The limits of social mobility

Author: Jude Heaton, Trustee, Bridge Group and Director, Global Learning Lab

At the Bridge Group, we think the terms of the debate on social equality need to change. The ways in which we frame our discussion carry important implications for where we direct our attention, and the types of structural change that are possible as a result. As part of that effort to reframe the narrative, I wanted to share how my thinking has shifted over the years. In particular, I now think that social mobility is not only an insufficient conceptual framework within which to discuss injustice and systemic transformation, it is actively damaging.

I should start by giving a little background. I worked in Nick Clegg’s office as a policy advisor on social mobility, around the time the coalition Government’s social mobility strategy was released. I worked for Alan Milburn in setting up the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, leading a report on access to higher education and supporting work on access to the professions. I joined Teach First where the language of social mobility was at the heart of its activity. It drove the work I led to support students from the most disadvantaged communities to get into, and flourish at, university.

In short, I’m a paid up member of the social mobility establishment. I’m proud of the work I did in those places, and continue to admire the principled, focused and astute work of Alan Milburn on social mobility, and the many organisations doing great work to support students to access opportunities. Every child whose life is improved by a programme that opens doors is incredibly valuable. My concern is not with those efforts, but the conceptual paradigm in which they’re often framed.

My disillusionment with social mobility has been a work in progress for about a decade. (It takes me a while to work out what I think.) While I was working on social mobility policy and programmes, there were some questions which didn’t sit easily with me. For example, the lens of social mobility was hypnotically drawn to the most prestigious universities and professions. This left in the shade more vital questions. For example, the lack of policy attention directed towards part time learners, as raised in this article by my Bridge Group colleagues. (This isn’t the time to go on a rant about how the implications of university policy on some of the most important institutions in the country, like the Open University, were both predictable and predicted. So, deep breath, I’ll move on…)

The economic case for social mobility diverts attention from social justice

I also became increasingly concerned with the way social mobility quickly slipped from an ethical concern, to an economic one. I lost count of the number of speeches and articles I wrote which did exactly this. “Social mobility is a deep injustice. But not only that, it is a colossal waste of talent.” If we can’t appeal to your heart, at least let us appeal to your wallet. This enabled a broad coalition of support to coalesce around the work. As I know from experience, this was very useful when fundraising. Was this safe conversation allowing us to avoid more challenging questions?

While I recognised and spoke about these concerns, social mobility provided a common language in which to discuss domestic policy, a set of terms which were shared across the political spectrum. It felt like a valuable opportunity to have a broad conceptual consensus that opened up the space for business, government, and civil society organisations to work together. So what’s changed?

Social mobility reinforces structural inequalities 

A fundamental problem of social mobility is that it preserves the structures of division – economic, social, and psychological – while replacing the people who are in these positions. It is a highly individualized narrative, that avoids fostering care and concern for our collective flourishing. “If only the right people could get to positions of power – the people who have the best ability, the people who work the hardest.” This approach not only doesn’t go far enough, but it channels efforts into maintaining existing structures. How much work on social mobility is designed to prepare those who do not come from privilege to navigate their way into the elite? Like setting up our education system in the form of a game of chess, and putting our efforts into helping the occasional pawn become a queen. How can this fail to legitimate the status quo, and undermine the values of communities who are not in positions of power?

Not only does it not ask those in power to question their values, it actively puts them on a pedestal.

In our report commissioned by the Cabinet Office in 2015, and in much of our research since, we at the Bridge Group highlighted that the challenge for employers is not just to look for ‘talent’ in places which are currently getting little of their attention. Rather, we need to collectively challenge and rethink what we mean by ‘talent’, and ask whose interests are being served by the definitions which we use. For too long, talent has been synonymous with qualities associated with higher socio-economic backgrounds, such as social confidence. At the Bridge Group we are calling for firms to devise clearer and more equitable definitions of talent and to take a public stand behind the qualities they value. (As an aside, I remember aged 11 sitting an entrance exam for a private school. There was a question about who was the current champion of some golf tournament. I remember walking out of the exam a little confused, as I couldn’t quite work out how that bit of trivia correlated with the school’s avowed intention to test for the ‘brightest’ students. Years later, looking at interview practices among employers, I notice an eerie similarity in how signifiers of class were used by some to recruit “the right sort of people” who “our clients would feel comfortable with”.)

Moving beyond social mobility to achieve social change

We cannot move to a position where everybody is in a position of privilege. Privilege is inherently exclusive. (It is no surprise that movement ‘down’ the hierarchy is largely absent from the social mobility debate.) This exclusivity requires forms of economic and social violence which create mutually reinforcing identities in both the oppressor and the oppressed. Both of these are dehumanising. (Though of course being on the dominant side of the equation comes with a whole lot of perks.) We should not be trying to make everyone middle class – whether in the work they do or the values they hold. We should be looking to reimagine our education systems, starting with reexamining our vision for what we really want for our children. Ultimately, this must be part of a wider project of reimaginging our working world, and our political structures. This reimagination requires us to recognize and try to heal the long histories of oppression which cast a shadow on all of us. Looking at the scale of our political, economic and social challenges, this seems an essential and urgent task.

In the past, I tended to think that social mobility was a means to wider change. That’s one of the reasons why work on access to elite universities, and access to coveted professions felt important. If there was genuine equity in who accessed these opportunities, would that trigger a conversation as to whether these structures were serving all of us? In other words, if the children of the wealthy were entering a genuine lottery, would parents really want to role the dice? Would this effectively force an engagement with the veil of ignorance that would enable a deeper conversation?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. It seems to me far more likely that through the well-intentioned prism of social mobility we’ll channel our energy into policies and practices that give us enough stories of success to sleep well, and which allow us to avoid the deeper, more pressing questions which implicate us all.