Can artificial intelligence in education improve social mobility?

Brendan Bracken must qualify as one of the most successful parvenus of his century. Born Irish and raised as a Catholic, he absconded from schools and was sent to Australia for 3 years of peripatetic existence and self-education. He returned and settled in Liverpool, pretending to be 4 years older to gain a teaching post. When he'd saved just enough to finance a singe term at public school, he pretended to be 15 instead of 19, and was admitted to Sedbergh. There he made establishment friends, some of whom moved in Winston Churchill's circles.

Befriending Churchill, he used his successful career in financial journalism to back Churchill's campaigns, and to help secure the latter's finances. Elected as an MP himself, he became Churchill's right-hand man, and entered the wartime government. He was a talented spin doctor decades before the term was invented. He was eventually admitted to the cabinet, and given a peerage. Lord Bracken had done quite well for an Irish nobody. 

His upwardly mobile career is an example of social mobility, though it took deceit on a grand scale to make it happen. One cannot imagine it happening in the days of social media; his fantasies would be tracked down and exposed. But he was perceptive enough to realize that the ticket was a public school education, one which he tricked his way into, albeit at a minimal level. A term at Sedbergh was enough to give him access to the prizes, and the contacts to pursue them.

Although some praise what they see as the increased social mobility of the modern UK, the Sutton Trust has revealed that those with a public school education, only 7% of the population, make up 74% of top judges, 71% of top military officers, over half of leading print journalists, and dominate most of the top jobs in influential sectors, as well as the well-paid ones. Recent disclosures have revealed that they even dominate the leading careers in acting. Not surprisingly, many parents consider the fees of a private education to be a solid investment in their child's future.

Although there are calls for diversity quotas, with posts set aside for those with state education, the obvious solution is to make state education of a sufficient quality that its students can succeed on merit, without needing special consideration and lower standards. Even then, though, critics point to the way in which a private education has the children of successful parents mixing with each other and forming the friendships that will see them in good stead for seizing life's opportunities. Elitism would be hard to eradicate, if it were a goal to achieve that.

Grammar schools are in the news again because they give chances to people from humbler backgrounds. The top judges who are not ex-public school are ex-grammar school. They were largely abolished by Labour governments because they were felt to give unfair opportunities to too small a proportion. Left-wingers claimed they took talent out of the working class and made it middle class. Labour similarly abolished the Assisted Places Scheme, which enabled large numbers of children from modest backgrounds to attend private schools, and which gave those schools a broader social mix.

Clearly, the creation of new grammar schools and the restoration of the Assisted Places Scheme would go some way to increasing social mobility, and access to the top posts and prizes to people from lower down social strata.  But more is needed if the UK is to become more meritocratic. It seems wasteful that people with talent and ability cannot develop these and express them to the benefit of their fellow men and women. This is not to back the unattainable goal of equality of opportunity, but it is to endorse more opportunity and to seek ways of achieving this. And it starts with education.

Technology might point the way forward, and it could be artificial intelligence that sets the pace.  Among the advantages that public schools offer is a staff to student ratio that allows each child to receive individual attention. It seems clear that intelligent programs now under development will allow each child to be educated individually, and at a pace suited to its own capability and progress. Not held back by a teacher having to attend to slower learners, or dispirited by its inability to keep up with the others, each child can be taken forward at a pace it can accommodate. It can be educated to the degree that its abilities will permit. If this becomes the norm in education, it achieves the educational ideal of "a log with a teacher at one end and a student at the other," or a staff to student ratio of one to one.

If technology can be applied to educate each child to the maximum of its ability, the question arises as to whether it can be used to address some of the other factors that stand in the way of social mobility. For example, one of the advantages of a public school education is perceived to be the self-confidence it develops in its students.  This is hugely advantageous in university and employment interviews, where the ability to articulate clearly and confidently conveys massive benefits to the candidate.  Many students from state schools do not have self-confidence developed to such a degree, and are therefore at a disadvantage.

With artificial intelligence being applied to boosting the quality of education, can it similarly be used to equip students with more confidence so they can perform better in interviews?  The odds are that it can, and that future programs will use psychological insights to develop a greater degree of self-confidence.  To some extent, the greater educational skills will themselves boost a child's confidence in its abilities, but additional programs can coach it through interview techniques and take it through mock interviews to give it the resources to make them less daunting to the candidate.  Other programs will probably be developed that can raise a child's self-esteem through role-playing virtual reality situations.

Of course, the teenage years are, and perhaps should be, a time of questioning as children work out their identities and form a view of their place in the world. They find out who they are, what are their ambitions, and how they will relate to their peer group and those outside it. Self-confidence can be overdone and can indeed be counter-productive, so a balance needs to be sought to impart enough of it without overdoing it.

The individual attention that artificial intelligence can give to each child will mark the end of the notion that mass state provision should strive to produce identical or broadly similar outcomes for the children who go through it. It will produce greater variety, and a greater range of choices for children. Just as factories now no longer mass produce identical products, but allow customer preferences to be incorporated, so state services will be able to apply artificial intelligence to produce a different outcome for each recipient, an outcome more appropriate than the "one size fits all" result sought hitherto.

The role of government will not be to force all schools to apply the same model, but to facilitate and encourage them to apply the new technology in different ways, learning from the example of the more successful ones.  The outcome will be that far more children will have access to opportunities that their social background previously made it difficult for them to seize.

There have been three landmark Parliamentary Education Acts in the UK, the Foster Act of 1870, the Butler Act of 1944, and the Baker Act of 1988.  All of them transformed education in UK schools.  Now artificial intelligence is about to achieve a transformation no less profound.  It will achieve more for social mobility than any laws passed by governments could hope to do.