Ask most people what their fundamental life goals are and the responses you are likely to receive are ‘moving up in the world’ or ‘a better life for my children’. The prospects for these objectives had improved for the last generation, however, according to the Sutton Trust, social mobility in Britain is at its worst in decades. In a recent article, Sir Peter Lampl states the UK props up the table of developed nations on ‘children earning more than their parents’. Social immobility is reinforced at every juncture of a young person’s career, with each restraint having a compounding effect. We can improve this situation with easy enhancements to our education system. Mixing socio-economic backgrounds from an early age, improving careers advice and raising aspiration are key aspects of creating social mobility. Making these areas better will ensure we do not reinforce social immobility at every rung of the career ladder; our young people will then be hindered by ability alone, as opposed to socio-economic background.
Parental aspiration is a key limiter to the achievement of a young person, and this is reinforced by peer groups. Mixing socio-economic backgrounds at an earlier stage will help to remove this reinforcement. Pupils of parents who expect them to attend university are four times more likely to gain entrance, as are students whose friends want to attend university. Parents from low socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to aspire for their offspring to attend university, partly because they didn’t go themselves and don’t see the benefits. By interspersing disadvantaged pupils with their richer peers, we expose them to pupils whose parents are likely to have higher aspirations. Your school and peer group are the foundation of your career. Raising aspiration in this environment is the first key to raising social mobility.
Parents of lower income are also less likely to have the knowledge required to guide their children towards achieving such aspirations. The careers advice a young person receives at school then becomes of paramount importance, as the student will not receive this at home. Parents of higher income are likely to have circumnavigated this process before, knowing how to access the information required to plan out a career. They are also more likely to have a network of good contacts for advice. Pupils from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods are twice as likely to attend university than the poorest fifth, and schools with the national quality mark in careers education produce 2.5% more pupils with 5 good GCSEs. Accessing quality careers advice provides disadvantaged pupils with the tools required to realise social mobility.
The attitude of teachers towards a pupil also shapes what a young person perceives they can achieve. Teacher perception of a child’s ability is often strongly linked to how well they behave; children who behave poorly are often labelled as academically poor. Child behaviour is strongly linked to socio-economic background, with disadvantaged pupils more likely to display signs of misbehaviour. A mixture of factors contribute to this, including diet, maternal mental health, quality of material possessions and parental conflict. Teachers then reinforce a child’s feeling of inferiority, through admonishing their behaviour and having low aspiration for that child. Training teachers to maintain an attitude of high expectation and aspiration for their pupils will have a positive effect. Pupils will feel they can achieve and raise their behaviour in accordance to the teacher’s expectations. Maintaining such an attitude in an environment of poor behaviour is difficult, and as a result, teachers require strong leadership, training, and support. However, by having high aspirations for their pupils and showing them that they can “reach for the stars” and social mobility will improve.
Britain’s poor social mobility has to change. By reinforcing barriers to social mobility at every decision point in a child’s career, we are damaging our nation. Interspersing socio-economic backgrounds at school will raise aspiration, providing great careers advice to young people will show them how to realise this aspiration, and reinforcement through teacher behaviour will show young people how to achieve this aspiration. Improved social mobility is achievable, only if we create the systems to achieve it.