Analysing the data in the recently published Sutton Trust Social Mobility Index* has made me reflect a bit on ‘social mobility’ as a goal of public policy. My conclusion: it’s a worthy but inadequate response to the many injustices and inequalities in our society, a stepping stone which must not be mistaken for the destination.
We’ve all seen the statistics about the class profile of judges, media professionals, Oxbridge students and so on. Increasing social mobility seems to mean improving the proportion of disadvantaged people who can access the well-paid professional careers where they are currently under-represented. This under-representation clearly needs to be corrected and presumably, in a genuinely meritocratic society we would expect the profile of these professions to be close to that of the population as a whole with many more disadvantaged young people moving ‘up’ to take their share of the well paid and influential roles.
Greater social mobility is clearly preferable to its opposite. Social immobility implies a society where your birth determines your destiny, where there is no movement between classes and where the child of an unskilled worker is doomed to remain unskilled themselves. Also, there can be no doubt that education is a key engine of such mobility.
I have spent my whole career helping disadvantaged young people gain the knowledge and skills to be successful and ‘get on’. Promoting social mobility has been my job for over 30 years and I’m proud to lead the college which sends more disadvantaged young people to university than any other sixth form in England (more on this here).
So is this enough? I don’t think it is.
First of all because education on its own cannot address the unequal distribution of power and influence, the discrimination and the networks of privilege which shore up the many inequalities in our society; whether based on class, ethnicity or gender. Disadvantaged young people with high educational achievement still face more barriers to mobility than their more privileged peers.
Secondly, because the promise of upward mobility in a highly unequal society does nothing to challenge the structure of that inequality. It may even legitimise it by seeming to say: “look, some disadvantaged people have overcome great obstacles to ‘make it’ so it’s your own fault if you can’t too.”
If we focus merely on social mobility as a policy goal, we are settling for an accommodation with the very inequalities we want to overcome. If all we seek is greater mobility (both upwards and downwards) we narrow our ambitions for social change, social justice, greater equality, solidarity and human flourishing for everyone, whether they are moving ‘up’, ‘down’ or ‘sideways’. We miss the bigger goal of a more egalitarian society, a society where every citizen is of equal worth and where the costs of ‘moving down’ and the benefits of ‘moving up’ are not so dramatic.
So, if we want a more equal society, let’s by all means continue to measure, promote and celebrate greater social mobility but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s enough. Goodness knows we still have a long way to go!
*The data and social mobility rankings in this index turn out to be flawed because they don’t include over half of young people who progress to university from colleges rather than schools, but that is another story (here and here).