Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Leave 'Social Mobility' outside the School Gate

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Leave 'Social Mobility' outside the School Gate

Article excerpt

Education is not a tool for social justice, but for developing children's minds, so fix the economy first before expecting teachers to solve a problem for politicians

What are schools and education for? I ask because, today, the answer is no longer clear. I believe that the core mission of a school should be the transmission of knowledge and cultivation of pupils' intellectual curiosity. Yet I fear my view may now be in the minority.

In recent years, education has been transformed into an instrument of public policy by successive governments - a means of achieving objectives that are entirely external to learning. Today, both left and right wings seem to agree that education should be about promoting social mobility, even if some people on the left prefer the term "social justice". To quote schools minister Nick Gibb in a recent speech delivered to the Sutton Trust, "A welcome consensus has begun to emerge that schools must be engines of social mobility."

Hardly a day goes by without some politician or economist making a statement about how our schools must better prepare pupils for the workplace. Increasingly, schools are judged not just on exam results, but the number and type of universities their pupils go to. When Ofsted visits a school, we are now expected to have detailed figures, not only on university destinations, but even the jobs they go on to.

This process is happening because schools are increasingly held responsible for social mobility - or the lack of it.

I believe education cannot and should not be thought of as an engine for social mobility. To look to it as such places an undue burden on schools. And I would go even further: it degrades education.

The transformation of education into a vehicle for achieving policy objectives means that it is rarely appreciated as something valuable in its own right. That policymakers confuse education with training and preparation for a career is regrettable. That a significant section of teachers have embraced this backwards agenda is heartbreaking.

'Philistine' approach

Prime minister Theresa May's support for new grammar schools exemplifies the confusion about the role of schools. I believe grammar schools are neither the cause of, nor the solution to, our educational crisis, but what the PM had to say about them is illuminating.

Rather than premise her argument with the traditional strength of a grammar school - a high-quality classical, liberal, rounded education for its own sake - she chose the philistine route. She argued for more selective schools on the basis that they "must deliver social mobility as part of a vision that works for everyone, not just the privileged few". She is wrong on two counts.

Firstly, it wasn't grammar schools in the 1950s and 60s that allowed working-class kids to get jobs - it was industrial growth and the expansion of the economy. These children stopped acquiring decent jobs in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, not because of "bog-standard comps", but because politicians failed to deal with structural problems in the economy.

The expansion of white-collar employment had stagnated. Hence, if you want to help disadvantaged young people get good jobs, the best way to do so is to fix the economy rather than expect schools to step in and solve a non-educational problem. …

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