As someone who was born into a low working class background whose only ticket out of that background has been education (albeit in a different country), I follow the political sound bites about social mobility with interest.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Gideon Sappor and published with kind permission.
The original post can be found here.
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I was born into a very humble socio-economic background. My mum who never had the opportunity to set foot in a formal classroom sold smoked fish at the market. She left home at 5 am everyday Monday to Saturday and didn’t get back till 7 pm. She never took a holiday except when she had to travel to the village for a family event such as a funeral.
My father was the most educated among 24 (known) siblings having studied to GCE O’ Level stage. He was a storekeeper at the company he worked with.
I was blessed with parents who in spite of their lowly academic background or the lack of it, inspired me to value education. My mum could not read nor write but she ensured I read the books she purchased from the hawkers at the market. My parents were instrumental in my academic success and so were my teachers.
I still remember some of my primary school and secondary school teachers for the role they played in pushing me to aspire to the top. Names like Messrs Akpabli, Aidoo, Amega from my primary school years and Rev Dr Godwin Odonkor, Mr (now Rev) Aboa Offei will be forever etched in my fond memories. I remember Mr Amegah – my year 6 teacher – teaching, encouraging, and inspiring us to study so we would do well in the common entrance exams required to go to secondary school.
In secondary school, I remember Rev Odonkor’s mantra – study! study! – resonates in my mind to this very day. These teachers were so inspiring I worked hard to meet their high expectations. Their expectations were high, but never felt like a burden. I knew my teachers had my back; all I needed to do was work hard.
Given this background, I have been following with intrigue the ‘political football’ being played by all the in the name of social mobility. Some of the arguments raised sound like the vacuous hot air that can only emerge from the depths of stark ignorance – not having a clue about the subject. Yet some appear to come from a good heart, but still devoid of an awareness of the requisite levers that need pulling. This was typified by Michael Gove, the former education secretary. His pronouncements appeared to be drawn from a heart that sincerely wished to improve the life chances of children from poorer backgrounds. Sadly, that is where it ended. He failed to realise the problem was more complex than to heap the blame on teachers – the very ones who wielded the potential to make a difference, and indeed are giving their ‘blood and sweat’ for the cause.
Yes there are some teachers who need support to improve their practice and some head teachers who need a kick up the proverbial; however constantly haranguing and tarring everyone of them (that is what it seems) with the same dirty brush isn’t the best move to say the least. Denigrating an entire profession for a situation that in certain instances may be beyond their scope of influence could hardly be fair.
In my opinion, British society is structured in a two tier culture. Inherent in this dichotomy of cultures lie the challenges of social mobility in the country. There is the subculture that include those whose children attend the fee paying public schools who are primed to become the elite. Also included in this group are a minority whose parents support and encourage them to do well and be aspirational in state education.
Then there are those who belong to what I call the ‘EastEnders’ subculture. They identify with the dross and stagnancy of the soap – a view of life where effort to make progress in life is not worth it because eventually, no good thing happens in life. Like life on the soap, aspiring to such as becoming a doctor or city worker doesn’t belong. The soap has to kill off every character who achieves at something or aspires to and strives to achieve in life. Doctors are written out, city worker characters are killed off, and in the recent past, the only character to make it to Oxford – Libby – had to be written out of the show.
The people who belong to this subculture probably watch ‘EastEnders’ religiously and more importantly, identify with its view of life. Such low aspiration is entrenched and normalised in them. What I find tragic in all this is a tax payer funded organisation such as the BBC spewing out and perpetuating such low aspiration in the masses. Sometimes it looks like a deliberate ploy to entrench low aspiration in this subculture. I say this because the producers have had several opportunities to introduce a glimmer of aspiration into the plots and story lines but never have they followed that path. The opposite always seem to be the case.
Another way in which I see the subculture dichotomy being entrenched by society is in the portrayal of people who have attended good universities and are in middle class jobs. The media constantly portrays them as if they were all born with a silver spoon in their mouths. They are portrayed by politicians as if it is a bad thing to achieve that status. Rhetoric around the amount of tax they should be paying, their earnings, and their comfortable lives are commented on with a negative slant that makes them not to be role models, but as characters to be reviled. The public is never given the story behind some of such people – how hard they had to work, make sacrifices to get themselves to where they are. Society in general, and the ‘eastenders’ subculture need role models – coping models – as the psychologists call them. They need role models in people from similar backgrounds as theirs and the stories of their journey from the ‘bottom’ to the top. I am certain there are lots of individuals who fit this profile but the media and society doesn’t seem to be interested.
The only way a lot of such children see themselves as bettering their lives is through singing or one of such celebrity led futures. There is nothing wrong with them having such aspirations, but feeding children into seeing such a narrow range of options stunts their aspirations and dreams.
This is only a simple illustration of how complex the challenge of social mobility is. The solution lies in a multi-pronged radical root and branch approach. Listening to the political debate in the build up to elections doesn’t give me much hope of that happening.
My submission is that, even though teachers have a pivotal role to play in the quest for social mobility, there may be situations that lie beyond their excellent capabilities. This is particularly the case for teachers working in some of the most deprived schools in the country. Teachers can and do certainly make a difference; yet subjecting them to unbearable and unreasonable pressure may be pushing some of the most gifted and committed teachers out of the schools that need them most or worse, quitting the profession.
As another illustration, I have followed the recent debates about homework in the media with interest. The value of homework in raising standards has been questioned by several experts, interestingly in my opinion, including a public school head. I find this interesting because the public schools have some of the most stringent and elaborate culture of homework. The first thought that came to me when I read about the public school head’s opinion was whether he had banned it in his school. I doubt it. If homework was that ineffective, why do the public schools and high achieving schools take it so seriously? Is one thing good for the goose but not for the gander? Yes there may be problems with homework being taken by children into chaotic homes that render them worthless. However, the solution I believe, doesn’t lie in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Some schools have found a way round this by running homework clubs for such children.
This leads me to one of the problems I see with the approach to improving standards in schools. Schools are rarely similar in terms of their demographics and dispositions. It is virtually impossible to have a one size fits all solution to the challenge of raising standards; yet that is what happens be it from the Mandarins in Whitehall or the Ofsted ‘clipboards’ as I call the inspectors. Creativity is supposed to be encouraged in classrooms, yet inspectors still go into schools with their literal and metaphorical tick sheets or clipboards. A strategy that achieved resounding success in a particular school may not be as effective in another school half a mile down the same road due to the unique disposition of that school. The idea may be brilliant but may need to be adapted to suit the second school. The wholesale replication of ‘best practice’ across different schools may be a cause of some of the problems we have in our schools.
The current debate is led mostly by people who have no experience of what it takes to climb up the social ladder. Education is the vehicle but it needs to drive up a road. The ‘road’ doesn’t currently exist at a sustainable level with the way social mobility politics is being played at the moment. The debate needs to change and the rhetoric brought down to earth if we are serious about having any sustainable impact on social mobility.
Gideon Sappor is a Research Student at the UCL Institute of Education, University of London Department of Psychology and Human Development