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In Their Dreams – Young People Need To Be Taught About Social Inequality

Hard work and aspiration are important, argues Penny Rabiger – but so is teaching our young people to ask why sometimes, they just aren't enough…

Penny Rabiger
by Penny Rabiger
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It’s an exciting time in my world. I’ve left the arena of supporting school leadership and joined a social enterprise, the perhaps audacious goal of which is to guarantee social mobility for the young people on its programmes. The first of many questions to consider, then, is always the big one – what the heck is ‘social mobility’ anyway?

When you delve below the surface, the whole concept of social mobility is problematic. For some to move up, others must move aside and make room. And yet organisations working with young people from deprived backgrounds – schools included – might be tempted to think it starts with telling students that, as Lawrence Samuel put it The American Dream: A Cultural History, anyone can, “Through dedication and with a can-do spirit, climb the ladder of success.” We might feel justified in telling our students that anyone can be anything they want in life. They just need to want it badly enough, keep their noses clean and work for it. And there is some truth in this – but it’s never that simple, is it?

Back to reality

Too often, being ‘socially mobile’ or even just ‘a success’ seems to be equated with a rapid acquisition of huge wealth. The media often scream messages of quick ascent to fame and fortune, so long as you are ‘in it to win it’. We find many of the students we work with need a swift and intensive crash course in the actual reality that isn’t found in the ‘reality’ TV shows and celebrity lifestyles readily available to them as role models.

Unpack these celebrity footballers’ and famous personalities’ lives, and you see how short-lived, fraught and insecure their riches really are. In fact when you look at the statistics for these outliers, you begin to understand that many young people (and probably an equal number of older ones too) will clearly see this dream crumble before their very eyes when you start to clarify the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times we have started conversations with our Success for Life programme participants by helping them understand that becoming a Premier League footballer might not be a viable, all-eggs-in-the-basket first option – especially when you’re not even in the first team at school, and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t encourage young people to dream, to be aspirational, and to set their goals high. But our role as educators is to, well, educate. Are we clear ourselves on the way in which our society seems to reject the notion that social mobility might be determined by forces which are beyond our control? With twisted pseudo-meritocratic themes coming through loud and clear around the ‘undeserving poor’, ‘benefits cheats’ and ‘scroungers’, have we lost sight of the noble desire for equality of opportunity as a starting point for all our young people?

And in practical terms, is there even space in the timetable for existential enquiry around politics, society, history and democracy unless they are part of the curriculum of your chosen GCSE and A-level subjects?

Making the grade

Sussex University sociologist Peter Saunders has written extensively on social mobility and the question of how meritocratic Britain really is. He defines an ideal meritocratic society as one where “Each generation would be recruited to a different class position on the basis of individual intelligence”.

Schools seem committed to this notion that intelligence is the defining factor in fixing our intellectual and professional status as adults. This is reinforced by the fact that schools are judged by academic outcomes, in particular for students from deprived backgrounds; ‘closing the gap’ is what it’s all about. It seems that we do mean well, and that this is embedded in our educational and societal structures.

If this is the case, then schools don’t necessarily need to see beyond the confines of their contribution to a student’s future success. They are doing everything they can, and in that sense, the mantra of ‘Work hard and you can get anywhere you want’ does seem appropriate when you are referring to gaining the grades that buy you a ticket from school to the next stage. But if knowledge is power, then there are two things young people need from their education – and we need to take responsibility for the fact that they can’t be covered by simply selling the American Dream.

The first is a commitment fearlessly to educate them about social mobility itself, the divisiveness of our society and how inequality is embedded at every level. This is not to demotivate or disincentivise our young, but rather to empower them – perhaps even to be the agents of change.

Secondly, we need to ensure young people have a chance to explore their own personal story, their roots, their feelings and assumptions about themselves as actors – not just within school, but as a family member, as a member of wider society and even the global community.

This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society, is one that is not easy to identify and narrate – but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success, for life.

4 ways to help students to think big; and stay real:

1) Don’t ask young people what they want to be when they grow up Instead, get them thinking about who they are and what makes them excited. Students need to know what sparks their passions and how to build on their strengths. It’s easy to expend too much effort and energy in life trying to improve things that we can’t do well, when we could and should be concentrating on building on our strengths.

2) It’s important to make sure that students can look inwards and understand themselves Not just in the personal sense, but also the political. They also need to know how to articulate what they feel, think, believe and hold dear. Students should be given opportunities to put across their case and promote themselves as worthy beings with much to say. They need time to develop and differentiate their world view and opportunities, to try out these thoughts and beliefs on different audiences for different ends.

3) Make sure students know about a variety of people and their professions From the mundane, to the specialised; from the generalists to the quirky. Ensure they understand the skill sets, interests and pathways that led people into different professions. Bring these people into school, take the students out into the world, use low-cost options through social media or the internet. Get them into the habit of asking people about the journey that led them to where they are now.

4) Help young people understand that hard graft and dedication are essential, and that good grades are your ticket to greater things – but also that success is determined by more than this A thorough understanding of society, the barriers and the opportunities we all face in different ways can help empower students to be the agents of change and to build a better future. How good is that?

Penny Rabiger was an English teacher for 10 years, has since been a director at The Key service for school leaders and governors, head of membership at Challenge Partners, and now works freelance supporting a range of education organisations. She is a keen blogger, Chair of Governors at a primary school, member of the Board of Trustees at a multi-academy trust and a steering group member of the BAMEed Network.

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