Born to Fail? Social Mobility – A Working Class View by Sonia Blandford


Professor Sonia Blandford of Achievement for All Education writes:

The recent Education Select Committee report The forgotten: how white working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it highlights how White British pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) persistently underperform compared to their peers, from the early years through to higher education.

In many ways the report’s findings are self-evident, as are the proposed solutions proposed:

  1. Funding needs to be tailor-made at a local level to level up educational opportunity
  2. Support parental engagement and tackle multi-generational disadvantage
  3. Ensure the value of vocational training and apprenticeship options while boosting access to higher education
  4. Attract good teachers to challenging areas
  5. Find a better way to talk about racial disparities

The world, as we would like it to be, is a one where every child knows that with passion and focus and hard work, they can be whoever they want to be. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world yet.

Why have the many funded initiatives aimed at addressing the above failed to have sustained, national impact?

Defining social mobility

Social mobility is achieving positive change in socio-economic status, and more widely, building better futures for all, in terms of wellbeing, health, and engagement with all that life has to offer.

In Born to Fail? Social Mobility: a Working Class View, I argue that all education and business leaders, professionals, practitioners, parents and carers, and members of society have a shared responsibility to ensure that our education system (in its widest sense) gives every child and young person a right to real chances, choices and support that maximise their opportunities.

  • By chances, I mean opportunities in an equal and mutual context where everyone is valued in education, training, and the workplace.
  • By choices, I mean giving children and young people real agency in securing positive options for their future in terms of their: overall life-course; employment / career; and better health, wellbeing, security, happiness, and engagement in society. In short – true social mobility.

We can only offer real chances and choices through mutuality, where everyone is valued regardless of their background, challenges or needs.

Why do working class children not achieve?

The need to understand how and why children can learn is fundamental to pedagogy – how teachers teach. Getting teaching right for white working class remains an ongoing challenge in many schools. An appropriate starting point might be to increase understanding of how working class, disadvantaged children learn, refocus teacher training and professional training on this, and identify what is needed to prepare children for work.

Why isn’t school considered relevant by the working class? A curriculum that is not socially or culturally relevant to working class pupils, and which presents more barriers than opportunities, will not engage them in learning. The national curriculum in England has been developed in line with a model of the knowledge and experience of the middle class. There are solutions to this dilemma that, if implemented, would address the needs of all children:

  • break down barriers to learning by providing opportunities for all children to partici-pate in social and cultural activities, sport, the arts, debating, volunteering, wider community-based activities, museum trips and more
  • relate the curriculum to the social context of the child and their future. All communities have a rich heritage, which can help shape the curriculum
  • introduce learning about the workplace in primary school, which will raise ambitions, break down barriers, and provide relevance to learning.

Why isn’t there the will to stop the growth of disadvantage among the working class? Part of the problem is that the context of poverty in the UK has changed. Poverty is no longer solely an issue for people that are out of work or living in social housing. The drive for welfare reform has been seen as an answer to the problems of disadvantage, but we have failed to understand and take account of interrelated and changing social and economic contexts and the solutions: better housing, and investment in communities.

Why is working class success only measured by exam results? The annual media frenzy that follows SATs and GCSE exam results only serves to remind many of the working-class families that their children are disadvantaged, with private and grammar schools forming the majority at the top of published league tables. The minority of working-class students who do meet national performance measures demonstrates that passing exams is a possibility at primary and secondary.

Why is there a lack of ambition for the working class? There is absolutely no evidence that the working class cannot achieve – in education, employment, housing, and health. There is also no evidence that the working class are any less likely to have a desire for success than others. What is evident, though, is a lack of societal ambition outside spurious and narrow targets (such as university entry) that only concern 50 per cent of the population at best. There needs to be a mutual understanding of what is available in terms of alternatives, and engagement with the working class about what they want.

So, are the working class born to fail? the Education Select Committee’s report would indicate that rather than reducing the chances of failure within the working class over the last fifty years, we have increased the possibility of failure in housing, education, and social care.

Policy Options

I draw the specific Policy Options listed below, from Every Child Included in Education priorities.

Policy option 1: Respect and pupil well-being: Promote kindness and wellbeing in education, business and third sector settings, where every child and young person is included every day, addressing mental health, character and resilience through culture and mutuality, celebrating tolerance, patience, friendship, creativity, and problem solving.

Policy Option 2: Focus funding on a relevant curriculum: Increase investment across all phases of education, beginning with the early years that results in a socially and culturally relevant curriculum, increasing attainment in reading, writing and maths, enhancing life chances and culminating in a meaningful destination for every child.

Policy Option 3: Teacher training: Put greater focus on teachers as professional learners through recruitment, retention, and professional development that includes an enhanced understanding of the way disadvantaged and vulnerable children learn.

Policy Option 4: Inclusion: Reduce children and young people being excluded in education: increase responsibility for children at risk of exclusion through cross-agency collaboration to reduce exclusions and minimise the number of children and young people at risk and close the gap for SEND, too often the marginalised and forgotten group.

Policy Option 5: Community engagement: Increase recognition of parents, carers, and wider communities, valuing all parents and carers as crucial partners in the improvement of learning and life chances for every child.

All of us, as educators, parents and carers, and members of society must contribute to building this foundation and the real structures for change that will follow.

No child should be ‘Born to Fail’.