‘In a more socially mobile society, everyone should have a choice, be aware of that choice and be able to exercise it. From birth people should have equal opportunities whether at home, school, further education (FE) college, university or in training…Everyone should be recruited on merit no matter which school or university they attended. The old boys’ network must no longer be a passport to success…those from disadvantaged backgrounds should not be held back because they don’t fit in’.[i]
If we were to shine a light on every pupil, how many would not be able to make progress? Blandford, S, (2011)[ii]
‘The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right, but that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong. Those who have the power to remove them do not have the will, and those who have the will have not, as yet, the power.’ [iii]
The world, as we would like it to be, is a one where every child knows that with passion and focus and hard work, they can be whoever they want to be, based on mutuality. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world.
In 2018, the OECD PISA Equity report, Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility[vi] underlined what few would challenge: that every child, every human being, deserves the same opportunities (chance) to gain skills and progress through society regardless of gender, sexuality, disability or socio-economic, ethnic or cultural background (choice). The report makes for sober reading, pointing out in the UK that while educational attainment has increased, inequalities remain entrenched. However, those children and young people that are supported to make progress can accumulate collateral throughout life, both in education and later in the labour market that will drive their future social mobility.
Consider, we used to think that meritocracy – the idea that talent and capacity would overcome socio-economic barriers - was the key. This has been the mantra of successive governments. Meritocracy remains part of the social mobility conversation, but clings to the idea that if you have talent (and I add here that everyone has some talent) – you can improve your circumstances by hard work.
This clearly is no longer true (or is not working). Too many hard-working people now feel left behind or just about managing or worse, and that they have failed and have no value. This includes working-class young people who have played by the rules and worked hard to enter university (the most popular and publicised national test for working-class social mobility) and not been able to manage for a number of reasons.
Those reasons include not having enjoyed the same educational preparation as their better-off peers; not having the same practical or financial support as their peers; or simply not having access to work after graduating from university. This is not likely to get better any time soon. We know millions of young people fail at the point of GCSE assessment (over 30% of our school population, and more than over 50% of pupils on free school meals) and who get stuck in an unproductive cycle of retaking GCSEs. The actual and real talents of these children and young people are too easily and frequently ignored, and possibly never even discovered (Blandford, S. (2019).[vii]
Definition: Social Mobility
Social mobility is achieving positive change in socio-economic status, and more widely, building better futures for all, in terms of wellbeing, health, and engagement with all that life has to offer.
To support social mobility, we must provide children and young people with real chances and choices. Chances and choices that are not determined by class, but by heritage, location and self-efficacy. Chances and choices that are respectful of individuals. Chances and choices that are non-judgmental, and not defined by movement between classes or location. Chances and choices that provide opportunities for everyone to be included, and to belong. Chances and choices that prepare the way for everyone to succeed in life, in education, health, employment and housing.
Is equality of opportunity a core British value?
If confronted with a television camera recording their views for broadcast, probably few people in England would say there should not be equal access to education and the most prestigious jobs in the country and the will to act certainly exists in some quarters (See the section: Government Commissions and the Need for Action). So why is progress not being made as explained by the Gini coefficient research (2019)?[viii]
Do we, as a society, really care enough about equality of opportunity for all, to change?
Is the traditional national measure of educational achievement – maximised university entrance useful for, or even relevant to, working-class children and young people and children facing disadvantage whose priorities may be supporting themselves so a job and a home? If we are serious about unleashing the talent of all children and young people, regardless of their background, challenges or needs, we must consider new and innovative approaches to post-14 education.
Equality of opportunity: a shared responsibility?
In my book Born to Fail? Social Mobility: a Working Class View (Blandford, 2017),[ix] I argue that all education and business leaders, professionals, practitioners, parents or carers, and members of society have a shared responsibility to ensure that our education system (in its widest sense) gives every child and young person a right to real chances and choices and support that maximise their opportunities.
Born into poverty in the late 1950s, I am now one of the country’s foremost experts on and champions for improving the aspirations of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. I assert that social mobility is about changing the way people (which people) think, act and engage and crucially, understanding there is an alternative way to live to ensure everyone can succeed. At the heart of which is mutuality.
My story began when children, from the estates where I was growing up, participated in a study of disadvantaged children (later published in 1973 as Born to Fail?) and the enormous inequalities we suffered (health, family circumstances, educational development) were compared to what the authors then called ‘ordinary’ children.
Shockingly, the findings of the 1973 Born to Fail study (Wedge and Prosser, 1973) [x] are as real today as they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Children and young people are still not reaching their full potential because of education, poor housing, poor health outcomes, and a lack of care.
Following on from Born to Fail? In consultation with 14 eminent education, business and policy leaders I put forward proposals in ’Social Mobility, Chance or Choice? (Blandford, 2019) [xi] which are based on a simple central premise: providing better and more meaningful chances and choices for children and young people will increase their future social mobility.
- By chances, I mean opportunities in an equal and mutual context where everyone is valued in education, training and the workplace.
- By choices, I mean giving children and young people real agency in securing positive options for their future in terms of their: overall life-course; employment / career; and better health, wellbeing, security, happiness, and engagement in society. In short - true social mobility.
I argue that we can only offer real chances and choices through mutuality, where everyone is valued regardless of their background, challenge or need.
Why does mutuality matter?
If 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. We’ve seen how it can work. In 2007, we stopped smoking in public places. Within a few years we saw the rate of childhood hospital admissions for asthma reversed and a drop in heart attack emergency admissions[xii] . Go back further and the change was seat belts, made compulsory in 1982 and now we all wear them, without complaint. They reduced the risk of death by 45 per cent and the risk of serious injury by 50 per cent. Wearing a seatbelt now saves over 2,000 lives a year[xiii].
Or consider cot death. When researchers discovered that children were less likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS – it was an epidemic between 1970 and 1991) by being put to sleep on their back instead of their front, the Back to Sleep campaign had a remarkable public health benefit, reducing the rate of SIDS by 85 per cent[xiv]. These are policies that work because everyone owns the change – everyone has a will to get behind it and feels the benefits.
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?
What is mutuality?
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 about schools and a curriculum that is relevant to their lives and which engages with them, so they can engage with larger society – it isn’t a ‘social distributor of life chances’, as the 1973 Born to Fail? study claims.
We know that when children and young people don’t achieve what they’re capable of achieving, it has a long-term legacy effect on society. This is estimated to cost the UK economy some £77 billion a year. In 2014, 120,000 13-year-olds were at risk of becoming NEETs; this group ‘collectively stand to lose £6.4 billion over their lifetimes’[xv]. These are young people we risk losing track of completely. Extending the school leaving age to 18 has only served to relocate the problem that was experienced at 16 and many who now struggle to stay in education - resitting exams and losing what little confidence they have left at a pivotal age when questions about the future are dominant.
Whereas, if all children and young people facing economic disadvantage received high-quality early education the gap in achievement could be closed by between 20‐50%. [xvi]
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.
As I moved through teaching, and then onto the wider world of educational practice, I’ve been able to take my childhood experience and to hold onto what it taught me. I am astonished, all this time later, that I still meet children like me who are considered born to fail. And I still meet teachers – good, hard working professionals, overwhelmed and undervalued – who are on their way to hating their job and giving up because they haven’t had the right support to give these children the chance to achieve.
But I’ve also learned – via the schools I work in, and the teachers I work with – that we can change that. I see it every day. Schools – some in the most difficult of environments – can embrace change in really exciting ways. This teaches me and teaches us all what social mobility could really look like for everyone in the future. Those schools have taught me about the things that matter.
Rethinking social mobility which is mutual
What is needed is an alternative way of thinking about social mobility – a way of thinking that is mutual, crucially listens to, engages and involves the working class in determining what their future should be. An alternative way that values partnership, mutuality and collaboration and which, by doing what is right, creates opportunities for all. What would happen if we responded to old questions with new thinking?
Why do working class children not achieve?
The need to understand how and why children can learn is fundamental to pedagogy – how teachers teach. Getting teaching right for the working class remains an ongoing challenge in many schools. An appropriate starting point might be to increase understanding of how working class, disadvantaged children, as well as those with special educational needs and disability (SEND), learn, refocus teacher training and professional training on this, and identify what is needed to prepare children for work. We need to change the mindset of the adults and services around schools to improve outcomes for all children. If you change the attitudes and behaviours of adults, you improve the attitudes and behaviours of the child.
Why isn’t school considered relevant by the working class? A curriculum that is not socially and culturally relevant to working class pupils, that presents more barriers than opportunities, will not engage them in learning. The national curriculum in England has been developed based on the knowledge and experience of the middle class. There are solutions to this dilemma that, if implemented, would address the needs of all children.
The first is to break down barriers to learning by providing opportunities for all children to participate in social and cultural activities, sport, the arts, debating, volunteering, wider community-based activities, museum trips and more.
The second requires us to relate the curriculum to the social context of the child and their future. All communities have a rich heritage, which can help shape the curriculum.
Thirdly, we should introduce learning about the workplace in primary school, which will raise ambitions, break down barriers, and provide relevance to learning.
Increasing access to learning for all children should be the benchmark of a successful school.
Why isn’t there the will to stop the growth of disadvantage among the working class? Part of the problem is that the context of UK poverty has changed. Poverty is no longer just an issue for people out of work or living in social housing. It impacts on people with disabilities, people who’ve become ill and had to give up work, people in work, young people (including some just out of university), people renting from private landlords. The drive for welfare reform has been seen as an answer to the problems of disadvantage, but it’s failed to understand this changing context and therefore the necessary solutions: better housing, investment in communities – or reinvestment where cuts have decimated good work – and a continued drive to grow employment and provide good jobs that provide an income on or above a living wage.
Why is working class success only measured by exam results? The annual media frenzy that follows SATs and GCSE exam results only serves to remind the majority of the working-class families that their children are disadvantaged, with private and grammar schools forming the majority at the top of published league tables. The minority of working class students who do meet national performance measures demonstrates that passing exams is a possibility at primary and secondary, but a lack of social and cultural capital makes this harder: recent primary SATs serve to prove the difficulties for those without that capital to respond to questions in the English exam[xvii].
The Education Policy Institute (EPI) report, Closing the Gap (2017)[xviii], reminds us that it will take decades to ‘close the gap’. A more meaningful assessment at secondary phase would include destination outcomes, measuring students’ outcomes by where the examinations take them.
Why is there a lack of ambition for the working class? There is no evidence that the working class cannot achieve – in education, employment, housing and health. There is also no evidence that the working class are any less likely to have a desire for success than others. What there is, though, is a lack of societal ambition outside spurious targets (like university entry) that only concern 50 per cent of the population at best. To increase ambition for the working class there needs to be a mutual understanding of what is available in terms of alternatives, and engagement with the working class about what they actually want. By talking and listening, ambitions can be met – a ‘do with’ rather than ‘do to’ approach.
So, are the working class born to fail? Research[xix] would indicate that rather than reducing the chances of failure within the working class over the last forty years, we have increased the possibility of failure in housing, education and social care.
We can change the way we tackle social mobility. Ultimately, it is about taking responsibility, and creating a shared moral purpose, ambition and integrity, owned by the working class, that can provide the opportunities and resources needed for all children and their families to achieve. This is social justice in action, and possibly, social mobility that really works.
How to: Time for Mutuality
In my work, I have had the privilege to see and feel the difference social mobility in its best sense can look like, and how everyone can benefit as a result. I have seen employers working with schools to support learning and to showcase the opportunities in their arena. I have seen young people helped into that first job and mentored and supported as they earn and learn and grow. And I have seen universities squaring up to the twin challenges of working-class access to higher education and the numbers of working-class students who drop out of studies.
This kind of thinking is exciting to see and demonstrates mutuality and choice in its finest form.
Mutuality happens when, instead of us thinking about helping children escape the constraints of their class and making judgements about what people from disadvantaged communities need to change, we focus on providing equality of choice. This allows people on all sides of the political spectrum, and from across all classes and cultures, to have their voice heard in the conversation about what happens next, to have a role to play, to value their class and background identities, and own their own change. When we do this, everyone in society benefits.
Mutuality in education is not about everyone getting the same marks. It is about everyone having access to the same chances providing equal choice, regardless of socio-economic background, learning abilities or talents.
While access to universities improves and apprenticeships embed in the system allowing more people to realise their potential, we should continually question whether we are identifying and meeting the needs of everyone. What happens to those with no obvious talent who find education challenging? What happens to those who face more challenges than most who fail to get the necessary GCSEs? What opportunities can we offer to ensure lifelong learning so there is always a chance to access education and work.
Companies, industry, and employers are already challenging the assumption that statutory exams are a measure of ability (they are seeing that assumption being proved wrong whenever they employ hardworking and effective young people with no qualifications) and now it is time to rethink these assumed tests of work readiness. Should we not rather look at basic skills (be that maths, English, teamwork, communication) and a desire to learn and be part of a workforce?
Should we worry less about the different types of schools in the country, and to focus more on how they can work in partnership with each other for their mutual benefit. By doing that we might level the field so all pupils can share in the aspirations and opportunity and sense of entitlement that is experienced in the independent sector.
If we dare to recognise the impact of the ladder of opportunity being drawn up (or that it has a missing first rung for so many who want to climb on), we can look at new ways to ensure real equality of access. At the same time, perhaps we also must dare to recognise that some might not actually want to move up the predetermined economic ladder.
The big question seems to me to be:
Do we care enough to listen to the young people we profess to want to help and include them in a meaningful national conversation about the lives they want for their future?
Research shows that failing to offer real chance and choice to children and young people facing disadvantage means that we also pay a more hard-edged price in terms of:
- Denying children and young people facing disadvantage with good prospects for a healthy and (economic and social) productive adult life, and a life expectancy equal to that of their more advantaged peers[xx].
- Lost taxes, additional public service costs and associated impacts such as youth crime and poor health costing Britain in excess of £77 billion a year. This shocking figure was the conclusion of the Impetus Private Equity Foundation 2014 report: Make NEETS History in 2014[xxi]. This report also concluded that 2014’s 13-year-olds who are at risk of becoming NEET [.....] collectively stand to lose £6.4 billion in potential (and taxable) earnings over their life course.
How to: Mutuality: Future Pedagogies
For a moment, consider the gap between the socially and culturally rich and the financially and educationally stuck[xxii].
It is time to challenge the injustice of the current prevailing view of social mobility, that the vulnerable and disadvantaged have somehow failed and they should become more middle class, pass the required number of exams followed by university. In contrast we should reflect on the thinking and action needed to change if every child is to be included, regardless of their background, challenge or need, our change-making focus must be upon the following:
- Improving Early years provision
- Building a relevant curriculum
- Improving teaching
- Widening our focus to ask why success is only measured by exam results? and,
- Future-Aware pedagogies: The World Economic Forum[xxiii] concludes that in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate. By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in job types that do not yet exist.
The best evidence we have suggests that the most effective support that we can give to young people to meet the challenges of tomorrow is to embed pedagogies and practice that could be described as future aware. Future-aware pedagogies support young people to develop the mindset, capacities, and characteristics required to meet new challenges as they arise, and on their own terms. These are listed in Table 8.1
Table 8.1 Future-aware pedagogies
Being able to reflect on, and extend knowledge
Creativity and innovation
Research and problem-solving skills
Self-regulation and self-development
Effective use of technology
Grit and resilience
These pedagogies underpin the need to build the core strength of every child or young person. Core strength, defined as a future-aware concept is the confidence and ability to learn, develop and participate in society.
We cannot predict the future that children and young people will live within. We can, however, be future-aware in our pedagogy and practice. We are future-aware when our teaching and engagements with children and young people develop the resilience, resources, skills, and capacities they will need to overcome future challenges and live happy and stable future lives.
How to: Mutuality Policy Options – School, Middle Tier, and Government
I draw the specific Policy Options listed below, from Every Child Included in Education[xxiv] priorities which are set within the context of the UK government’s Social Mobility Action Plan. At Achievement for All, we created this collaborative campaign to focus activity and embed change for the benefit of every child and young person.
Policy option 1: Respect and pupil well-being: Promote kindness and wellbeing in education, business and third sector settings, where every child and young person is included every day, addressing mental health, character and resilience through culture and mutuality, celebrating tolerance, patience, friendship, creativity and problem solving.
Policy Option 2: Focus funding on early years and a relevant curriculum: Increase investment across all phases of education, beginning with the early years that results in a socially and culturally relevant curriculum, increasing attainment in reading, writing and maths, enhancing life chances and culminating in a meaningful destination for every child.
Policy Option 3: Teacher training: Put greater focus on teachers as professional learners through recruitment, retention, and professional development that includes an enhanced understanding of the way disadvantaged and vulnerable children learn.
Policy Option 4: Inclusion: Reduce children and young people being excluded in education: increase responsibility for children at risk of exclusion through cross-agency collaboration to reduce exclusions and minimise the number of children and young people at risk, and close the gap for SEND, too often the marginalised and forgotten group.
Policy Option 5: Community engagement: Increase recognition of parents, carers and wider communities, valuing all parents and carers as crucial partners in the improvement of learning and life chances for every child.
My belief is that this movement can begin to build a foundation for better lives for every child and young person. All of us, as educators, parents and carers, and members of society must contribute to building a foundation rooted in mutuality and the real structures for change that will follow. No child should be ‘Born to Fail’.
[i] UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission (2019) Strategy 2019. P.4 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/social-mobility-commission-strategy-2019
[ii] Blandford, S, (2011), TES Special Educational Needs Conference Keynote, October 2011
[iii] Tawney, R.H. (1912) in Rose, M.E. (1972), The Relief of Poverty, London: Duckworth in association with Child Poverty Action Group
[iv] Blandford, S. (2017), Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View, Woodbridge: John Catt Educational
[v] Blandford, S. (2019), Social Mobility, Chance or Choice? Woodbridge: John Catt Educational
[vii] Blandford, S. (2019), Social Mobility, Chance or Choice?, Woodbridge: John Catt Educational
[ix] Blandford, S. (2017), Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View,
Woodbridge: John Catt Educational
[x] Wedge, P. and Prosser, H. (1973), Born to Fail? London: National Children’s Bureau
[xi] Blandford, S. (2019), Social Mobility, Chance or Choice?, Woodbridge: John Catt Educational
[xii] Donnelly, L. (2016), Smoking ban sees 40 per cent cut in heart attacks in UK since 2007 law was introduced. The Telegraph. 4 Feb 2016 Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/12138413/Smoking-ban-sees-40-per-cent-cut-in-heart-attacks-since-2007-law-was-introduced.html
[xiii] Department for Transport (2001), Think! Campaign. Available at: http://think.direct.gov.uk/seat-belts.html
[xv] Impetus (2014), Make Neets History in 2014. London: Impetus. Available at: http://impetus-pef.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Make-NEETs-History-Report_ImpetusPEF_January-2014.pdf
[xx] Blandford, S. (2019), Social Mobility, Chance or Choice? Woodbridge: John Catt Educational
[xxi] Impetus, (2014), Make NEETs History in 2014, London: Impetus
Professor Sonia Blandford
- Over 40 years’ in education as teacher, school senior leader, researcher, teacher educator, dean of education, pro-vice chancellor, school governor, MAT trustee, and author (54 books, 300+monologues, chapters and articles focused on social mobility, special educational needs, and educational leadership); Charity CEO, founder and CEO of the award-winning national/ international charity - Achievement for All 3As https://afaeducation.org/news/10-years-of/, delivering 11,000 programmes to improve outcomes for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people, reaching 5 million leaders, teachers, parents, carers, children and young people 2011-2021; The Prince’s Trust ‘Learning Lead – Taskforce 2030’
- Co-created Teacher Training Resource Bank, Teach First programme; Founding Vice-President Chartered College of Teaching; Adviser to various governments including UK, Norway, Latvia, New York, Turkey, and Lithuania; UK lead for European Agency for Inclusion and SEND Raising Attainment research/ report. Visiting Prof -UCL, Plymouth Marjon, Honorary Prof, Warwick;
- Recent publications, John Catt: ‘Born to Fail? Social Mobility, A Working Class view’: Bloomsbury: Raising Attainment in the Primary Classroom, Achievement for All in International Classrooms, Improving Outcomes for Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.