Social Mobility – Why all parents and carers matter
By Professor Sonia Blandford, Achievement for All
The idea that as a working-class person you are going to fail is a betrayal: a blatantly wrong assumption. But the other betrayal is the idea that there will ever be equality. Equality of income, status or housing. Society has already determined that this is not possible. Some of our policies have championed the deceit of a classless Britain and we would be wise – as we make decisions that will determine what kind of social mobility report we’ll be reading about in another 10 years – to be more honest about the motivation behind these policies, and what is realistically the way to improving social mobility.
We would also be wise to recognise that social mobility shouldn’t be seen as migrating to a different class, but about life chances for everyone. Equality of opportunity and value. Opportunity for education, to secure the skills to work, and a job to meet your needs. Equality to make choices (which depends on people being able to see what else is available to them and be free to seek out the education, skills or work to get there).
Equality of opportunities requires mutuality. A recognition that everyone has something to offer and every individual is a valuable part of the society we live in and where there is a sense of mutuality: our worth to each other and our value in supporting, if not fighting, for each other. When that’s in place, we might get policies that recognise and are built around the idea that by helping one sector of the population, it helps us all.
We are in a place and at a time when there has to be a new way of thinking, there has to be both a recognition of the great things that have come out of initiatives (in health, social care, and education) and, indeed, recognise what hasn’t worked and what isn’t working. Rather than repeating mistakes, or exacerbating them, have a will to change. That will have to come from both sides, and is about mutual gain.
Mutual gain happens when people, on all sides of the political spectrum, and across all classes and cultures, own the change and have a role to play. So how would it work in education, if everyone saw and owned the benefits of social mobility across class and community? And what difference would it make to the working class and their social mobility?
Perhaps it’s easiest to start by saying what mutuality isn’t. It isn’t pouring money into certain areas of the country without asking the people who live there how they’d like to see money spent – without properly exploring what they need, rather than what others decide they need. And it isn’t about reshaping those areas in the image of the people giving the money. Nor is it about telling everyone they should get better exam results and aim for university. Actually, it includes resisting the urge to make those numbers a test of our social mobility.
Instead, mutuality is about ensuring everyone has the chance to read, write and engage in maths so they have choices, about what they learn, and what they do with that learning. That might be to learn more by going to university, or it might be to learn a trade or to travel the world.
Mutuality is not middle-class professional people dipping their toe into a life of disadvantage and then going away feeling they understand enough to call the shots. Mutuality is giving the other party a voice so they can engage – in a long-term way – on what happens next by working in partnership with others.
Mutuality isn’t about rescuing people. It’s about valuing them and allowing them to develop in their own way, where they are now, or where they want to be. Mutuality is, I believe, social justice and the key to social mobility.
There is other exciting work looking at the role of mentoring in secondary schools. Early in 2016 the Government put out a call for evidence, seeking the feedback of young people, their parents, and professionals in the healthcare and educational arena about their experiences with mentoring. One comprehensive school I’ve worked in with Achievement for All saw not only increase attendance at school and with extra-curricular activities, but also enhance academic attainment. Students who were identified as struggling made, on average, an incredible 1.7 years of reading age progress in six weeks. The impact of greater expectations in this context is not just academic but rounded in its approach. “It astounded us,” said the assistant head. “But making this group of children feel happy and confident to come to school by providing them with mentors, simply elevated their ability to make progress. And we have the results to prove that every year.”
This mentoring project was, as it happens, the result of parent feedback. The school on the Wirral had tried academic interventions but felt they were still not making the difference they wanted to make. It was during conversations with parents and carers of the target group of pupils that the issue of friendships and social struggles was raised, and instead of being dismissed (as parents concerns about social struggles often are) the mentoring project was born, and the school has never looked back.
This is a good point to address the myth that good parenting is a one-size-fits-all concept and think of parents as part of this inclusive thinking. Of course, when it comes to supporting the working classes, it’s the size that fits the middle class that is usually the one people are supposed to aspire to. We talk about single parents, or unemployed parents, or low incomes as if that in itself suggests bad parenting and it doesn’t – these situations are circumstantial.
What if we were to suggest that no way is right or wrong, and that all types of parenting can bring benefits, and all types of parenting requires support. This would allow parent communities to work together, for each other, in a truly mutually beneficial way and for those in education to look more effectively at the specific barriers facing children who are looked after, or children who live with grandparents or children from single parent families or indeed children from families where both work long hours.
We know that parents are the first and most enduring educators of their child (Desforges, C. And Abouchaar, A., 2003)and how they bring up their child at home matters more than their income, job or situation. The good news is that this means that there is something that can be done in the earliest years to break this cycle of a poor start leading to poor outcomes. Trying to fix the challenges parents face individually may seem impossible, but we’ve seen – with parents as with children – that there are alterable issues, needs that can be met for the good of the whole family. If we focus on these (while working to improve housing and social care) then change can come.
Teachers tell me that where they work in schools with a large number of vulnerable, young, unsupported parents, those parents want to make a better life for themselves. When schools offer non-stigmatised support – via training or mentoring or group classes that embrace the idea of early health assessments – the parents embrace it and look to tackle issues like housing or debt head-on. Many schools I now work in partnership with (including one that has its own school-based Citizens Advice Bureau (8)) offer facilities for parents and carers to sort out social issues, with support. If nothing else, they give a warm welcome, a cup of tea and access to phones and computers. Children’s centres who work with parents and carers in a respectful, inclusive way, offering adult education in a bid to improve those parents’ employment prospects and their ability to support their children through school, see a high uptake of these facilities.
At Achievement for All the role of the parent or carer in supporting the child’s education and therefore their educational outcomes is held in the highest regard. We take a different approach to the traditional ‘information giving’ or ‘done to’ classes. Firstly, parents and carers are considered to be experts in the subject of their child and they are respected as their child’s first and most enduring educators. Secondly, Achievement for All train and supports key persons in settings to develop strong respectful partnerships with those parents and carers based on the individual needs of the child. This begins with Achieving Early, where the key person is trained then uses a structured conversation called ‘Taking Time for Talk’ to engage parents and carers in their child’s learning. Training and support is also provided in related programmes at school and further education phases.
Rather than telling families what they should be doing, they work with the parents and carers to support them with how their child is learning and how they can support them at home. Families find this empowering as they are actively involved in the process and encouraged to contribute their ideas. The results have been astonishing, with even the most reluctant-to-engage parents (sometimes referred as ‘hard to reach’) making positive changes to their own parenting as a result and raising aspirations for their children as they move forward. Teachers talk about a buzz in the school as they discover new ways to reach children, and new partners in parents who want to help them do just that.