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“If You Want To Help Disadvantaged Young People Get Jobs, Fix The Economy”

The more we focus on schools as ‘engines of social mobility’, the further away we risk moving from the true purpose of education

Kevin Rooney
by Kevin Rooney

Recently I attended a conference on education along with over 200 teachers. Several times during debates and again during the breaks people referred to the promotion of social mobility as being one of the key aims of schools. Not once did any of the delegates think to question this assumption.

I have been reading a new book produced by the teachers of Michaela Free School and again, in the introduction, Nick Gibb, Minister for School Standards talks of how “this school is driving social mobility every day”. This prompts me to pose a question which few others seem to be asking right now: what are schools and education for?

I ask because today the answer is no longer clear. I think the mission of a school should be the transmission of knowledge and cultivation of a young person’s intellectual curiosity. I do not think schools should promote social mobility in any explicit way whatsoever. Yet my view places me in a minority.

Playing politics

In recent years, under successive governments, education has been transformed into an instrument of public policy as a means of achieving objectives that are entirely external to learning and the pursuit of knowledge.

For example, today in politics both left and right seem to agree that education should be about promoting social mobility, even if sometimes the people on the left prefer the term ‘social justice’. To quote Nick Gibb in a recent speech, delivered to the Sutton Trust, “A welcome consensus has begun to emerge that schools must be engines of social mobility”.

Hardly a day goes by without some politician or economist making a statement about how our schools must better prepare pupils for the workplace and a successful career. Increasingly schools are judged not just on exam results but on the number and type of universities their pupils go into when they leave us.

When Ofsted visit a school we are now expected to have detailed figures not only on university destinations but even the jobs they go on to. Schools are increasingly held responsible for social mobility or lack of it.

Education should not be thought of as an engine of social mobility, because to do so degrades education, distorts the role of teachers and places an unfair and undue burden on schools.

The transformation of education into a vehicle for achieving external policy objectives means that it is rarely perceived as something valuable in its own right. It’s regrettable that policy makers confuse education with training and preparation for a career, but it is heartbreaking that a significant section of teachers have embraced this philistine agenda.

Mission impossible

The latest example of confusion in relation to the role of schools is exemplified by Prime Minister Theresa May in her support for grammar schools. Personally I think grammar schools are neither the cause of nor the solution to our educational crisis, but what the PM had to say about them is illuminating.

Rather than premise her argument on the traditional strength of a grammar school – which is a high quality, classical, liberal, rounded education – she chose the philistine route. She sadly argued for more selective schools on the basis that they “must deliver social mobility as part of a vision that works for everyone not just the privileged few”.

Our PM is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it wasn’t grammar schools in the 1950s and 60s that allowed working class kids to get jobs, it was industrial growth and the expansion of the economy. School leavers stopped acquiring decent jobs in the 70s, 80s and 90s not because of ‘bog-standard comps’ but because politicians failed to grow the economy.

Hence, if you want to help disadvantaged young people get jobs, fix the economy. Don’t expect schools to solve a non-educational problem. Worse still, you risk destroying the one thing teachers could be good at, educating young people. The more non-educational and instrumentalist imperatives are imported into education, the more confused and disorientated teachers and schools become about what their core mission is.

It may sound cold-hearted to say so in such blunt terms, but the politics of social justice should be left outside the school gate. If you want to fight for social mobility for all join a political party and fight for a revolution, but don’t confuse such noble goals with teaching.

As social mobility becomes seen as the moral purpose of education rather than an informal byproduct, schools increasingly focus on finding ways for students to improve their employability and earning potential, rather than their minds. This is a backward step. What happens after young people leave school is a political, social, economic and personal question, not an educational one.

Kevin Rooney is a teacher, author, and convenor of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum. The next meeting of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum, which meets monthly to discuss trends in education policy, theory and practice, looks at ‘Why are boys underachieving at school?’ and takes place in Central London on 30 January. All teachers, parents and education professionals are welcome.

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