The more I hear about education and social mobility, the more it worries me. To be specific, what bothers me is the claim by some ministers that the purpose of education should be social mobility.
I don’t have a vested interest here: I don’t have a child who’s failed entry tests or been turned down by the school of their choice. My interest in this subject derives from having gone into teaching because I’m passionate about learning, and left the profession because I realised the system isn’t about learning. I believe we are making some serious errors if we don’t radically re-think what we see as the purpose of education, and bring our system back in line with goals which will help our kids most and prepare them for a happy, healthy life.
My first teaching school was a comprehensive in Stepney in London’s East End. Tower Hamlets is a fabulous, vibrant and diverse borough but a quick google will tell you about the disadvantage faced by many groups living there. At the school where I taught for four years, the percentage of pupils on free school meals was very high. Forget A-levels. At the time, while Tony Blair was championing the belief that everyone should go to university, I witnessed the frustrations and disappointments of kids whose language and literacy levels were significant barriers for them in preparing for GCSEs. It was as though they were expected to wade through treacle to get to a destination which someone else was telling them they should want. For many, what would have helped and empowered them was greater learning support (including provision in the sixth form), more EAL classes, and a system which valued skills and learning rather than tests, targets, exams, qualifications and predictions.
Of course education can help kids to learn and access vocational and higher education. These, in turn, can help them to reach beyond their socio-economic origins, if they want to. But the idea that the purpose of education should be social mobility is, in my opinion, as misguided as it is unhelpful. And the possible reintroduction of grammar schools is not going to be the solution which many ministers and pundits claim it will be. Schools which use an entrance exam to select pupils, inevitably advantage kids who’ve been to ‘better’ schools, or whose parents have been able to afford tutoring. Sometimes innate ability and application are enough to gain a place at a selective school. Often, though, they are not.
Amidst all of this, numerous things concern me, and their implications flutter about in my mind like birds trapped in an aviary at the zoo. In my ears I hear the echoes of many of my students’ voices, telling me they don’t want to go to university, or that they’re so confused by other people’s ideas for what their aspirations should be that they don’t know what they want. For kids who want to work in the family business or raise children, often what they need is to be able to read and write well, and to learn some life skills. They don’t need or want to be told that they should aspire to something else or ‘better’.
That said, there is nothing wrong with the desire to ‘better’ oneself, to grow, to develop. Aren’t many of us doing it one way or another? Who wouldn’t want to escape deprivation, disadvantage and discrimination? But there is something about the idea of making social mobility the purpose of education which implies that everyone should be unhappy with who they are and what their backgrounds are. Rather than being told we should want to be socially mobile, perhaps government could more usefully consider whether everyone wants that, and what other factors hinder that mobility, so it’s actually possible? The education system is only one of many factors which contributes. Others are: welfare policies; housing shortage and cost; skill demand and supply; health inequalities; discrimination and prejudice; and many factors connected to our status within the EU. Plus variables I’ve forgotten, I’m sure.
And if, by education, these ministers mean qualifications, what sort of social mobility are they going to result in? When qualifications enable young people to get into jobs, or onto higher education courses, which they then cannot do or hate, how is that helpful? What I mean is, they’ve often passed the exam but not learned the right skills or knowledge.
When I was teaching, vocational courses were becoming popular again and many students were relieved to escape traditional A-levels. However, some of these courses were still assessed via the traditional means of exams and coursework, and inevitably disadvantaged kids who struggled with language and literacy. Time and time again what I saw was that students of all ages needed greater learning and SEN support, and far more extensive access to EAL classes. Some faced insurmountable economic barriers. Some faced discrimination and prejudice. Others struggled to assess pervading social and cultural norms. It’s obvious though that what affects, and benefits, kids in one region of the country may not be relevant in another. Stepney is a world away from Wimbledon and Croydon (both places I’ve taught also). The South East is different from the North East, Wales and Scotland.
To my mind, what our education system requires is a curriculum which is useful to kids from the moment they start primary school, and one which will cater for the needs, preferences and abilities of all children. The system should be free, and should offer equal access to all. In addition, rather than having someone else’s vision of what they should want stuffed at them, I see a greater need for much earlier help with option assessment and decision-making. Like most teachers, I’ve taught all manner of pointless subjects in PSHE lessons, and I’ve had my suggestions for topics the kids really need to know about fall on deaf ears. I’ve also seen scores of students put on courses they aren’t suited to, or don’t want to do.
The way I see it, education needs to prepare youngsters for the complexity, challenges and wonderfulness of life. For dreaming their own dreams, and making informed choices about what they want. This should be its primary purpose.
Radical, isn’t it?
Vicky Newham © 2016