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Jenni Russell wrote a refreshing column in the Evening Standard yesterday, questioning the direct link between achievement at school and social mobility. She uses the example of an acquaintance who came from a disadvantaged and chaotic home, but was succeeding at school, taking A Levels, having entered a grammar school. Nevertheless, at age 17 she came to realise that "even if she did brilliantly at university, she was never going to earn enough to own a flat in outer London or leap free of student debt...The risks she was being asked to take on terrified her."

Both Michael Wilshaw and Michael Gove made speeches at the independent school Brighton College last week, outlining the unacceptability of the dominance of independently educated students in all elite professions and walks of life, including the arts and sport. The conclusions drawn were that our schools and teachers must have higher expectations of disadvantaged students, and work towards helping them to achieve better GCSEs and A Levels.

One can't argue with the fact that we can predict how well a child will do at school more or less accurately by asking how much their parents earn (and this applies across the salary range of parents - not just to those at the very top or bottom) is wrong.

However, it does not necessarily follow that the life chances and future incomes of young people would be equalised were this difference in achievement at school to be eradicated, as is so often assumed. This is why Jenni Russell's argument was so refreshing, for it interrogated the relationship between the unacceptable inequality in school achievement and the unacceptable inequality in society. For to argue that a better distribution of formal qualifications does not an equal society make, does not mean that it is any less unacceptable that the distribution of educational attainment is so skewed. Educational equality and social equality are just not the same thing.

I've argued for a thought experiment in which achievement at school is evenly distributed between social classes in a previous blog. I won't rehearse it in detail here, but it asks the reader to pretend that the income of parents had no bearing on the qualifications achieved at school. What would this do to the relationship between formal qualifications and the labour market? Would you find the children of higher professionals who got only average GCSEs working in a local shop, driving a bus, delivering the mail or cleaning a hospital ward? Would you find those whose parents struggled to make ends meet while they were growing up represented among the higher professions in any kind of proportionate numbers? The evidence from Tower Hamlets suggests not: Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, highlights how young people from the borough with the highest rate of child poverty in the country are failing to translate their university degrees into meaningful employment: "it quickly became clear that many were making basic mistakes in their job applications and, crucially, they lacked social networks and confidence...What is particularly shocking is that despite the rapid expansion in higher education, so little progress has been made. While some working-class children have broken through, those in the middle and upper-middle classes have maintained their dominance of the professions."

As Jenni points out, the myth of social mobility is necessary because "without it our society stops looking legitimate". But while society is unequal enough that for their children to live in the bottom 10% is sufficiently unthinkable for the top 10% of parents then we will never have anything approaching a properly mobile society. Both because of the belief among those struggling at the bottom that the qualifications they have been promised are a passport to a comfortable life is in fact a myth and that things will always be more difficult for them than for others (as in the case of Jenni's acquaintance); and because of the sharp elbows of those at the top who by hook or by crook will ensure that their offspring have the advantage in the race (as in the case of most people I know and can hardly blame).

So are schools really being challenged to shift the relationship between how much a child's parents earn and the eventual place that child takes in society? Or are they being asked to reduce the long tail of underachievement in our system to make our society as a whole better qualified and more competitive? If the latter, then this is not social mobility, at least not in the sense of ones background being irrelevant to ones prospects. If the former, then it will take far more than good GCSEs to crack that nut. Which in turn means we need to think again about what it is we'd like schools to be doing for young people, how their performance should be measured, and what the actual barriers to achieving equality through the education system (rather than merely within it) are.


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