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Social Mobility, Chance or Choice?

“In a more socially mobile society, everyone should have a choice, be aware of that choice and be able to exercise it. From birth people should have equal opportunities whether at home, school, further education (FE) college, university or in training…Everyone should be recruited on merit no matter which school or university they attended. The old boys’ network must no longer be a passport to success…those from disadvantaged backgrounds should not be held back because they don’t fit in.” UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission (2019) Strategy 2019. p.4[1]

If we were to shine a light on every pupil, how many would not be able to make progress? Blandford (2011)[2]

‘The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right, but that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong. Those who have the power to remove them do not have the will, and those who have the will have not, as yet, the power.’ R H Tawney[3]

These comments highlight issues covered in depth in my publications “Born to Fail? A working class view” (2017)[4] and ‘’Social Mobility, Chance or Choice? (2019) [5]

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.

In 2018, the OECD PISA Equity report, Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility [6] underlined what few would challenge: that every child, every human being, deserves the same opportunities (chance) to gain skills and progress through society regardless of gender, sexuality, disability or socio-economic, ethnic or cultural background (choice). The report makes for sober reading, pointing out in the UK that while educational attainment has increased, inequalities remain entrenched. However, those children and young people that are supported to make progress can accumulate collateral throughout life, both in education and later in the labour market that will drive their future social mobility.

The OECD report also shows that the impact of inequality extends much farther than economic wealth: it ripples out to all aspects of society such as poorer health, in a climate of violence or social unrest (2019, Timpson report). The context for the discussion is England, which has longstanding class divisions.

We used to think that meritocracy – the idea that talent and capacity would overcome socio-economic barriers – was the key. This has been the mantra of successive governments. Meritocracy remains part of the social mobility conversation, but clings to the idea that if you have talent (and I add here that everyone has some talent) – you can improve your circumstances by hard work.

This clearly is no longer true (or is not working). Too many hard-working people now feel left behind or just about managing or worse, and that they have failed and have no value. This includes working-class young people who have played by the rules and worked hard to enter university (the most popular and publicised national test for working-class social mobility) and not been able to manage for a number of reasons.

Those reasons include not having enjoyed the same educational preparation as their better-off peers; not having the same practical or financial support as their peers; or simply not having access to work after graduating from university. This is not likely to get better any time soon. We know millions of young people fail at the point of GCSE assessment (over 30% of our school population, and more than over 50% of pupils on free school meals) and who get stuck in an unproductive cycle of retaking GCSEs. The actual and real talents of these children and young people are too easily and frequently ignored, and possibly never even discovered[7].

Definition: Social Mobility

I need to set out my definition of 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.

To support social mobility, we must provide children and young people with real chances and choices. Chances and choices that are not determined by class, but by heritage, location and self-efficacy. Chances and choices that are respectful of individuals. Chances and choices that are non-judgmental, and not defined by movement between classes or location. Chances and choices that provide opportunities for everyone to be included, and to belong. Chances and choices that prepare the way for everyone to succeed in life, in education, health, employment and housing.

Is equality of opportunity a core British value?

If confronted with a television camera recording their views for broadcast, probably few people in England would say there should not be equal access to education and the most prestigious jobs in the country and the will to act certainly exists in some quarters (See the section: Government Commissions and the Need for Action). So why is progress not being made as explained by the Gini coefficient research (2019)?[8]

Do we, as a society, really care enough about equality of opportunity for all, to change?

Is the traditional national measure of educational achievement – maximised university entrance useful for, or even relevant to, working-class children and young people and children facing disadvantage whose priorities may be supporting themselves- so a job and a home? If we are serious about unleashing the talent of all children and young people, regardless of their background, challenges or needs, we must consider new and innovative approaches to post-14 education.

Do we dare to?

In my books and published papers, I argue that we can only offer real chances and choices through mutuality, where everyone is valued regardless of their background, challenges or needs.

  • 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.

If we are in a place and at a time when we are embracing new thinking, we must recognise the great things that have been achieved by recent initiatives in health, social care and education but also acknowledge, accept and address what has not worked and what is not working.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/social-mobility-commission-strategy-2019

[2] Blandford, S, (2011), TES Special Educational Needs Conference Keynote, October 2011

[3] Tawney, R.H. (1912) in Rose, M.E. (1972), The Relief of Poverty, London: Duckworth in association with Child Poverty Action Group

[4] Blandford, S. (2017), Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View,
Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

[5] Blandford, S. (2019), Social Mobility, Chance or Choice? Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

[6] https://www.oecd.org/education/equity-in-education-9789264073234-en.htm

[7] Blandford, S. (2019), Social Mobility, Chance or Choice? Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

[8] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/gini-index.asp

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