The battle for social mobility

Today sees the publication of Alan Milburn’s Panel on Fair Access to the Professions final report. The following are two of the earliest responses in the media with a few observations of my own.

The battle for social mobility
Lee Elliot Major,, Monday 20 July 2009
“The failure to turn around the UK’s dismal level of social mobility may haunt Labour even more than Iraq or Afghanistan”

Interesting report that locates the solution to the lack of social mobility in the UK in the education system. The last time social mobility was at a high level in the UK was with the enormous increase in white collar and managerial work created by the expansion of the public sector and a rapidly growing corporate sector after the 2nd World War, all supported by a consensus around Keynesian economic policy. While the labour market is shrinking, as it is now, even a successful policy to increase social mobility will only rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic or (for those that haven’t seen the film) shuffle the pack. Every move up from the bottom10% means a someone else will take the place. There will always be a bottom 10% of course.

Professions ‘reserved for rich’
BBC News Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Some rather mixed messages from this report so I guess I’ll have to get around to reading it! On the one hand it wants pupils from schools in underprivileged areas to be able to compete with the children of educated middle-class and professional families. This will entail finding a way to find surrogate forms of some aspects of the social capital they lack. One strategy offered is to create some State provided ‘pushy parent’ equivalent. However, it’s not evident how a surrogate network of informal contacts, well placed relatives, the ability to provide resources and engage with children’s learning (i.e. ‘discussing’ assessment work) will be provided or the money for foreign visits and cultural events, let alone the mindset that says “the world is mine and I deserve it”. All this is pre-university entrance. On the other hand there is an implication that HE institutions should provide the support required by less well prepared students to close any deficit gap.  I suspect that many Universities would say this is not our job and admissions based purely on merit would not require this anyway. The other issue that warrants attention is that a perception that large numbers of perfectly well qualified children of middle-class and professional families are being excluded due to positive discrimination for the children of the less educated and wealthy could lead to an intensification of exclusionary tactics and a reinforcement of private education and the growth of private universities. The networks of power operate outside of the education system just as effectively as within. The proposed policy seems based on the idea that education is the key. It is important but there are many other powerful process that determine access to the plum jobs in addition to educational achievement. A cursory inspection of history and sociology demonstrates that the powerful are past masters at preserving their advantage in the face of historical and legislative change.

Education, social control, and subversion

Thinking about the role of the University today and our current project to develop a public sociology web site, I was reminded of a blog post I did about 3 years ago in March 2006 ( which I have reproduced below.

Recently there has been some very interesting  discussion about the  purposes of education on Harold Jarche’s blog  Education’s Three Conflicting Pillars and a related post by Christopher Sessum, Competing Paradigms and Educational Reform. This has got me thinking once more about the complex relationship between the State and the education system and the ambivalent position of the teacher.

Personally I tend to favour the term ‘discourse’ rather than paradigm. Discourses are processes. Discourses are not monolithic and coherent. They are made up of overlaying and intersecting ideas that are often in competition, and connect many different forms of knowledge and truth claims. There are usually different agendas in play promoted by competing power brokers and power seekers. They form the intersections of political, economic, ideological and ‘scientific’ interests and activities. Particular  ‘discursive formations’ have recognisable boundaries within which, for a while a least, they cohere.  Discourses only gain purchase on the real world and become effective through ‘practices’. Discourses feed into government policy. This leads, in the case of educational policy, to a number of practices that implement  the policy through laws and regulations and funding procedures.  And at the end of the day it is schools, colleges, universities and their staff and students that one way or another implement the discourse informed education policies.

An example of this is the development of the educational discourse that culminated in the Butler Education Act of 1944 in the UK.  A variety of interlocking and overlapping ideologies and ‘sciences’ informed this discourse based on a variety of different related interests and institutions including educational ideas of the time, the dominant political ideology of the time, Keynesian economic theories and policies, the interests of key sectors of the economy, the psychologist Cyril Burt’s theories on IQ, and a number of other moral and philanthropic ideas. The practical implementation of this educational discourse, via the enactment of the Butler Education Act, was the so-called tripartite secondary education system, selection by the 11+ exam with its IQ testing component, and the creation of three different types of schools that corresponded with three innately different sorts of pupils and the perceived needs of three different sectors of the post WWII labour market. How neat!!.  Each type of school had a different curriculum suited to the supposed different abilities of the students and for their destined location in the labour market. In some respects the different curricula produced, ‘constructed’, three different types of students as specified by the practical implementation of the educational discourse thus showing the discourse to be ‘correct’ – an example of that well known social phenomenon, the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

The above story follows from a more general feature of the link between state education, economic structure and labour market requirements.  In the UK the development of the state education system was intimately linked to the gradual extension of the vote to all working men and the needs of the developing labour market in a rapidly expanding capitalist industrial economy. State education served the needs of the economy not just in terms of the skills required but also the political system – to produce ‘docile bodies’ that accept the distribution of power, the status quo, as legitimate. Political socialisation and social control were key components of state education right from the start. The extension of education to the masses was viewed with deep suspicion by the ‘natural’  and traditional ruling class.  The controlling aspect was seem as crucial to those that begrudgingly conceded that they were having to ‘educate our masters’ – the Duke of Wellington I think. Education has always had the dual role of both enabling and controlling and has always been a double-edged sword. Teaching individuals how to read so they can read the Bible and employers’ instructions always risked the possibility that they would also read subversive pamphlets if available. Whatever the other contradictions and tensions in education today I think this fundamental one between the enabling agenda and the controlling agenda is still very much in evidence. And it makes its presence felt in every bit of curriculum development and in every lecture theatre, tutorial room and classroom.

It is this double edged and contradictory nature of education that gives teachers and educators some opportunities to subvert  the dominant educational discourse. We teach the content of our disciplines and we police students’ conformity to the structures, procedures and expectations of  the institution. But we also help develop the critical and metacognitive skills that can let the genie out of the bottle. Once learning skills have been mastered and students develop a critical awareness of the constructed and provisional nature of much knowledge, then the focus, objectives, content of the learning beyond the institution can be chosen by individuals and communities they are part of.

Radically inclined teachers have a difficult task. We want to help our students achieve in the context of the dominant paradigm as described by Chris, learn the content, pass the exams, reproduce what is required in their assessment essays. This is driven by our desire to help students perform well in assessment and achieve their goals. However, the critical and autonomous learning skills we help students obtain can begin to develop their capacity for personal effectiveness and becoming critical citizens. This is how teachers can both live in and with the dominant paradigm at the same time as subverting it. The paradox is there is no conspiracy here; teaching and learning within the dominant educational discourse, preparing students for the fast changing knowledge and networked society, nurtures in its bosom the seeds of its own critique and subversion.

Or is this a rationalisation of collaboration?