Social Mobility

by Harry on October 9, 2003

I just learned (rather late) that this week’s Times Educational Supplement is carrying this Platform piece by me. Since I don’t have a subscription I can’t read it, but assume it is a nicely edited version of the following.

The meritocratic ideal has a powerful grip on contemporary politicians. It seems deeply unfair that some people have worse chances of getting at the unequally distributed rewards of our society, just because they are born into households that, themselves, have done worse in that distribution. The meritocratic ideal commands that one’s social class of origin should have no impact on one’s chances for success.
But in fact very few societies have come anywhere close to approximating the ideal. In Britain, for example, although the proportion of working class children attending university has steadily increased over the past 50 years, this has only been in line with the increase in the proportion of 18 year olds attending university. Relatively, it is as great an advantage to be born well in 2003 as it was in 1953.
Former secretary of state for education, Estelle Morris, frequently stated her ambition to eliminate the connection between social class origin and educational success (and, by extension, success in later life). But any efforts to achieve this through education policy face two serious problems. First, it is incredibly hard to compensate for disadvantage through education — it is easier and more effective simply to eliminate disadvantage at its source. Second, any such efforts involve targeting resources at the least advantaged. But targeting the least advantaged in the state schools runs the risk that wealthy parents will feel they are getting a bad deal — and defect to the private sector. This would be undesirable because the involvement of more advantaged parents and children in the state system is generally thought to benefit the least advantaged. Three examples: i) if the most stimulating students are creamed off into the private sector, that sector becomes correspondingly more attractive to the best teachers; ii) lower achieving children benefit from being taught (well) alongside higher achieving children; iii) as schools come increasingly to rely on fund raising to top up their own resources, they benefit from having parents who are more capable of raising (and donating) funds.
The trick, then, for the policymaker concerned with social mobility, is to design policies which simultaneously target the least advantaged and lower achieving children, while reassuring the middle class parent. What policies do this will depend on the motives of the middle class parents: obviously those who simply want to maximize their own children’s prospects cannot be reassured by anything that helps out the least advantaged.
But one recent study and two new books suggest it might be easier than some fear to reassure middle class parents. A new study conducted by the IPPR finds that in London, despite increasing prosperity especially among the wealthy, the percentage of children attending private schools has barely changed in the last two decades. This hardly indicates a predisposition to flight by parents in the state system.
Then there is Adam Swift’s How Not to Be A Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent. After providing a brilliant argument for the prohibition of private schools, Swift explains why it might nevertheless be morally permitted – even required – to send one’s child to one if they do exist. The reason is that one might have an obligation to send one’s child to an adequately good school, and the state may not provide that option (in fact, if private schooling is widespread, it is likely not to provide that option for everyone). This is not, he understands, everyone’s motivation for using private schools. But it is an acceptable motivation.
Finally, Stephen Ball’s Class Strategies and the Education Market contains extensive interviews with middle class parents deciding whether or not to ‘go private’. Strikingly, many of his interviewees are, indeed, motivated by the concern to ensure that their own child just gets an adequate school: some go private, and others do not. Even some who do go private bemoan the fact that they are doing so, and express regret that there is not a school with a representative socio-economic mix available to their child. They believe that the available state school is not just not good enough for their child, but not good enough for any child.
Why does this help? Consider the following targetting policies. First, alter the funding formula so that all children eligible for free school meals bring with them three times the normal amount of per pupil funding. This helps to counteract the tendency of schools to prefer middle class to less advantaged children, and ensures that, if low income children do still concentrate into particular schools, they are at least better resourced. Second, alter the structure of ‘new start’ schools so that they have, for the first 3 years, guaranteed class sizes of no more than 15, rising to 22 over the next 4 years, so that lower class sizes benefit the least advantaged, and are enough lower as to have some real impact.
Both these policies target the least advantaged. But what do they do for the middle class parents who are abandoning the schools for private sector, taking with them their political clout, personal resources, and the social capital of their children? Well, for some of those parents, those who are seeking unfair advantages for their children, or who cannot bear to have their precious children mix with the lower orders, it will do nothing. But for the large number of parents who simply want an adequately good school for their child it might do quite a lot. If ‘new start’ schools had those kinds of guarantees they might be quite attractive to parents whose other choices are very expensive private schools or under-resourced state schools. If low-income children brought a lot of resources with them the schools and classrooms they inhabit will be better able to provide a decent learning atmosphere for them and for anyone else who is there with them. More schools and classrooms would meet the required threshold of adequacy, and more middle class parents might choose them, to the benefit of the least advantaged.
So the policymaker’s dilemma might be less demanding than it seemed. Still, its worth remembering that we don’t know that much about how to use schooling to counteract disadvantage, and don’t have many examples of it doing so. Social mobility is easier to achieve through policies which simply eliminate social disadvantage — high employment and steeply progressive taxation. These policies simultaneously make social mobility less important, by equalizing people’s life chances and lowering the stakes in the lottery of whom you are born to.



debbi 10.10.03 at 6:19 pm

Question from the USA: what is a “new start” school?


harry 10.10.03 at 6:33 pm

It’s a school which, having been shut down because it was deemed ‘failing’ (by the govenrment) has been re-opened, usually with a new management team (principals, etc) and mainly new teachers but…. and here’s the kicker… basically the same composition of students. There aren’t a great number of them, and they are all (I think) in inner-cities: and the record of improvement is not that great.
cheers, Harry


Kragen Sitaker 10.10.03 at 7:48 pm

You write:

Well, for some of those parents, those who are seeking unfair advantages for their children, or who cannot bear to have their precious children mix with the lower orders, it will do nothing. But for the large number of parents who simply want an adequately good school for their child it might do quite a lot.

I’m a little puzzled by the dichotomy you propose between, on one hand, classists and “those who seek unfair advantages for their children”, and on the other hand, “those who simply want an adequately good school for their child.” In my view, those who simply want an adequately good school for their children are unfit to parent; if they aren’t willing to go to great lengths to educate their children as well as possible, they shouldn’t be parents in the first place. It is unfortunate that I do not have the money or time to provide all the nation’s children with an excellent education myself, but I think the nation will be noticeably better if I take the time and money I have to educate at least my own family as well as possible — where I can have a greater effect, in any event. I think this deserves praise, rather than condemnation as “seeking unfair advantage”, and I think it often implies private schooling when you have the means, or more often homeschooling or unschooling.

For the record, I have no children as yet — only brothers and sisters; and of my primary education, I attended pre-K, kindergarten, part of first grade, and fourth and fifth grades in private schools, and the rest of the time in public schools. I think my parents did the best they could to foster my education, but I wish they’d been able to do more.


dippy 10.10.03 at 8:49 pm

fresh start?


gwendolyn high 10.10.03 at 9:25 pm

My sisters’ and my primary education spanned the available US spectrum. Each had its perks and potholes. Private/parochial offered the best educational resources and opportunities (but a skewed, archaic and myopic view of the world). Public schools provided the most practical experience of dealing with humans (but almost no academic value), and the under homeschooling I gained the most enduring understanding that I am ultimately responsible for not only what I know but what I do with what I know.

Having lived all three, I would say that none should be expected to “cure” the issue of social mobility nor any other sub-optimal condition populations encounter. In this sense, society might be considered merely another kind of ecosystem where the degree of ‘success’ achieved by each individual is going to be result of all the factors acting on that individual and the consequences of the choices of all the other individuals with which one interacts.

For my youngest sister, homeschooling was definitely not the optimum educational option. I hated public school, but learned critical lessons there. It seems to me that the most successful educational format/content/structure must almost by definition be tailored to the individual. Yet all things achieved/implemented/imposed through the manifestation of Society (government) are inherently generic compromises. Doubtless, some compromises are better than others and to seek to achieve them, as Harry has explored, is a laudable and necessary process. My experience suggests, however, that without persistent responsible action of parents and students (above all other actors), there can be no successful preparation for life, much less for mobility.

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