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What is Social Mobility in Education and How Can Schools Help?

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Social Mobility

The topic itself has the potential to be contentious and is certainly on the political agenda, why else would the Government have a commission for it? And as so often with political issues, educational policy if usually involved.

With the support of our colleagues from the NFER, I’d like to spend some time discussing the role education has in promoting upward social mobility and what you can do within your setting to improve it for your leaners.

With proposed changes to funding, the Government is looking to withdraw funding for Applied General Qualifications in 2024 and scrap student loans for pupils who do on get grade 4 or 5 in English and Maths at GCSE, the most disadvantaged within our society could be at real risk of being locked out of education. This is a stark warning when considering that according to David Sims, Research Director of the NFER, that national average of this of pupils achieving these grades is 71% compared to the 52% of pupils from disadvantaged households.

What is Social Mobility and why is it important?

What do we actually mean when we say social mobility? Well, simply it can be understood as the movement of families, individuals or groups through a system of social hierarchies. The Government’s Commission on Social Mobility state, “Social mobility is the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents.” Some might call this working hard and getting on in life or finding employment which advances your social standing. But the issue is not as simple as that. The career path you take and the choices available to you are very often impacted by the jobs of your parents and where you were born, among a great many other factors. One of these factors is your education.

What is the role of Education in facilitating upward Social Mobility?

There are no clear-cut answers to this question, however you would like to think that schools and the wider education sector facilitate greater opportunities for social advancement. However, since James Callaghan’s Great Debate speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1976 the defining purpose of the state education system has been to suit the needs of the economy and not necessarily that of the individual. National curriculum after national curriculum has been built with the requirements of the economy in mind. These aims and objectives do not always relate to facilitating the ascent of people from more disadvantaged backgrounds but do relate to equipping school leavers with what they need to get a job, there is a fine distinction between the two.

Where is education now in terms of Social Mobility?  

Caroline Sharp, states, “There has been progress in reducing the disadvantage attainment gap since the introduction of the pupil premium in 2011, but the evidence is that national progress in narrowing the gap has stalled recently and may even be going into reverse, due to the influence of the pandemic.” She goes on, “Given their distance away from the labour markets, secondary schools with more academic pupils or with sixth forms are more focused on preparing pupils for KS5 and for an eventual move on to HE.” Many schools simply do not have a focus on supporting their pupils gain employment. This is understandable as many school leavers do not find sustained employment until their mid-twenties, as stated in this recent NFER Research Paper. Furthermore, many settings lack the links with employers to give their pupil’s authentic workplace experiences.

How to Improve Social Mobility

1. Build stronger links with local employers

Jude Hillary Quantitative Research Director at the NFER tells us, “Schools don’t particularly have strong links with employers. Indeed employers often complain about the quality of young people’s skills.” Schools can overcome this by helping pupils to become more work ‘ready’ and allow them to experience the behaviours and cultures of businesses settings first hand. Facilitating learners in having ‘real world’ learning opportunities will help them to understand the challenges and demands businesses face on a day -to- day basis. Through work placements and workplace visits, pupils can come to understand different expectations.  

2. Provide pupils with full guidance on the range of Further Education, Apprenticeships and the variety of vocational qualifications on available.

There are a wide range of post-GCSE qualifications out there and pupils need to be made aware of this. A Levels, T Levels, Apprenticeships and Applied General Qualifications all have different qualities and purposes. For pupils who did not achieve GCSE level 4 in English and Maths, BTECs and Cambridge Technicals have less stringent entry requirements and may be a route to Higher Education or employment. Pupils need to understand that A Levels are not the be all and end all of post-16 learning.

Further Reading on Social Mobility

Deloitte have some interesting Case Studies.

Report of the Social Mobility Commission: ‘Social Mobility and the Pandemic’

The Social Mobility Foundation

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