Sociologist John Goldthorpe’s argument that decades of investment in education have not improved social mobility, deserves to be taken seriously, given his position as one of the leading authorities (if not the leading authority) in this area.
Goldthorpe argues that improvement in ‘relative’ social mobility –an increase in the improvement in educational chances of less privileged groups vis a vis others –which would make society more of a ‘meritocracy’ would also have to involve significant amounts of individual downward mobility for those in the middle and even the upper reaches of society to compensate for upward mobility from below As Goldthorpe explains though, ‘parents in more advantaged class positions will respond to any expansion or reform of the education system by using superior resources –economic, cultural and social –to help their children retain a competitive edge’. Thus this type of relative mobility has continued to be minimal
In contrast, as previous posts to this blog have argued, it was the changes to the occupational structure in the post-war years, particularly the growth of managerial and professional work, which enabled, in fact necessitated a significant amount of ‘absolute’ upward mobility. For this type of mobility to be re-established, as Goldthorpe argues, more ‘top end’ jobs would need to be generated. But now at the start of the twenty-first century this is not happening and on the contrary a new pattern of downward mobility has emerged, as many of those with qualifications which would previously would have allowed them to move up, now find that education becomes like trying to move up a downwards escalator –where you have to move faster and faster merely to stand still.
A recent Ipsos Mori poll for example, shows that 54% of Britons believe young people will be worse off than previous generations leading social mobility tsar Alan Milburn to conclude
“This idea that the succeeding generation would do better than the previous generation is part of the glue that binds, as has been the notion that if you put in effort, you get a reward. Certainly I was brought up to believe that if you stuck in at school, you’d get on in life.
“Unfortunately, there’s pretty compelling data to suggest that that may no longer be the case and that has got huge consequences for social cohesion in our country. It almost feels like we’re facing an existential crisis about what sort of society we want to be,” (Guardian 12/03/16)
Education: a crisis of legitimacy
The belief that each generation does better than the previous generation has been fundamental to the justification behind educational expansion during the second half of the 20th century. Even if the increased opportunities to ‘get on’ were the result of changes in the occupational structure and an expanding economy, new types of qualifications and less selective schools were still the vehicle through which this process operated and continued to give education ‘legitimacy’.
But now, the emergence of a generation of young people now ‘overqualified and underemployed’ has led to a crisis for an education system that promotes, encourages and celebrates ‘achievement’ Instead there is a re-emphasis on education being about social control. In the upper years of secondary education, exams are being made more ‘rigorous’ so that it is harder to get the higher grades, subject choice has become narrower and traditional ‘end of course’ examination style assessment has been restored in place of more open ‘modular’ learning and coursework. All these are enshrined in the EBacc, which though officially imposed on schools to ‘raise standards’, will, as many teachers recognise, limit opportunities and cement boundaries between those that pass and those that fail.
With constant attacks on the post-war model of education, it’s not surprising that education struggles continue to be largely defensive, but as the traditional expectations about what education is supposed to enable, continue to crumble, progressive alternative education strategies will need new aims and objectives.