Education and social mobility – the missing link, or red herring?

This week the IOE held the first in our ‘What if…’ events series, which challenges thought leaders to bring some fresh and radical thinking to key debates in education. We kicked off with education’s role in relation to social mobility, asking the panel ‘What if… we really wanted to further social mobility through education?’

First up was Kate Pickett of Spirit Level fame. She rejected the very premise of the question, highlighting the greater impact of wider, pervasive inequalities. Nevertheless, she saw some scope for education policy to help lessen those inequalities – banning private education, randomising school admissions and ending student fees were a few of her recommendations.

Next was James Croft, chair of the Centre for Education Economics. James was more sanguine about what could be achieved through education and ‘working with the grain’ of the existing system. He wanted to see a much more open system, clearer pathways, and better information and guidance. He also wanted a less restrictive curriculum and accountability system, and a ‘Pupil Premium-plus-plus’.

Diane Reay, Professor of Education at Cambridge, rejected the social mobility agenda, regarding it as diminishing education and merely propping up the status quo. She argued for an emphasis on people being able to live a life of dignity and culture whatever their position. As a first step, she suggested, this would require a revalorising of technical knowledges.

Finally, David Willetts made the case for wider access to higher education – and adult education – as the most important component in enabling people to get on (and for an end to university league tables that reward prior attainment). He posited the risk as he saw it in the Left’s position – that one ends up saying people should just stay where they are.

And we had some insightful comments and questions from our audience – on the challenge that wage inequalities pose to society valuing everyone’s contribution, on the often London-centric nature of the social mobility debates, on grammar schools, and on how to break the dominance of private schools, the latter prompting reflections on the role of the ‘good state’ and the ‘good parent’ in taking a lead to build a very different society.

It was, as they say, a fascinating and wide-ranging debate, citing R. H. Tawney and Friedrich Hayek (and, inevitably, Finland – the country, that is).  If anything united the speakers it was the case for broadening out what constitutes educational success beyond the academic. Gratifyingly, the elephant in the room of downward mobility, always absent from the political rhetoric, also got a mention. Listen for yourself here and look out for our future ‘What if…’ debates.

Photo: Institute of Education by Philip James via Creative Commons


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Posted in Education policy, Social sciences and social policy
2 comments on “Education and social mobility – the missing link, or red herring?
  1. educationstate says:

    “Thought leaders”? Are any of these thoughts new? And if they’re not, if this debate is simply going over old ground, isn’t the more pressing issue why the old ground is still being debated? Debating the old ground seems to suit some more than others, doesn’t it?

  2. Elephant in the room for me is why Higher Education academics do all the talking, debating and discussion of the issues yet can’t seem to find a solution to wider access and participation barriers in their own institutions. How many Vice Chancellors, Principals, Directors and senior leaders come from deprived backgrounds? How many come from under-represented backgrounds?

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