Social Mobility: meaning and actions

Thank you to Cumberland Lodge for the opportunity to spend two days this month having a deep think about social mobility, in specific relation to education and employment.  Here are my reflections:

What’s in a word?

A key question for me was what does social mobility actually mean?  It is a phrase I have come to use.  We do need to reach a common ground and a shared language.  It most probably means different things to different people.  Because it seems to me, we could all travel in various and possibly conflicting directions if we don’t agree. 

According to the Social Mobility Commission, it is defined as the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents before them.  We compare and contrast one with the other to identify social, economic and sometimes geographical distance travelled.  Where there is a strong similarity, there is a lower level of social mobility.  Where there is a weak one, there is a higher level of social mobility.  Beyond what might seem like a simple formula, there are many inter-sectionalities that are potent factors, such as class, race, gender etc.  These should not be overlooked.

Social mobility and ‘levelling up’ are two different agendas – why is that?  For me, one is about career/social/economic progression, the other is the local availability of options and a more equitable distribution of opportunity.  The link is tenuous but it is there.  Higher social mobility from one generation to the other has traditionally required the new generation to leave their hometown and travel elsewhere (i.e. the big city) to enable them to find opportunities not available where they were brought up.  That certainly was the case for me, moving away from a small market town, having barely scraped three O levels.  Bringing such opportunities closer, by relocating government departments, BBC offices for example, may not improve social mobility, even if it does bring opportunity closer.  Instead, it may attract ‘outsiders’ from other areas into the locality to take the ‘plum’ jobs.  A London migration that drives up house prices and doubles the number of coffee bars.

Then there is the issue of child poverty.  Which as a political policy seems to have lost its trendy and fashionable status of late.  The increase of children living in poverty, and what appears to be an impossible target to meet (eradicating it), especially under current fiscal and social conditions, combined with a lack of obvious robust strategies to properly tackle it, is resulting in a whispering of the issue, when once it was the fuel of town-criers.

Keep moving.

The core issue I think is movement.  The measure of movement away from one’s parents’ background, and the apparent predetermined blueprints of life.  These are cemented across all socio-groups.  But for many, the impacts of protected characteristics are such that they held-back, their choices limited, or their experiences of movement are just so uncomfortable and unsupported that they wither on the vine or withdraw their ambitions completely.  This is the stuff of the disaffected youth.  It is one of the things that drives children and young people’s disengagement with school, college and society as a whole.  It is petrol to the bonfire of petty crime, causing it to explode into serious and organised crime.  Not all those disaffected this way turn to crime, instead they retreat into a routine that builds and builds a deep sense of underachievement.  This is the stuff of unhealthy habits and possible mid-life crises. There are other environmental factors, and when there is a lack of opportunity, or when opportunity is unequally available, then there are often unsurmountable barriers to break. 

Some of course navigate these obstacles adeptly, they thrive, and are sufficiently resilient to make a success through all this unwelcome adversity.  Well done them I say, they are the lucky ones, or the ones with sufficient resilience and energy they manage to make it work.  Or perhaps, they had help, a parent, family member, mentor, or sponsor.  Or someone somewhere looked beyond their presenting characteristics, their ‘difference’, and prioritised talent and skills over above prejudices and a desire to perpetuate institutionalised ‘mono-recruitment’ behaviours. 

But it begs the question, what do we all need to do to level up the playing field to enable more social mobility?  So that the hills, valleys, divots or bunkers are flattened to make the journey or the game easier going.  How can we create an environment that allows for everyone to have the opportunities available, and benefit from the support of others, if they need it?  How does, and how can the world change to become more receptive and open to opportunity?

Why bother?

First we need to convince more people that this is a good idea.  We need to cogently describe to people why they should bother with social mobility in the first place.  We learned many of these lessons during years of positive discrimination.  That job is not yet done, but there are as many differences in these two strategies, as there are similarities.  It can feel threatening to those who feel their power and opportunity is being eroded.  This is about representation, so that schools, colleges, universities, organisations, and employers reflect the communities they serve.  It must and should be beyond a shallow public relations exercise.  More than that, because representation and reflection enables a closeness and trust to be developed, it feeds a better understanding of what people need, how they think, and what they want now and in the future. 

To thrive, children, young people and adults need to have a sense of belonging and this is best achieved by being visibly and genuinely represented in all aspects of life, this allows people to feel safe.  When I have felt ostracised, marginalised and discriminated against it has been when I could not see myself reflected in the language, imagery or behaviours in any environment.  When I don’t, then the opposite is the case, I feel reflected in all of those.  This is about connection, real connection. 

What has been apparent in recent years is when organisational behaviour is tone-deaf (think CEOs’ unfiltered tweeting, poor advertising campaigns, or questionable investment interests) companies can lose billions in their value overnight, execs lose their jobs, and customers go elsewhere.  Often these mistakes, either acts of omission and commission, are the product of mono-culture.  A culture cultivated by mono-recruitment.  No-one is taking the time and effort to consider actions and behaviours from all perspectives.  Because they only have one.  How can you do that if everyone in your boardroom looks the same?  Social mobility at work releases the potential for well-rounded decision-making to support social justice, equalities and inclusion, and anti-bias.  Quite the list.  There is also the argument that by extending the recruitment pool, we reach an ocean of untapped talent.  This is something of particular interest as we all appreciate the current pressures on businesses and the job market.  Finally, engaging in social mobility is an agent of change.  Change is a constant in the world and the workplace, this helps enormously.  End of. 

Early experiences.

In early years we have long been familiar with the tasks of supporting home-learning, intervening early and narrowing the gap (see Sure Start, Children’s Centres, and the latest iteration Family Hubs).  We have been asked to prepare children for school, through the provision of funded early learning for two-, three- and four-year-olds, so they can be ‘school ready’ – a phrase that has attracted much professional discourse.  I have concluded that:

If school readiness means we support children to develop their key skills in communication, speaking, listening and questioning, social and emotional wellbeing, and physical development, then count me in.  If it is about producing learning robots trained to comply with a rigid and inflexible education system, then I am less keen on the idea. (Hempsall, J. in Jarvis, P. et al p249). 

Apologies for quoting myself.  I agree socio-economic background is a predictor of long-term outcomes, that is why we have been targeting an offer to disadvantaged two-year-olds for 15 hours of early learning a week since 2013.  For me there are many actions required.  Early identification of need and intervention through such support is of primary importance, this is the early foundation stone for children when their neurological development is at its most critical.  Much has been achieved through programmes like 15 hours of early learning for the 40% least economically advantaged two-year-olds (a programme I have worked on).  And by the time children start school there is grounds for optimism, even when other early years policy (such as 30 hours for three- and four-year-olds of working parents) is argued to contain contradictions that risk increasing the attainment gap between least advantaged children and their peers. 

More needs to happen during school years.

One problem is that data reveals the gaps that exist at this stage are not being closed throughout primary and secondary schooling. There must be many missed opportunities throughout this time, so what could or should be done instead?  For me, it is a no-brainer that all education needs to consider the whole child and young person.  They need to be identified as individuals with individual circumstances, needs, stories and lives beyond the school gates.  Educators need the information, awareness and understanding to appreciate and respond to multiple factors of disadvantage, and individual learning styles.  The problem can be that they themselves succeeded in the system, and they consider it to be fit-for-purpose, elites don’t (always) understand, see: The only people who think exams are the best method of assessment are those for whom it has benefitted. – James Hempsall OBE: workstyle-lifestyle (  Too often the system is merely asking children to ‘be like them’ or to conform to the range of micro behaviours such as the three r’s: reading, writing and remembering.  And the rewards are binary, you pass or you fail.  Too many people take that sense of failure from school and carry it throughout their lives. 

I advocate a whole curriculum not one segregated into artificial divides (think GCSEs, A levels, T levels, apprenticeships etc.).  No one I interview for a job, or someone I manage, is expected to work by sitting silently alone under intense pressure and write things down, they instead have to demonstrate the widest possible range of interpersonal, problem solving, social, and teamwork skills.  There aren’t A levels in that.  There should be.  Indeed, such qualities need to be developed and integrated into all routes through education and employment.  If we value and assess all types of skill, then we are most likely to include all the talent and have the teams we need to succeed. 

Always learning.

The opening up of university education for almost half of all young people has been a true revolution, considering the numbers were more like 10% when I was that age.  Such traditional routes are privileged and out of reach to those dealing with the realities of low economics and/or disadvantage.  Many children have more to worry about than school, their lives are temporary (in terms of housing, jobs, and relationships), the future or the long-term is an alien concept.  Learning is not an essential then, but that does not mean never.  Social mobility needs to enable people wanting to study or develop careers later in life, such as after having children.  We have experienced a dramatic downturn in the availability of lifelong learning being an option for people that want or need to study at a different time.  This needs to be reversed.

What does success look like? 

People talk about the ‘working-class boy that did good’, the traditional ‘rags to riches’ or ‘American dream’.  Successful ‘poster people’ (boys, girls and others) are often lauded for their lack of qualifications gained at school, and their material wealth or fame gained despite it.  Again, well done them I say.  But they are the exception and not the rule.  They were most likely to have had other advantages, I suspect.   

Sticking out, being different.

I worry that many efforts appear to be applied in the misguided attempt to make people ‘fit in’, to be ‘people like us’, rather than bring their true selves, their lived experiences and their difference to add to the mix.  I have shared how it feels when you don’t fit in, but there is a health warning here.  Positive discrimination and accelerator programmes are helpful, but only if there is a hospitable environment to welcome people in, and properly and fully include them in career progression at the same pace as others, and to hold a fair share of the power, and the pay.  I flinch at the idea of dress codes, school ties, and the like.  Yes, let’s help people to not make mistakes, but please let us open up our horizons and attitudes so we don’t assert our own unnecessary identities and social codes on others.  I don’t think an event discussing social mobility needs a dress code either.  It is a contradiction. 

Empowerment is a four-letter word.

Disadvantaged people don’t want or need to be empowered.  Instead, they want and need those with power to not misuse it, and let go of a fair share of it, so the rest have a more equal chance.  Their fear is driving an inability to let go and to extend their network and world in turn.  Others have the power, skills, qualities and a voice and the ability to take it, given anywhere near an equivalent opportunity to do so.  This is where we need to improve. 

Some people don’t move without data.

I agree that data collection is essential and that it should be used to inform longitudinal studies, identify trends, and track impact.  It requires informed consent because if a subject feels safe to participate, they will.  But data needs to be augmented with qualitative findings – individual stories are powerful, they bring data to life on a human level.  So let us have both.

Let’s talk about class.

We need to talk more about class in learning, education and employment. Is it gaining traction to become a protected characteristic, I wonder?  I am pretty certain it was always a category in traditional equal opportunities policies.  Upon what measure though do we identify and describe and understand the subjectivity of class, or is it one of those issues we all have a right to self-identity.  I am told it is not included in the Equality Act. 

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”… 

…said my parents constantly throughout my years in education.  That sounded like a discouragement to learn and to advance my academic journey at the time.  It eroded any sense of achievement in exam results.  It is clear those holding power and privilege have exceptionally effective networks forged across family, friends, school and work/business.  The problem is, when things are not levelled up, and communities are disadvantaged, then any chance of networking or ‘knowing people’ are hugely diminished.  So that doesn’t mean much when you are in a small town.

Cash in my pocket.

Pay gap is one measure, pay equity and reasonable rates for the value of jobs and contributions are another.  How can it be just for younger people to have a lower minimum wage when rent or a coffee costs us all the same?  It is not fair for a CEO to earn 100 times that of its lowest paid staff members. 

Wish list.

So, I would politely ask for all that to be sorted please.  More specifically, an extended early years learning offer of at least 25 hours for every two-, three- and four-year-old, with more family support and mentoring wrapped around it.  For school, I recommend a well-rounded curriculum looking at developing the people we need to work and learn into adulthood.  A triple focus on school, life and work readiness.  And a reinvestment in lifelong learning for everyone to have the opportunity to feel successful in education, when the time is right for them.  Finally, a hospitable environment everywhere, created by sharing of power and the letting go of all those unhelpful social codes and behaviours that get in the way. 

The Complete Companion for Teaching and Leading Practice in the Early Years.  Jarvis, P., George, J., Holland, W., Doherty, J. (2016).  

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