Addressing the real problem of social mobility in education


Social mobility is a desirable aspect of a modern society and it can be broadly defined as the ability of individuals from underprivileged backgrounds to climb the socioeconomic ladder. Education is both an important and necessary determinant of future earnings[1]. If we are to tackle social immobility, then we must have an education system that is inclusive and not divisive. That being said, it is a problem that the UK cannot seem to solve.

A commonly accepted measurement of social mobility is to compare the academic performance of children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) with their ineligible counterparts, throughout the duration of their school career.

Let us first look at the attainment gap[2], which reveals a telling story:

graph 1

Percentage achieving ‘Level 4’ in English and Maths at KS2, age 11

graph 2

Percentage achieving ‘A* to C’ in English and Maths at GCSE, age 16

graph 3

Percentage achieving 2+ A-levels, age 19

Across 3 age groups, improvements in social mobility in terms of educational attainment over the past 10 years have been limited – if present at all. Even in light of the slightest signs of improvement, it would take decades to reach parity – and even this is uncertain amidst the unnerving cycle of politics. However regardless of political persuasion, it is difficult to argue against the fundamental fact that a premium for economically advantaged children exists., or in other words, a handicap on the underprivileged.

The difference amongst political commentators arises from the way in which we wish to tackle this problem.


A leftist approach on two fronts

Do nothing - Sweden is a better society to be lower class in[3]

The American Dream is a mere illusion and we should learn from the Swedish. Our futures are determined by our surnames and those of aristocratic descent are destined for a life of luxury. For those of us that are born into less privileged families, we need to accept our fate and it is the moral duty of the state to protect us from the Five Giant Evils[4].

A National Education Service[5]

Enter Jeremy Corbyn. As we have a lifelong healthcare service in the NHS, it is only right that we have one for education: the NES. By modelling the NES on the same building blocks that founded the NHS, we should “invest in learning from cradle to grave”. This will provide the opportunity for anyone throughout their lives to learn new skills or retrain.


Dismantling one argument at a time

We should indeed protect the most vulnerable in society, but following a Nordic-style system of state protection could well prove counterintuitive and lead to an upward debt spiral, burdening generations ahead. Transitioning into a vastly different model is costly and time-consuming, with no guarantee of success. Whilst unequal distribution of goods is a natural product of capitalism, we can still limit its impact. But trying to mitigate the consequences of failed mobility means we lose sight of the real problem at hand. By doing this, we create more problems for ourselves in the form of state-dependency and so forth.

Indeed, education is a right and not a privilege, which is why it should always remain free in one form or another. However, the NES is one step too far, and Corbyn’s proposition of an NHS-style education system is a dangerous one, given that healthcare costs spiralled from the get-go (and in fact exponentially) up until recent measures were implemented to curb this trend.

graph 4

In times when our government should be austere, such a policy would reverse the progress we have made over the past 5 years. Corbyn’s utopian vision of the NES is ultimately unsustainable and it could very well do more harm than good without yielding noticeable improvements in social mobility.


A call for structural reform

Our struggle is not financial, and therefore money will not solve the problem of failed mobility. Instead, it is structural and lies within the system itself. From an anecdotal perspective, grammar schools are a great vehicle to climb the socioeconomic ladder – but not in its current form. It is true that often the advocates of grammar schools are those who themselves have benefitted from such experiences, and there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that such an opportunity for upward mobility is not widespread enough. That is not to say that grammar schools are per se bad for social mobility, but rather their current system of selection is fundamentally flawed and is in drastic need of change.

Hadow’s The Education of the Adolescent (1926)[6] formed the principle of primary and secondary school segregation at age 11. On this premise and with the introduction of the tripartite system of education, grammar school entry was determined on the basis of 11-plus performances. Of the remaining grammar schools in the country, selection is still being conducted in similar fashion. The problem with this method is that the age of 11 is arbitrary, out-dated and untested to any sophisticated academic standard. In any case, the age is merely a historical accident more than anything else, yet this issue is often very little discussed.

Rigorous academic research needs to be undertaken to find a fair age to test children’s true, underlying intellectual maturity. In fact, evidence finds that choosing an incorrect age can be detrimental to a child’s development and in doing so inhibit the ability for the underprivileged to climb the social ladder. Research additionally finds that failing the 11-plus, for many, has proven to be psychologically scarring by limiting self-confidence. As a result, many do not dedicate themselves as much to education to avoid remembering previous failures. This characteristic can be detrimental to professional development in the working world, thereby placing a lifelong glass ceiling on career trajectory.[7]

The consequence of selecting an incorrect age makes hiring tutors for entrance exams an attractive investment for the middle and upper classes. This means that in addition to academic research on intellectual maturity, there is also a need to tutor-proof entrance exams, otherwise there will become – as there is to some degree today – a culture of testing on the basis of wealth over intelligence. By levelling the playing field, only then can education become merit-based.


Steps forward

We have discussed a variety of evidence which suggests that there is a need to modify our current education system and in particular we must introduce a fairer way of testing children on the basis of merit and not wealth. In our current system, the underprivileged are subject to an unfair and unmeritocratic method of selection. Statistics show the extent to which this is true, with students of grammar schools being less likely to be eligible for Free School Meals than those in non-selective schools. The Sutton Trust found that less than 3% of grammar school students were eligible, which is meagre compared to the non-grammar average of 18%.

Only once these criteria are satisfied will grammar schools be a true vehicle for social mobility and in doing so the educational attainment handicap of underprivileged children can be reduced. The answer is reform.

We have justified the existence of grammar schools and what they can have the potential to achieve if executed correctly. If things stay as they are, though, those who are unsuccessful in grammar school selection are left behind in comprehensive schools, destined for academic underachievement. This is driven by a combination of the psychological scarring aforementioned and the low quality of teaching standards in comprehensive schools.

A free economy and strong communities honour the dignity of every person, rewarding effort with justice, promoting upward mobility, and building solidarity among citizens.”

-Paul Ryan, US politician

In order to achieve this and contrary to what Corbyn and many others believe, the education sector needs to move away from the hands of the state. The introduction of academy schools under firstly New Labour and furthered by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition was a step in the right direction. By taking schools out of local authority red tape regulations, schools were given a greater degree of autonomy leading to improvements in teaching standards. This is because free choice over teacher pay structures means that good teachers are rewarded adequately. Not only this, but also the greater funding from central government and private institutions can be invested into providing the best facilities. Autonomy over one’s curriculum additionally allows for a flexible learning process – one that is conducive to innovative teaching techniques and allows for more creative thinking amongst students.

Consequently, academies improve the quality of a school. Our current government can go further by converting more struggling schools into academies in areas of local deprivation. This is a simple method to reduce the premium, as there is evidence to suggest a positive correlation between poorer students attending poorly performing schools. Indeed, research has shown that academies have shown positive effects on social mobility[9]. Since the Education Act of 2010, most academies have been ‘converters’, whereby previously successful schools have become autonomous. Given that these schools are located disproportionately in rich regions, much more needs to be done to support the conversion of underperforming schools into the alternative ‘sponsored’ academies.

graph 5

If less advantaged children remain unable to make the most of our education system, there is no way of achieving a socially mobile society. Urgent action is needed to curb the trend and it is important that the poorest in society receive a good and just education, as a means to escape poverty and improve their living standards.

Scientific research suggests that a child’s brain development is most malleable when youngest, which implies that changes need to be made at a primary level too to lift the performance of state-funded schools to that of private ones. Whilst primary schools have been given the opportunity to convert to academies, this has not been widespread enough for one reason or another, as seen below.

graph 6

What’s worse is that even with the lack of primary academies, the trend of underperforming schools not being converted proportionally to sponsored academies is again prevalent at primary level. The number of converters far exceeds the number of sponsored academies at both primary and secondary level (as seen in the table above previously).


Lessons from Iceland

We can learn of lot from the Icelandic model of education, where the level of social mobility, as measured by the influence of parental socioeconomic background on a child’s secondary education, is the highest of all OECD countries (country code ISL).

graph 7

We look to why this may be the case and pay particular attention to the Icelandic education system below:

graph 8

Academic separation is not undertaken until 16 and in doing so a level playing field is created. ‘Compulsory’ schooling from 6 to 16 ensures that each student has gone through the same educational experience. In fact, most of the Scandinavian countries follow this type of education system, which is perhaps why they fare so well. Whilst greater mobility may be the case because of the high levels of educational spending, its structure is also something that stands out as different to the UK’s and something that is worth considering.

As mentioned, the first major difference is that academic separation starts at the age of 16.

Secondly, even though Iceland’s education spending as a percentage of GDP is in line with other Nordic countries, which have previously been higher than average, what makes Iceland so mobile is its special focus on pre-primary and primary schooling. This type of schooling is an integral part of child development, as we have previously established.

It is not the case that Iceland’s educational spending is extreme, given that its average expenditure per student per year at $9180 is lower than the OECD average of $9487[9]. Even more interestingly, Iceland spends a lot more on pre-primary and primary schooling than secondary and tertiary schooling and this is reflected upon in the table below.

graoh 9

This has resulted in lower than average class sizes in infancy years, where in 2011 Iceland had the lowest student-to-teacher ratio throughout OECD countries in pre-primary and primary schools at 6:1 and 10:1 respectively. As a comparison, the UK average public primary school class has 26 students – 5 higher than the OECD average. Coupled with the fact that British primary school teachers work for fewer hours than average, there is a great deal that has to change in the current primary education structure to ensure that children in the most important period of development are receiving enough individual attention.

graph 10

Source: 2010, OECD (Argentina, China, Indonesia) and UNESCO Institute for Statistics, World Education Indicators programme

As such, Corbyn’s NES plans are unfounded and unsustainable. Given the UK’s circumstances, a spending increase can only be justified if spent on primary schooling. The UK averages higher education expenditure across primary, secondary and tertiary schooling than the OECD average, much of which was fuelled by New Labour. Despite this, the annual spend per pre-primary student is only $6493 compared to the average of $6670. A better approach would be to shift spending from secondary and tertiary schools to pre-primary and primary. Disregarding the lack of spending in pre-primary schooling for a moment, the lack of teaching hours and overcrowded classrooms makes it all the more necessary that the education sector drives for efficiency gains through privatisation.

There is no quick-fix solution to social immobility, but with fundamental structural reform in our education system, long-overdue progress can be made.


Sources cited