The new head of the Social Mobility Commission will call for a move away from the fixation with rags to riches tales of “caretaker’s daughter goes to Oxbridge and becomes a top surgeon” and instead highlight the value of “small steps up the ladder”.
In her inaugural speech as the SMC’s chair, Katharine Birbalsingh will appeal for a radical rethink of what social mobility means, saying it should not just be about opening up elite pathways for the few. She will also echo the government’s view that widening access to the university has “not always brought the dividends hoped for”, although more than 80% of sixth-formers at the school where she is headteacher went on to Russell Group universities last year.
Birbalsingh is expected to challenge the narrative that social mobility is getting worse, citing recent analysis from the commission that she says shows occupational mobility has remained stable or slightly improved, though she will acknowledge there is less consensus on income, housing and wealth.
Last week a report by the Sutton Trusta charity that specialises in social mobility through education, said prospects for disadvantaged young people post-pandemic were “bleak” and the postwar dream of doing better in life than one’s parents had faded.
Birbalsinghwho was recently the subject of a documentary called Britain’s Strictest Headmistress, will tell an audience at the London offices of the Policy Exchangetank that the social mobility world is too fixed on a small minority of people from poor backgrounds getting into the best universities and elite professions.
“We want to move away from the notion that social mobility should just be about the ‘long’ upward mobility from the bottom to the top – the person who is born into a family in social housing and becomes a banker or CEO,” Birbalsingh is expected to say.
Instead, she wants to promote social mobility for a wider range of people, who want to improve their lives sometimes in smaller steps. “This means looking at how to improve opportunities for those at the bottom – not just by making elite pathways for the few, but by thinking about those who would otherwise be left behind.”
In another echo of government policy, this time its levelling up agenda, Birbalsingh will pledge to look at ways of creating more opportunities outside London, to reduce the need for young people to move to the capital or the south-east to get a good job , and she will say there is no one-size-fits-all model of social mobility.
“If a child of parents who were long-term unemployed, or who never worked, gets a good job in their local area, isn’t that a success worth celebrating? Would we really say that it doesn’t count as social mobility because they are not a doctor or lawyer?” she will ask.
Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, agreed that improving social mobility was not simply a matter of catapulting a few talented people into elite universities. “The most important question concerns children growing up right now whose education has been devastated by the Covid pandemic, in a world of widening home divides and spiraling living costs,” he said.
“The evidence is clear: unless action is taken, the prospects for future social mobility are bleak.”
Birbalsingh is the head of Michaela community school in Wembley, where many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have gone on to attend the country’s best universities. Last year 82% of sixth-formers went on to top universities including Cambridge, the London School of Economics, St Andrews and Imperial College.
A new survey of 10,000 undergraduates, carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute, found that only 11% would have preferred to do something other than go to university, including 6% who would rather have done an apprenticeship. Nearly six in 10 (59%) said they were happy with their choice of course and institution.
Among students who had considered dropping out, 34% cited mental or emotional health, and just 5% said they found the work too difficult. Half of the students surveyed said their degree “sufficiently” prepared them for life after university, while 18% disagreed.