David Cameron says that social mobility is being held back because people from outside the middle class can lack the ‘aspiration’ to make it into the top jobs.
I’ve worked as a teacher in an inner city school for five years, and run an education charity tackling low social mobility for five years – and I’ve never met a child without high aspirations.
Ask a student from a low socio-economic background what they want to do when they grow up and most of the boys will say ‘footballer’ and most of the girls will say ‘pop star’ (frankly, a very sensible first dream – you wouldn’t hear anything different in a leading public school), but ask again, and the kids’ more earth-bound aim is to graduate from a top university and get a graduate job.
It is infuriating to hear journalists and politicians talk about the need to raise aspirations firstly because it’s patronizing to families from lower socio-economic backgrounds. A common fallacy is that it’s tough for working class kids to go to top universities because they have to leave their families’ values behind. What rubbish. Good luck going to any schools’ parents’ evening and trying to put paper between the values of parents from different economic backgrounds.
The second reason it’s annoying when people say that the big problem is aspiration, is that it makes low social mobility seem much easier to solve than it really is. All you’d need to do would be to show disadvantaged kids how great top jobs and universities are, and the problem would be solved.
How could this be enough when 25 per cent of students from the poorest backgrounds fail to meet the expected attainment at the end of primary school, compared to 3 per cent of students from the most affluent backgrounds?
Here we have the real root cause of social mobility: poor academic attainment by students from low socio economic backgrounds.
It’s a problem which starts depressingly early – various studies have shown that the academic performance of a ‘bright’ baby from a low socio-economic background will drop below a ‘less able’ baby from a high socio-economic at about the age of five.
So what can be done?
Of all politicians, Alan Milburn speaks most sense on this topic. He has set out five long-term goals:
• Spending more on childcare rather than tax credits because "early education packs a double punch. It positively impacts children's development and it enables more parents to work".
• Doing more to help the less affluent with parenting, even if this requires "taking on the Daily Mail argument about the nanny state".
• Raising educational standards and closing attainment gaps, including incentivising the best teachers to teach in the worst schools.
• Opening up universities and prioritising vocational education.
• Ending the domination of the professions by a social elite by ending unpaid internships and tackling closed shops.
We know what the problem is, and here we have a set of sensible goals to work towards. David Cameron, please stop talking about aspiration. Instead, help us solve the problem of attainment.
Alex Kelly is Director of Unifrog, an award-winning online subscription service for schools which helps students choose the best universities for them. www.unifrog.org