Opinion: Education matters in tackling social mobility

Social mobility is core to the Coalition and Nick Clegg personally. It means that your birth plays little or no role in determining your life outcomes. It is the opposite of feudalism. Economic mobility is an important part of social mobility. Where you end up economically is determined by your ability and hard work, for sure, but also by whether you get a good education, good advice, and – for some – by whether you inherit.

Government should concentrate on what it can do, in this case education. Kids from poor backgrounds generally do much worse at school – and so they end up poor later on. Government can improve school results for such kids relative to others: Labour did it – a bit. There is big variation in this across the country, so every local authority except one should be ringing up those who are doing better and learning from them.

An empty classroomMoney matters to schools. I would like to see a handful of schools given it in spades – some double the usual budgets, some quadruple, and so on – to see just what it costs to ensure that next to no-one leaves school without the qualifications and attitude to make a go of their lives. As a country we need to know what it costs to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. It may even be that it pays for itself in future tax revenues and falls in benefit spending. Or it may be so expensive that we take the democratic decision as a nation, not to pay for it.

Social mobility is usually measured in terms of whether people relative to each other. If one person rises, another must fall, by definition. Although true in relative terms, it is not true in absolute terms. Graduates numbers increased dramatically over the last twenty years, and the graduate wage premium has not fallen. A better educated Britain is more attractive for those wanting to employ the well-educated.

The Victorians worried that we would have too many people able to read and write (“Why do labourers need to be able to write?”) – but as education increased over the twentieth century, the quality of jobs increased with it.

We never have anything to fear from increasing the supply of well-educated people. Social mobility is not a threat to the haves – we can all “have”.

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “every local authority except one should be ringing up those who are doing better and learning from them”

    “I would like to see a handful of schools given […] double the usual budgets, some quadruple, and so on – to see just what it costs […] to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty”

    Your first statement is the way to find out what works. Throwing money at schools will still have some doing well and others not so well. I don’t think it will make you any the wiser as to how much extra money would be needed.

    Do you think giving schools more money will improve discipline, improve the quality of the teachers, get rid of bad teachers, ensure children get more support at home, improve expectations of poor children, create an atmosphere where it’s cool to learn, increase the number of children taking Ebacc subjects, increase the number of children who want to take A Levels etc?

  • Leviticus18_23 25th Oct '11 - 4:23pm

    Remind me… How much is public spending on education being cut? And the budget for renovating schools is being cut by… what was it now…? 50%?

    Yes, education is being well looked after.

    Any way you can sell it off completely?

  • Daniel Henry 25th Oct '11 - 4:52pm

    Education is the second most protected budget after the NHS. Less cuts than Labour were planning to make.

    We’ve funded this by harsher cuts elsewhere. If you’d accused us of being especially harsh on the welfare budget then I’d understand, but education has genuinely been protected here.

  • It’s not money, it’s motivation.

    I survived a large comp. where kids who wanted to learn risked being bullied by those who didn’t.

    The school had a seven-mile catchment area. By the time we got to the sixth form, all my old friends from my village primary were there, along with kids from a couple of other local villages. We all had parents who valued education and encouraged us to learn.

    All the kids from the big town council estate the school sat next to had gone. Learning was “boring,” “pointless”.
    Their parents thought the same.

    They had the same teachers, the same money spent on them, the same opportunities… they chose not to take advantage of any of it.

  • Old Codger Chris 25th Oct '11 - 5:10pm

    Hopefully the Institute of Fiscal Studies is wrong http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-15430189

  • Old Codger Chris 25th Oct '11 - 5:15pm

    Money does matter – but cassie makes an excellent point. So often it’s not the pupils, teachers or politicians who are to blame as much as the parents.

  • the evidence base does not support a conclusion that it is simply student motivation, and that this cannot be altered by schools. We know there are schools whose performances turned around very quickly, which suggest that writing off children because of their home background or intrinsic motivation is not necessary.

    in answer to Julian’s question:
    “Do you think giving schools more money will improve discipline, improve the quality of the teachers, get rid of bad teachers, ensure children get more support at home, improve expectations of poor children, create an atmosphere where it’s cool to learn, increase the number of children taking Ebacc subjects, increase the number of children who want to take A Levels etc?”, I think that giving schools more money can improve discipline, if it is used to appoint to teachers who are better capable of building up an atmosphere in a classroom that is more conducive to discipline, or if it is used to reduce class sizes, or if it is used to teach people who are disruptive out of the main classroom. I think it is straightforward to see how increased funding can improve the quality of teachers, and it can be used to get rid of bad teachers if they’re simply paid off (I think there are better things to do on this, but it is one way). It can also ensure that children get more support out of the classroom, by using extended days and other such devices to increase the amount of education people receive. It can be used better advice to increase the number of children taking the sorts of subjects that we know lead to better long-term outcomes in the Labour market. Given that the cost of funding a handful of schools to the extent that I suggest is trivially low compared with the overall education budget then yes, I think my proposal is easily defensible.

  • Tony Dawson 25th Oct '11 - 6:29pm

    An awful lot of achievement of kids is due to family-acquired motivation and support (and to some extent the battle that this may have with peer pressure). So throwing more money at schools so that their useless governors can slap another £10,000 on the salaries of their already-overpaid head teachers is not going to help. Any more than overpaying many doctors at the moment is helping our NHS.

  • The problem in this country seems to be mostly a lack of ambition from the parents (and probably some teachers too) which is then passed on to the kids.

    It’s no accident that children from some immigrant backgrounds do better than other, including British, regardless of how poor they are; it’s because those cultures value education, even when they had no access to it themselves.

    My French grand-parents were from what would have been considered here working class and left school at 14 (then legal age) because of it. ALL their children and grand-children passed a baccalaureat (ie A-Levels grade A-C) and some form of HE (not necessarily degrees.. that’s another discussion about lack of choice in HE here). That’s true of my extended family and in fact most people I know there.

    But I know people here that, even though having jobs and lifestyles firmly middle-class, not only still classify themselves as working-class, but have no expectation of their children doing HE (or even FE).

    So sending the message to kids that are capable (and offering good FE to those that are less) that they can do whatever they want is really the biggest boost you can give to social mobility.

  • Cassie & Tony have it in a nutshell. Parenting/social environment are the factors which confront educational professionals. Increased resource to provide 1 to 1 tuition can certainly compensate particularly in years 3/4 but it
    is a compensation for lack of encouragement from and involvement by parents. Perhaps it might be an idea, at the same time, to address the widening social inequality which has been going on since Thatcher.

  • Bill le Breton 26th Oct '11 - 10:07am

    Tim, I do like the idea of ‘seeding’ some schools with a great deal of financial support to see ‘just what it costs to ensure that next to no-one leaves school without the qualifications and attitude to make a go of their lives.’
    My guess is that the quality and effectiveness of education will have a greater effect on national security in the medium term than the numbers and excellence of our armed forces and the equipment they have. Ditto, of course, our economic performance over a similar term. It is therefore a political imperative to fund some R and D in schooling that wish to innovate.
    You draw attention to the apparent dilemma that, ‘if one person rises, another must fall, by definition.’ Would it be better, therefore, to think about and express our aims in terms of life chances and the ability/barriers to realizing potential, rather than focusing on social mobility?
    Those communities often described as ‘hard to reach’ or even (and more distastefully) as constituents of an ‘underclass’ also have the characteristics and advantages (as well as disadvantages) of strong communities. For many social mobility is a form of exile that they do not desire. Just as they do not like the ‘gentrification’ of their neighbourhoods. There is just a hint of ‘you shall be mobile’ in its use.
    How much better to provide the infrastructure that helps people increase their life chances and fulfill more of their potential without ‘moving’ anywhere; physically, socially or culturally?
    Such an approach would have a huge impact on what young people thought schools and education were for and would revitalize the vocational aspects of teaching as a career … and maybe have an even greater impact on these than any increased funding, however beneficial.

  • Cassie,

    It is overly simplistic to assume the aspirations of parents are to blame for these failures of education. There are many varieties of cause to this problem that it is primarily the job of education to overcome.

    My personal experience was of a comprehensive school similar to the scale and catchment area you describe. I grew up on a council estate near to the school. My parents were not as you describe, but placed a great importance on the value of education. However, my teachers behaved towards me in a prejudiced way that negatively affected my opportunity to receive the same education that was readily offered to those considered more suited to it. I left school with a handful of GCSE’s, about average at the time. I now have a degree and two post graduate degree’s. I was every bit as capable, if not more so, when still a child as I am now, my teachers though were of the opinion that educating me was a waste of their time. Many of the people i grew up with are now graduates although they had to pursue a much more circuitous route than those who ‘chose’ to take advantage of their opportunities. The conclusion from my anecdotal evidence can only be that the education offered to these people and I was substandard.

    This is not though the fault of a comprehensive system of education, it is the fault of individual teachers. It is in fact mitigated by a comprehensive system. The bulk of education I received was second hand because I was sat next to someone who was actually being educated. If it is to be meaningful to talk of the child’s choice to go uneducated it must be the case that as many options as possible are available to the child. This is entirely contrary to the maximisation of parental choice. The options available to children to learn and develop their potential is necessarily restricted by allowing their options to be filtered through the prejudices of their parents. The best way to provide this breadth of opportunity is through genuine comprehensive provision with no opt outs for special interest groups.

    Many of my classmates were keen to learn, with the attributes that teachers respond to. Of those who were, many left school with a similar attitude to you; that it was my (and others like me) own choice not to have taken advantage of the same opportunities, primarily because we had rubbish parents. The fact was though that they were unaware of the differential treatment that even their own classmates were receiving, much of it prejudiced, demotivating, dispiriting and lacking in expectation. Even if it were true that those individuals who failed to thrive in school was due to poor parenting it would then be the responsibility of educational institutions to counter that, if there is to be any possibility for social mobility.

    Your view, if true, would demonstrate why focussing on narrow equality of opportunity is insufficient to achieve a just society. There is no real opportunity available to those who are already incapable of making a choice, as is the case if it is only parental failing that is at play but is also true if the full spectrum of causes are taken into account. If it is not the job of education to overcome those inherent incapacities relevant to learning then where does this responsibility lie?

  • Old Codger Chris 26th Oct '11 - 5:28pm

    Let me assure Tony Dawson (posted 25th Oct at 6.29pm) that many school governing bodies are very far from useless, and would not dream of using extra funding to “slap another £10k” onto the salaries of headteachers.

    Incidentally if Heads are “already overpaid” how come some schools struggle to recruit suitable candidates for the post?

  • >Many of my classmates were keen to learn, with the attributes that teachers respond to.

    I suppose that may well have been the case at our school: teachers focussing on those who were keen and thinking they were wasting their time with the rest.
    I wouldn’t call any of my teachers inspiring, for sure. We did well because we wanted to learn and would have done as well or better at any school.

    i was thinking yesterday of the idiots who disrupted some lessons (teachers who couldn’t control the class) so no one learned anything. And the charming little gangs of no-hopers who called my friends and I “snobs” for wanting to learn. And the parents who only showed up at the school to shout abuse at teachers for giving their kid a detention (or whatever).
    The bullies may well have put some kids off trying to learn, of course.

    I also recall a conversation overheard in a local shop a couple of years ago: woman saying she’d seen the other’s daughter mitching off school at a certain place. And the other replying, in a tone of pride: “That’s where WE used to bunk off to.”

    My point was that simply increasing school budgets isn’t a solution. Especially secondary schools.

    You need good teachers at infant school age to instil in children a love for learning.
    And put the money into parenting classes: Sure Start and so on, rather than secondary schools.
    ‘Give me the child of seven,’ and all that.

  • Cassie,

    Those children are as entitled to an education as anyone else. It is the teachers job to ensure they get it. To this end I would propose that the whole notion of a single teacher delivering all that a range of children need is flawed.

    Maybe you were called snobs, not because wanted to learn, but because you and many of your teachers were of the opinion that those around you were ‘no-hopers’.

    Simply increasing budgets will not be a solution but it is a better suggestion than pushing blame onto children for the failings of their parents.

    If the purpose of increasing those budgets is solely to increase social mobility then it will fail, as has been said earlier, because the range of influencing factors on social mobility is far wider than education alone can solve. The main reason for this is because rather than being the measure of a good society, social mobility, or lack of it, is a symptom of society. A good society makes social mobility available for those individuals who desire it but it also has respect and good standards of living for those who do not.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Chris Moore
    Regarding the hostility towards Europe of part of the right-wing of the Tories and some of the right-wing media: This spluttering and tub thumping jingoism p...
  • Chris Moore
    Yes, Peter, I agree with those criticisms of some attitudes to trade in especially Germany. As you'll also be aware though the EU has scores of free trade ag...
  • Jeff
    Tom Arms 28th May '23 - 12:42am: …the $1 billion campus which Disney is now not building was specifically designed to attract the high-tech busines...
  • Peter Martin
    @ Chris Moore, "... i.e. deficit = bad, surplus = good...." Totally disagree with this understanding also. The Liberal Party too at one time. ...
  • Roland
    @ Chris Moore ”We’ve had several discussions on here about water. Most comment has focused on which form of ownership the posters prefer and why.”...