An ‘aspirational’ society is still a divided one

‘Poorer children making less progress’ – hardly the most surprising ‘news’ the BBC has ever reported.  “It’s a tricky one, the old class divide” says the DfE in not so many words, “but we’ve got the solution: Social Mobility”.

In a subsection of this article entitled ‘breaking down barriers’, a government spokesman is quoted, this time in the context of lifting the grammar school ban, as advocating  a “fair chance” for students from poorer backgrounds.  “A fair chance at, what, exactly?”  I would like to ask.  “Transitioning from the lower to middle classes”, presumably is the answer.  “Oh, jolly good” is for some reason assumed to be the natural reaction.  “So those poor old working-class people can aspire to be a bit more like the upper-middle-class rest of us?  Wonderful!  As long as they can name at least three classical composers and agree that Brexit is the worst thing ever, they’ll count amongst the educated, and live happily ever after.”

Except that has absolutely nothing to do with ‘breaking down barriers’, does it?  In fact, the whole idea of social mobility rather relies upon the existence of a well-pronounced class divide.  And on nice, sturdy barriers between us and them, regardless of what ladders, tunnels or revolving doors we attach to those barriers.

The wonders of political spin have been at work for eons on this notion of ‘social mobility’.  I imagine that, at some point in the dark and distant past, a think-tank was invited to address a cabinet meeting on what to do about convincing people that it was alright for wealth to be so disproportionately shared as it is.  “How do we convince people this is ok, when it’s clearly a very bad deal for them?” asked a conflicted government minister.  “Invite them all to join the wealthy.  We could even make it happen for a few of them.  Nobody will notice the perpetual injustice of the class divide because they’ll all think they’ve chosen their place in it”.  Rapturous applause, meeting adjourned, rebellion quelled.

We in education are constantly discussing how best to ‘raise aspirations’ amongst young people.  This is an idea and a term that could (and no doubt often does) mean something so wonderful: ‘you don’t have to be a drug addict’, ‘you could be someone who is loved’, ‘you can be happy’, for example.  But, let’s be more honest, here’s what it means to politicians and to far too many school leaders and teachers: ‘you could earn lots of money’.

social mobility picture.png

If this base materialism weren’t sad enough, there is another problem with it.  Statistically, taking into account society as a whole, it’s untrue.  We can’t afford for there to be more people in the upper classes.  In order for our socio-economic pyramid to be maintained, only a minority can be held at the top of it, where we would like the majority to ‘aspire’.  This is why our game of social climbing is one of snakes as well as ladders.  Whilst it’s harder to muster sympathy for those who start out at the privileged end of the spectrum, for every under-privileged child we inspire to climb the ladder, another privileged child (or two, during economic recession), must slip down a snake.

I don’t tell my students ‘you can be more than a shelf-stacker’.  I tell them ‘it’s ok to be a shelf-stacker’.  As it stands, supermarkets still need people to put things on shelves, and most of us benefit from that having been done quite regularly.  Who am I to say they are less valuable to society or, by implication, less valuable as people, than I am as a teacher?  We don’t all need, indeed it is impractical for us all to have, aspirations to top the pyramid; we need aspirations to treat each other equally regardless of our profession, our accents and, yes, our educational backgrounds.  I teach children who have aspirations to be happy, to make others laugh, to enjoy life, and to be good people.  They’re not inspired by maths, and do not particularly ‘aspire’ to pass it at GCSE.  What’s heart-breaking is not that they don’t all want to be accountants, it’s that our society will care little for them as a result.

I wonder what it will take for us as a nation to stop trying to solve inequality by offering people the chance to be amongst those who benefit from it, and start addressing the real evils that are: stark disparity in pay between industries; ghettoization of the poor; the significantly poorer working conditions for the lower paid; an engrained and too-often-educationally-endorsed outlook of inferiority of practical trades; and, perhaps worst of all, the sense of financial entitlement of the educated ‘professionals’ amongst whom I am often embarrassed to count myself.

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