Life’s not fair. But it could be, if we just tried a lit­tle bit harder

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - EDITORIAL -

Break­ing up is hard to do. But mov­ing up is even harder. So­cial mo­bil­ity is one of the most dif­fi­cult and com­plex prob­lems that this coun­try has to solve. Slap bang at the heart of it sits ed­u­ca­tion. It is the golden ticket to a bet­ter life, as many im­mi­grants will tell you. Both Con­ser­va­tives and Labour are putting it high up the agenda, the former ex­plic­itly, the lat­ter more obliquely by cit­ing fair­ness.

Ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary Jus­tine Green­ing ro­man­ti­cally wants peo­ple to be the “best ver­sion of them­selves that they can be”, while Labour, in its Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Ser­vice, has the more func­tional “ed­u­ca­tion is what em­pow­ers us to re­alise our full po­ten­tial”.

The good news this week is that the gap be­tween dis­ad­van­taged pupils and their peers is clos­ing. The bad news is that it is clos­ing very slowly. If we con­tinue at this snail’s pace, the Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute says that we will lose a fur­ther three gen­er­a­tions be­fore equal­ity of out­comes is re­alised through the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem (see­gap).

What’s crazy is that we put so much ef­fort and money into try­ing to close the gap at the point at which it is the widest. In the 10 years or so of spend­ing £100 mil­lion a year on ini­tia­tives to en­able to poor chil­dren to go to univer­sity, we have barely moved the dial.

Whereas over in nurs­eries such as the Ever­ton Nurs­ery School and Fam­ily Cen­tre, sit­u­ated in the most de­prived ward in Liver­pool, money can go a long, long way. Here, three-year-olds are, on av­er­age,

16 to 20 months be­hind their peers when they start. By four, they have caught up or even sur­passed their peers (see pages 20-23).

If we are se­ri­ous about im­prov­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity, then it needs to be­gin (but not end) at an early age – when chil­dren are at pri­mary school or even ear­lier, as the Ever­ton ex­pe­ri­ence demon­strates.

Most big pol­icy re­search does not even con­sider young chil­dren, with re­cent so­cial mo­bil­ity re­ports mak­ing scant ref­er­ence to pri­mary schools.

Many chil­dren’s hori­zons are limited by who they or their par­ents know . You can’t blame them for that. But we do. We say they lack as­pi­ra­tion. It’s their own fault re­ally. If only they were more as­pi­ra­tional, they’d suc­ceed.

We talk of try­ing to raise their as­pi­ra­tions with­out any un­der­stand­ing of them or their com­mu­ni­ties. We tell them of the lovely shiny jobs on the other side of the coun­try that they can­not see or feel be­cause they do not know any­one who does them. But if only they stretched higher, they could reach them.

Th­ese chil­dren can’t rely on grit or resilience to get there (although they of­ten have it in spades). Nei­ther do they have the cultural cap­i­tal of their bet­ter-off peers. But what they do have is po­ten­tial – a po­ten­tial that can be re­alised only through ed­u­ca­tion.

If we can­not make that hap­pen, it will be our deficit, not theirs. Un­less we make the ef­fort to re­move the bar­ri­ers, the econ­omy of this coun­try will stall. One of the big rea­sons why we have failed to make progress on so­cial mo­bil­ity is be­cause we are not hon­est about the ex­tent of mid­dle-class priv­i­lege in all its overt and opaque forms.

It’s easy to want the poor to do bet­ter.

It’s much more dif­fi­cult to ad­mit that some of the bet­ter-off should do worse.

Un­til we can say, it’s not you, it’s me, mov­ing up will al­ways be hard to do.

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