Maria Ana Chavana Villalobos is a Second Year PhD student studying in the Department of Education, University of York, supervised by Dr Paul Wakeling. Her research is concerned with the student experience in higher education, particularly the decision of leaving or persisting in a course. Here, she reflects on a lecture delivered by Lee Elliot Major, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, on 5th March 2015. This lecture was entitled “Britain’s Social Mobility Problem: Why is it so low and what can we do about it?” The Sutton Trust is a think tank working to “combat educational inequality and subsequent waste of talent”
In a recent lecture organised by the Centre for Research on Education and Social Justice (Department of Education, University of York), Dr. Lee Elliot Major, Chief Executive of The Sutton Trust, shared his views on the role of education in boosting social mobility, in particular among talented children from less privileged backgrounds in the UK. An early observation in his presentation highlighted the importance of defining what is meant by social mobility, as this can yield differences in the scope and the results of a given analysis. Some studies have measured social mobility in terms of intergenerational improvement, i.e. the social progression achieved from one generation to another. Other studies have observed changes within a generation by measuring social mobility in terms of individual position improvement, for example using income and better quality jobs as proxies for progression in an individual’s lifetime, regardless of their family background. It is appalling to find that the UK is the country with lowest levels of social mobility out of a group of countries in the EU for which data is available (For further information, refer to Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers : A Strategy for Social Mobility). But what does social mobility mean in terms of real life?
Social Mobility is one of those concepts we often come across both in academia and in the media. Researchers, policy makers, politicians, you and I, we all refer to social mobility as a desirable thing. Surely a nation whose citizens are better off would be better itself, wouldn’t it? But how can social mobility be achieved? At the heart of the discussion lies education, a key element in the promotion of social mobility. There is a long list of public policies targeting specific gaps in the field of education, from early year’s provision, parenting education, improved literacy in primary school to widening participation in higher education. Such policies evidence the efforts that have been dedicated to helping individuals and communities achieve better levels of education, especially among less advantaged sections of the population. But, how is an improvement in social mobility measured? And perhaps a question that puzzles us all – is education the answer? There are too many challenging questions to answer!
Improving one’s chances in life, for example through access to a better education, or a better income all sound like highly positive goals. Yet as mentioned in the discussion that followed Dr. Major’s lecture, there are certainly other factors which are just as important in the pursuit of an improved life; there are other elements that escape the usual measurements and statistics such as “happiness” for example, but that is a topic worth exploring separately. So let’s make an important statement here: our interest in social mobility follows the principle of improving our position in society compared to our starting point in life and the life lived by our parents. Research suggests there are different ways of looking at social mobility, different ways of measuring it, and that education is considered a core element in the efforts to deliver social mobility. Fine.
It was also discussed among attendees of the presentation that opportunities to improve in life are subject to a wide range of variables, including geographical and economic factors. For instance, despite the efforts of the education system to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary to conduct highy-skilled jobs, many end up underemployed due to the lack of opportunities in some regions –a feature that is not exclusive to the case of the UK, but is also observed in other parts of the world. Moreover, evidence suggests that beyond credentials, it is often connections which ultimately give access to better job opportunities and a higher income, the so called network effects.
In the discussion of social mobility the importance of two elements that go beyond the educational arena, wealth and income inequality, are recurrent. Societies that are characterised by high levels of inequality are unlikely to achieve good levels of social mobility unless policies broaden their scope and work towards building a more equal society. But in the meantime and from our trench, what can we do to contribute to individuals’ chances to achieve social mobility?
Education is important from an instrumental point of view, as it provides the knowledge, skills and credentials needed to gain access to better opportunities. Nevertheless, the extent to which individuals want to improve their education is partly determined by their aspirations. When individuals encounter barriers that stop them from making progress in life or even pursuing the idea of a better life, we face the need for policies to spur a much-needed change. Through the design and implementation of educational policies, the education system can challenge the low expectations which society sometimes perpetuates in children and young adults. The need for experiences that create a positive impact for life improvement, experiences that may come from all sorts of sources, including excellent teachers and committed teaching, is at the centre of our mission. Inspiration, confidence, the development of skills and not only the accumulation of knowledge, these are all examples of elements that education can contribute to help build up aspirations and generate opportunities for social mobility.
A central commitment of academia is to push social mobility to the top of the political agenda and to support the design of policies through research that focuses on fighting educational inequality, directing efforts towards the improvement of quality, access, opportunities and support in education. These in turn will foster equity in society. Obviously, the gains yielded as a result of social mobility are not confined to those in less advantaged groups; if individuals from lower groups improve, they will have more resources to contribute to society and the economy, which in turn generates spillover effects for individuals in higher groups. Yes, in the end a gap between low and high social class remains, and in some cases it broadens, but as Monty Python happily suggests, we should always look on the bright side of life: individual lives have been improved, even if it is in a slight way, it matters.