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12 January

What right-wing advocates for social mobility get wrong

Why should Katharine Birbalsingh’s pupils need silent corridors while Winchester College gets a rifle club?

By Cian Kinsella

Many from the centre to the left were shocked when Katharine Birbalsingh, headmistress of Michaela Community School, was appointed chairwoman of the government’s Social Mobility Commission (SMC) in 2021. Dubbed “Britain’s strictest headmistress” by an ITV documentary of the same name, she appears frequently in the media for her political views and uncompromising approach to education. So it was no surprise that her resignation from the SMC on Friday (6 January) was met by a sigh of relief from many of her detractors. This is despite Michaela Community School’s impressive academic accolades, achieving Britain’s highest score in 2021-2 for Progress 8, a measure of a school’s academic improvement from SATs to GCSEs which attempts to account for socioeconomic factors. If that’s not social mobility, I don’t know what is.

Social mobility has for some time been close to the heart of many across the political spectrum, and it has been integral to some decisive general election victories. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher offered the electorate the chance to buy their council houses; in 1997 Tony Blair seized the aspirations of a “new, larger, more meritocratic middle class”; in 2019 Boris Johnson promised to build more houses for first-time buyers. Now, Rishi Sunak refuses to apply VAT to private school fees, ostensibly to preserve the “hard-working aspirations of millions”.

Social mobility is so ingrained in Britain’s psyche that it’s become something of the stiff-upper-lipped counterpart to the American Dream. I can’t think of anyone who openly admits to believing that someone should remain in poverty simply because they were born into it.

Counterintuitively, the problem lies in the core values of social mobility itself: instead of protecting the economic powers of working-class people, it dangles the carrot of a middle-class life before them. Their own life is undesirable, and they can only blame themselves for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Governments have failed to enact policies that give economic power to the most disadvantaged for four decades, and now working-class people often have to spend large portions of their income on rent and bills.

This leaves teachers like me with the burden of ensuring social mobility, which is frequently linked to success in school. The Tories have, however, only just committed to restoring funding for schools to 2010 levels after spending 12 years twisting the knife via real-terms funding cuts. This inequity is compounded early on by the fact that childcare costs in the UK are the third-highest in the developed world.

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I admire Michaela’s pragmatism in ensuring outstanding outcomes for an underprivileged cohort (although I would be curious to see how that success translates to the less structured university environment). But the SMC itself defines social mobility as “the idea that where you start in life may help to shape your opportunities, but should not determine where you end up”. Refusing to address inequality of opportunity – which the International Monetary Fund suggests stymies long-term growth – again places greater pressure on the most disadvantaged to work harder for the same outcomes as their more privileged peers. Why should Michaela require silent corridors while Winchester College gets a rifle club

Birbalsingh, an outspoken “small c conservative”, is right to believe that family environment has a strong influence on outcomes for children, but we need government intervention to alleviate the pressures on working-class families, and – perhaps the greater challenge – to view working-class life as no less valuable than a middle-class life. Her absence from the helm of the Good Ship SMC will not alter its course to any meaningful degree. 

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[See also: PMQs: Keir Starmer exploits Rishi Sunak’s NHS headache]