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I have attended a whole string of events on social mobility over the past couple of weeks, which have left me deeply confused about what people mean when they use the phrase. Becky Francis has made this point in a previous blog, but the social mobility is such a dominant theme in education at the moment that it bears some further examination.

At a seminar organised by us examining arguments for national and local curriculum in relation to social justice, esteemed educational sociologist Professor Michael Young said that he was 'appalled' at the way politicians use the term 'social mobility'. If we actually mean 'social mobility' when we say it, he argued, then we have to accept that as some people move up, others move down. Especially when we're talking (as has Michael Gove) about more students on Free School Meals going to Oxbridge. How can it be otherwise, unless Oxford and Cambridge are going to expand to accommodate all that untapped potential without displacing the children at independent schools who would otherwise have taken those places? There needs to be 'space at the top' if more children are to rise to the top.  The same applies if we take social mobility to mean people moving between income quintiles, i.e. whether there is movement between children born to parents in the bottom 20% income bracket to the top 20% of earners when they grow up. This relative quintiles game is, by definition, a zero sum game.

When I brought this up at an event looking at the implications for social mobility of the government's White Paper on Higher Education such thinking was branded 'deeply worrying' by several participants, including MPs. The idea that social mobility was ever a 'zero sum game' was rejected outright. I could see what they mean: research was cited showing that overall, students leaving Higher Education tended to access and retain employment with higher returns in status and in income than their parents had. So it seemed that they were talking about social mobility in terms of doing better than your parents did and I should have been clearer that I was not. This inter-generational kind of social mobility implies that overall there will be more degree educated people in good jobs than there were in previous generations. But does it also accept that those who were born to less well off families are still in less well paid jobs than those born to better off families, even if more of those jobs are degree-level and better paid?

Let's just do a thought experiment: realistically, if students from all backgrounds performed more or less equivalently at school, and the proportions going to univeristy, to Russell Group Universities and to Oxbridge fairly reflected the make-up of society, then families used to the idea that their children will do relatively well and go to one of the best universities in the land (because that's what children from families like theirs do), would need to get used to the idea that only the exceptionally bright will do so. The 7% of the population who attend an independent school would commandeer just 7% of the places at universities of all types (as opposed to nearly half at the most selective they do currently). Unless the number of university places is going to continue to rise (which looks unlikely in the short term) then more and more students from ordinary or disadvantaged backgrounds taking a finite number of places would mean fewer and fewer better off students getting a place. At all. Any any university. To take it to its logical conclusion, a genuine meritocracy might mean that the image conjured up by the term 'NEET' might have to change. The relationship between university degrees and top careers might also change, but this is pure, perhaps cynical, conjecture. Anyway, I can't see it happening, but I hope that the point is clear.

This ambiguity in implications of the term 'social mobility' makes it a very useful hard-to-argue-with phrase for politicians to use, without having to acknowledge the implications of what success in these policies might look like for different sectors of society: one can see why they do it. But it also makes it extremely difficult for the rest of us to know what on earth they mean, and I think we need to start asking them to clarify. Do they mean 'we want children to do better than their parents did so that society is better off overall' (everyone wins), or do they mean 'we want all children to do as well regardless of background so that disadvantage can no longer be conferred between parents and their children but neither can advantage'? Because it matters: for our view of the sincerity of the attempts to tackle entrenched disadvantage suffered by some communities, and for the shape of the policies employed to do so.

One thing's for certain:  whatever politicians mean, their policies often have little to do with promoting social equality, or enabling those at the bottom to 'catch up' faster than those at the top race ahead which is, arguably, an alternative meaning of the term 'social mobility' but is better captured by other phrases now out of vogue, such as 'social justice' or 'social inclusion'. And, as Michael Young argued, for countries like Finland and Sweden it is social equality which makes social mobility far easier to achieve.


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