Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The decine in social mobility- The culpability of the state

A report on social mobility recently stated that social mobility is not only decreasing, but also that the gap between rich and poor is becoming greater. A panel of independent experts, led by former minister Alan Milburn, suggested that doctors and lawyers who are in their late 30s today are of more affluent provenance than their colleagues in the 1950s. Strikingly, the report suggests that social mobility opportunities are not diminished only for the working class, but the middle classes are now beginning to suffer from the concentration of privilege.
For many of us who work in state education this unintended consequence is hardly surprising. Ignoring the prescient assertions by Edmund Burke that the pursuit of financial and social equality by some sort of centralised agenda was ‘a monstrous absurdity’, successive governments have sought to impose an order of sorts with disastrous consequences. Anthony Crosland’s ideological assault on the grammar schools in the early 1970s was a significant strike at the heart of effectiveness, with those from more humble beginnings denied access to higher standards of education. Of course, there were concerns about the manner in which entry to grammar schools operated but to declare war on exemplars of good practice and standards, thereby forcing talented poorer children into mediocrity, did nothing to aid social mobility for the academically able.
That said, even in the comprehensive schools (too many of which were famously labelled as ‘bog standard by Alistair Campbell), talented youngsters from poorer backgrounds could still find themselves in a top set or stream, studying for the same examinations as children at even the most prestigious schools, such as Eton. In leafy Surrey and industrial Sheffield, the Ordinary level and the gold standard Advanced level examinations provided a certain equity and comparative experience. For the privileged, education would allow a certain continuity of success and social status. For the poor, it would serve as a means of escape from poverty and a vehicle to something better.
Recent years have seen some worrying shifts in education provision in the state sector which has seen it become increasingly distinguishable from private education. In particular, the drive for quantity instead of quality in terms of examination passes and the replacement of concrete knowledge with a vacuous skills agenda are aggravating differences in the quality of educational experience between pupils taught in the private and the state sectors respectively. In terms of the latter, the shift in emphasis will place the pupils at a disadvantage, be they working class or middle class. Increasingly, their experiences will be substantially different to those of more knowledgeable privately educated youngsters.
Coerced by the government through its OfSTED shock troops, schools centre their policies, practices and procedures on the sole aim of increasing examination result pass rates. Schools cannot be blamed for this, given that access to the coveted ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ judgments cannot be secured without acceptable improvements in examinations results. Attainment has become the be all and end all of contemplations for improvements. However, this has encouraged the most nefarious strategies of window dressing.
Firstly, OfSTED, local authorities and central government are looking for raw indicators of statistical improvements which are based solely on numbers, not quality. Therefore, senior management teams in state schools are investing in ‘softer’ subjects and the expense of those which are more difficult (and arguably more necessary in terms of providing a more rounded and robust education). A BTEC in say, Sports Studies, will deliver the equivalent of 4 GCSEs in a period of study often less than 2 years. Conversely, a GCSE in German will deliver just 1 GCSE after a period of study which is usually 5 years. Equally, a combined science qualification gives an award of 2 or more GCSEs. This does not compare favourably with a GCSE in Physics which gives a statistically poor 1 qualification for the bureaucrats to consider. Little wonder then that the number of pupils studying a language to GCSE level in state schools is now at 33% compared to 82% in the independent sector (CILT Languages Trends Survey).
Secondly, many schools are now committing themselves to a de facto ideological rejection of academic knowledge. Following an agenda called ‘learnacy’, of which Guy Claxton is a guru, schools are acting as collective sheep in rushing towards a skills based agenda called ‘Learning to Learn’. Aspects of the philosophy are difficult to disagree with, such as the transferability of skills into real life and self-evaluative consideration of how individuals learn. However, be it a misapprehension or not, schools are now starting to teach this skills agenda expressly by merging academic subjects such as Geography, History and sometimes Languages(remember, they only give 1 GCSE). Content has been replaced by skills, facts by competencies. In reality, humanities now involve youngsters sitting around a table contemplating skills such as those needed for teamwork as opposed to learning facts. Of course, in ignoring knowledge we are excluding children from the development of certain types of skills. How can a child evaluate, assimilate and apply facts to situations if they do not have the knowledge to play with in the first place? Of course, knowledge is not really needed for processors is it? That is the domain of the executives. In that context the rush to ‘learnacy’ by so many state schools may create a sociological catastrophe in terms of social mobility. While the private schools invest in the creation of the executives of tomorrow, the state invests in the processors.
In sum, the decline of social mobility and divergence of experiences for those educated privately and by the state have been aggravated by an increase in state intervention and interference in education. Only when we remove the state from education and allow individuals and communities to invest locally in themselves will we see improvements. Unfortunately, the report is likely to be addressed by those in power through calls for yet more interference. Plus ca change.......


  1. Ugh. I'm increasingly glad i left school in 1996. This whole thing was only just getting started then. My mother was a teacher and gave it up only a few years later. She doesn't know how people can stand to work in schools now! Keep this blog up man, it's a vital -if disheartening- look into what's really going on in our schools. Good work!

  2. Yes, it seems we are being returned to a social system of masters and serfs. Extremes of wealth and poverty with a vanishing middle class. It is happening in your field, education, also in wealth and assets, attitudes of dependency - the state should fix everything. As Sean Gibb has pointed out we are sliding back into the time before classical liberalism. I guess it's all part of the same trend. It's going very fast, now. What does one do?

  3. Sorry Sean, oops.

  4. I also left school in 1996 but even I remember the complete nonsense that was much of my GCSEs.

    For example, most of history revolved not around what happened when and why but around feeling empathy for the people at the time. I seem to remember that at one point in history a judicial punishment was for a convicted defendant to be buried alive... can't remember when this was allowed or whether it was a proper judicial punishment or just a local thing but I do remember that the poor bugger being buried felt jolly bad about it... as did his wife and kids!