There’s no place for average results when it comes to achieving social mobility
Monday, February 24, 2020
To really give least advantaged children a chance we must help them to be better than average.
It is not enough to think that being the same as other children will give them an equal chance. We must better equip them to navigate the minefield of disadvantage and inequality. We cannot and must not be happy with average - that’s just mean (pun intended). What’s more, it just won’t work. Little difference will be made, and it runs the risk of building up our children now only to ‘fail’ later.
What has prompted this blog? I have been having conversations recently with peers and funders about what good performance looks like in social mobility and raising children’s outcomes. I started to hear a voice that seemed satisfied that outcomes were achieved if results were on national average – a feeling ‘the job was done’. I stated to identify a desire to move on to the next ‘problem’. My blood starting pumping at the thought of it. Here’s why.
A lot is said about people’s aims and good intentions around social mobility these days. It is great that 40 years after a wonderful raft of equalities legislation, concrete actions continue to be taken with such good intentions. But many are missing the point if we don’t all properly acknowledge the multiple factors that prevent social mobility and facilitate inequality. We all need to understand how these really reinforce disadvantage and inequality. Being average simply doesn’t cut it when it comes to competing against more advantaged peers. The next generation of disadvantaged children and young people instead need to be brilliant to be anywhere near to standing an equal chance.
The Social Mobility Commission report State of the Nation 2018/19 offers a useful list of factors, which I have summarised here:
- those from better-off backgrounds are almost 80 per cent more likely to be in a professional job
- there is a class pay gap of 24% and if working class people enter professional roles their pay can still be 17% less
- there is reduced ability to move regions for employment (and I would add learning opportunities)
- disadvantage resulting from class, disability, ethnicity and gender identity, is multiplied when children experience more than one such factor
- low income, living standards and wellbeing further limit risk, choices and options.
This is a stark picture of the realities and presents the bones of a compelling argument for multiple and long-term interventions for all these factors. To experience disadvantage is one thing, but one must also understand and recognise its effects. When I deliver equalities training, learners can often assert they haven’t experienced discrimination, before their awareness is raised and they come to realise how it has been internalised and carried with them through their life journeys so far. All in a morning!
I know this myself. Even now, I can enter important meetings or social occasions whilst carrying the effects of my own lived disadvantage and discrimination. On my back, in my head and swirling through my emotional blueprint are the characteristics of my class, age, sexuality, education, birthplace and more. They all do a great job of sometimes motivating me to aim for brilliance, but on occasion I might try too hard. On other occasions they move me to shrink into the shadows - so not to expose myself to the judgment of others. Whether that judgment is there, whether it is unstated, unconscious or implied, or if it is directly expressed.
All those children and young people we invest in, under the umbrella of social mobility, deserve more ambition from policymakers, funders and services. I don’t want them to feel the same way as I can. They need wellbeing foundations in an environment openly and assertively committed to equality. An opportunity framework that supports learning and careers now and throughout their lives. One that achieves equal chances, respect, pay and opportunity. One that aims for excellence. Not one that settles for average.
James Hempsall is director of consultancy Hempsalls