Social Mobility: Putting the Smoke & Mirrors into a social justice debate

So, a couple of weeks ago, Tristram Hunt MP made a statement about Private schools singing for their tax break supper.  My initial reaction upon reading about his reasoning, that Private schools all have something to contribute to State schools by sharing their resources and teachers, was that he was behind the curve on what Private schools have to offer.  The primary advantage privately educated children enjoy is increased social capital, which is the one thing that Private schools neither want to or are able to share or are even the primary contributors to the advantaged child.  So scrap the tax break, the Private schools can never earn it.

However, along with the undying call for a return to creating more grammar schools, Hunt’s proposal was based on the popular notion that Education is an engine for Social Mobility.  Simply, the argument goes that if a child receives a good enough education and is motivated and aspirational enough they can raise themselves out of their starting social position and move up in the world.  Intrinsic to that social mobility is an improvement in a child’s socio-economic circumstances.  Grammar schools, so we are led to believe, was just such an engine.  It has then become an obsession (or distraction) for politicians that Education should advance and be responsible for Social Mobility in this country.  Sadly, the overlooked elephant in the room is that the legend of Social Mobility is just that, a legend, and one that was described by Socrates as The Noble Lie and has been borne out through examination of recent history and academic study.  Social Mobility just has not, in any meaningful sense, taken place.

If the root of what Social Mobility is meant to address is social injustice then it would seem to make more sense to discuss that but is that a more uncomfortable discussion to have?  Talk of social justice requires a move from a notion that all can be fixed if an individual is properly education, motivated, and aspirational to an acknowledgement that, in the main, those who are advantaged with cumulatively greater social capital do best in society.  If the difference between individuals is their access to cumulative social capital advantage and you are serious about social justice then the importance and influence of social capital must be countered and reduced.  Having a great education is still of enormous value to everyone, it affords us with a way of potentially more greatly engaging with, appreciating, and enjoying our lives, but it is not a counter to cumulative social capital advantage.  Putting aside the empty rhetoric of Social Mobility and focusing on social injustice would be a better first step to improving people’s lives.

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