.
The general conclusion, that there is an obvious and inevitable causal link between low educational attainment and equality of opportunity explains the problem of social immobility. This conclusion could not be further from the truth. Social mobility requires far more than the oil of education to get things moving for the underprivileged.
On 14 December a very interesting piece was posted on the Reclaiming Schools website linking primary school testing and data collection. In it, Dr Terry Wrigley, the website's author, highlighted the problems of taking free school meals as a proxy for disadvantage, already cited in my two previous Gap articles. He agrees that in sticking with this methodology for allocating funding to tackle disadvantage, the system is set up to fail the most needy. He makes the point, "There is no such thing as a standard’ non-FSM child." Actually, the problem is that there is no such a thing as a standard child. Therefore the whole idea, so attractive to the establishment, that children can make expected progress because they comply to some standard model and that if we pull the right leavers this will happen, is nonsense.
The second observation made by Sean Coughlan in his reply to me is summed up by the following; "we often approach education from a social policy perspective, looking for optimum collective outcomes. But of course for individuals and their families, it’s deeply competitive and about getting ahead and widening the gap, rather than seeking to close it."
The problem of social mobility is seen precisely in this perspective. When we seek 'optimum collective outcomes' in education, to try and 'solve' the Gap problem, we make a fundamental mistake that ultimately keeps us from looking elsewhere.
How might we resolve the Gap issue?
First, we need to re-define the Gap as a social mobility issue. As such, it needs to be tackled predominantly through social policy strategies. Of course, early education and then later training have their part to play in preparing our young people to participate in life as fully as they are able. But, unless we move beyond current thinking about this Gap being something that can be solved through education, it will be even longer than the decades some predict it will take to close it, as if such an outcome is achievable in the first place. Much more has to be done to raise the game with those players beyond the school and college gates.
Commentators across the globe are beginning to recognise that new technologies are likely to have a devastating impact on advanced societies that are currently ill-prepared to meet the challenges that lie ahead. In the scenarios that are being painted, naturally, education has a vital role to play. In future, social mobility and equality of opportunity will not even look as they do now. Unless governments engage with industry, commerce, researchers and educators equally, the future does not look bright, especially for the least able.
Secondly, in education, we have to accept that we do not yet know how to factor in for IQ. But unless we deal with our reluctance to engage more open-mindedly on this vital area, we will not understand how best to develop education policy and practice. It is not sufficient to simply acknowledge that our genes contribute to our capacity to achieve. We have to research ways in which we can maximise achievement across the full range of human capacities. In light of such progress being made, we will understand that individual differences in outcomes are not solely nor predominantly caused by education. We will know that under optimum conditions, education can make the world of difference and find ways to make this happen. My colleague, Roger Titcombe, has written often and at length about this very development.
Finally, accepting the need to accommodate the fact that there is no standard child, free school meals or otherwise, we have to focus on what we know can improve the lot of young people of ALL abilities to help them maximise their potential. To clear the way for this to happen, we in education will first have to confront the perverse notion that there are set standards we should expect children to achieve uniformly. It is time to acknowledge the richness of human diversity.
At no time in the past did we have the opportunity that new technologies could afford us now to develop, celebrate and encourage individuality. Looking back at what might have worked for a majority of citizens in the past will not make such a vision become a possibility.