Saturday, 19 March 2016

Mass Mobility: How Schools can build us an Equal Society

More evidence surfaced last week in research by John Goldthorpe that class is destiny in Britain, where you're born in our society to a large extent determines where you end up. This has led many to conclude that Education is not sufficient to bring about social mobility and that policy action in other areas is required to bring it about.

This view contains three assumptions which seem to me highly questionable. The first is that the way we conceive social mobility is a goal worth striving for, that we are aiming in the right direction. The second is that Education, in its current form, is helping, it just can’t get there on its own and the third is that ‘Education’ and ‘our school system’ are equivalent terms. That is, not only has our school system failed to bring about social mobility, no alternative school design would be capable of doing so.

By 'social mobility' we mean poor but academically able children going to university and then well-paid, professional work. So we're asking a subset of poor children to say to their friends and family 'I'm going to leave you behind in poverty and join a separate, higher, class of people'. Signalling, by word or deed, that you are superior to those around you is a socially disruptive act. Professor Goldthorpe talks of loss aversion in the context of middle class families making sure they pass on to their children privileges they enjoy. Working class children may be equally loath to weaken the social ties that bind them to their communities for the uncertain promise of higher status in the future. Loss aversion guards the class divide in both directions, making traditionally defined social mobility doubly hard to achieve.

Rather than inviting some poor children to enjoy opportunities and rewards that remain the default expectation for their richer peers, a better vision of social mobility is one where all move towards the same level of income. A society where respect and status are not conditional on having outperformed others academically. In other words, everybody mobilises towards Equality.

Our school system is not helping us to reach this goal, in fact it does the opposite. School reinforces the idea that society is a hierarchy with those with the greatest academic ability at the top. This hierarchy will always be dominated by the children of the rich because interventions to help the disadvantaged, such as better schools or expanding early years provision, raise the bar rich children have to clear to stay on top, they don’t change the fact that rich parents have the material and cultural resources to make sure it’s their children who clear that bar.

Is there a school system that could bring about an equal society, while furnishing its students with the knowledge and skills to sustain a modern economy? Critics will say to attempt such a thing is Social Engineering and they’re right. But consider what school does at the moment. The curriculum is a competition between individuals to see who’s at the top and who’s at the bottom. The children we say are high value members of society expect and receive secure, well-paid employment, while those who we judge to be of low value are taught to expect low pay, or none at all. The stratification of status affects social relations too as children who get Fs are rarely friends with children who get As. So the adult lives of the fortunate are not complicated by social ties to those who will go on to struggle with low pay and the indignities of the benefits system. Social Engineering is what schools do. So if it’s OK to engineer an unequal society, what’s wrong with engineering an equal one?

A Curriculum for Equality

If a school wants to instill the belief in its students that they are equally valuable citizens, then it must have a curriculum that includes, for all children, a substantial non-academic component because academically, children are not, and will never be, equal. This vocational component should, like its academic counterpart, not be narrowly focused on a particular occupation but rather oriented towards skills that are applicable to a wide range of fields. One form this could take would be for students, in teams of four or five, to set up and run small businesses. At primary level these could operate within school for school issued currency, at secondary level children could graduate to operating in the real world, earning money.

Running businesses would teach children how to work together towards a shared goal, how to build and maintain professional relationships with customers and how to define their own objectives and work independently to achieve them. In addition to these primary benefits there are a number of secondary ones to students as entrepreneurs. It would be easier to motivate students to work hard because, unlike in the academic sphere, in practical endeavours the correlation between hard work and results is strong. Aiming for a shared success helps here too, in any field few people can aspire to be the most successful individual but everyone can aspire to be part of the most successful team. Earning their first wage under the auspices of school would also unlock for students a powerful educational experience: their first wage negotiation. Most of us only ever get to discuss our wages a la Oliver Twist (‘Please sir, can I have some more?’). If instead, children got to ask ‘we’ve worked together to earn this amount, how should we distribute it?’ that would better prepare them to tackle an economy of wildly disparate pay as adults. Working together as business people could also reduce bullying. Children who bully others have a really useful skill, the ability to influence and motivate people. Given the chance to use that skill constructively, they would be less likely to wield it as a weapon against their peers.

The arts could be repurposed to provide opportunities for success independent of academic ability. Art, Drama and Music currently occupy space in the curriculum as hybrid artistic/academic subjects where the goal is to produce work to be marked by the teacher/exam board and that mark reflects not just the work or performance but written analysis of that performance as well. If we took the view that the goal of these activities is not to find out how good you are in the opinion of an expert, but to perform or exhibit work for an audience in your community, these lessons could become an avenue to success for talented artists, who are not necessarily talented writers.

The effect of the curriculum changes outlined above would, of course, reduce the time spent on learning academic subjects. Could this be done without compromising academic standards? I think it could because although we currently devote virtually all curriculum time to academics, the incentive structure this creates results in that time being used inefficiently. Most children are academically average, the bulge in the bell curve, so school is saying to them ‘work really hard and we’ll tell you that you’re average’. That’s a weak incentive. For the children at the bottom of the academic distribution the picture is even worse, ‘work hard and we’ll tell you you’re worse than average’. School for these children is not a blessing but a poisoned chalice, asking them to be complicit in proving their inferiority.

Like a Socialist government, school relies on propaganda and coercion to achieve an outcome that’s in everyone’s interest and as with Socialism the results are underwhelming because propaganda and coercion are far less effective motivation than incentivising individuals. Compare this with a situation where school can say to the academically weakest ‘you’ve gained skills and shown initiative that employers really value, if you can raise your academic performance to an acceptable level you can have a successful career’. Greater academic progress could be achieved in less time if academic attainment was decoupled from status in society.

So let’s say we allow schools to raise a generation of equals, what would happen when the new wine of equality is poured into the old bottles of our existing, unequal economic structure? Here I think the power of loss aversion could be turned from a force of stasis to one of change. Students raised as equals would be bound by friendships that cross current class divides and to protect these relationships they would resist a system that sought to place some into inferior social positions. The watching adults would be able to see and choose between these competing visions of society. A school is like a time machine, it shows you the future, we just don’t appreciate that yet because we’re building a future that looks just like the present, a privileged group, an unprivileged one, regarding each other with mutual antagonism. If we saw how happy is an equal society we would choose it in a heartbeat. And we can have that equal society, if we find the courage to design and then build it.


  1. An interesting piece, thought provoking.

    My two cents. I think that a major problem lies within the fact that not only are a lot of influentially placed people not disposed to equity, they actively resist it. People that believe they have earned their advantage want to pass on their advantage to their children and you might sell them on equality but they resist equity once they realise that equity targets their advantage.

    I'd say that I would also argue that the major shift that Education needs to take is one away from extrinsic motivations, towards one of intrinsic motivations. We should be educating people to value being educated for what they can take from it on a personal level that is broader than vocational or your value within the marketplace. Sure, educate people to exist within the socioeconomic world that we live in but, at its core, educate people to appreciate education for its ability to enable us to better enjoy and experience our lives.

    1. I think you're exactly right on both counts. The sad thing for me on the reluctance of elites to give up vicarious privilege by changing the curriculum is that their children growing up wouldn't miss a superiority they never knew, but would appreciate the friendship and solidarity of an equal society and those benefits would be enjoyed by all not just a privileged minority.

      On your second point I agree wholeheartedly. We used to value education and in the nineteenth century incredible discoveries like the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Babylonian cuneform were made by amateurs, studying because they thought of study as a worthy goal. Now we value qualifications and because we teach children to think of study as a transaction in return for a certificate, when the certificate is earned the learning stops.

  2. There are a lot of privileges from living in a large wealthy nation but we're like an oil tanker when it comes to turning, not a dinghy, ponderous and meets great resistance. I have my fingers crossed for true devolution, supported by well thought out infrastructure, so that regions can encourage our true brightest and best to try out different solutions, devolved from the power of the traditional "elite". I'd hope Education could be equally unleashed.

    I just have no faith that the Conservatives have any intention of devolving power, only responsibility and accountability. I'd hope Labour would adopt devolution as their next great plan of works, their new Welfare State, their new White Heat, but it worries me that they don't have the personnel for the job.