The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Education is for everyone

If schools aren't working to help all children succeed, what else can they do? Elizabeth Holmes caught up with Debra Kidd to discuss the systemic problem of poor social mobility.

Despite various attempts over the decades to address the inequalities that leave a blight on our society, social mobility remains a particularly hot topic for schools. But without a clear and precise idea of what we mean by social mobility, and how it relates to our communities and the people within them, we can expect to make little progress.

Following her insightful blog post published in January, 'Class Confusion', I caught up with Dr Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) again to consider where we might usefully focus the social mobility debate, and what that might mean for our schools.

According to Full Fact, children are more likely to be living in poverty than the general population. It seems that now is an important time to be discussing social mobility, and thinking about how we relate abstract terms like ‘poverty’ and ‘inequality’ to our communities. What do we need to be aware of?

Debra: 'I think we need to take real care to not be taken in the ‘deserving poor’ narrative – that some (the ‘bright’, for example), deserve more help than others. Or that poverty is the result of poor life choices. Once we accept those arguments, the slide to the right is quick and easy and we lose empathy for those at the bottom of the pile.

'Having said that I’m not sure a utopic, egalitarian society is possible. On a basic level, I can’t think of any society that doesn’t have some kind of inequality. It seems to be an element of human nature to create hierarchies – we naturally organise ourselves into some kind of pecking order. Truly egalitarian societies are extremely rare.

'That’s not to say you can’t work towards a more compassionate society. The degree of inequality we’re seeing at the moment is alarming, and requires action.'

I suppose, then, we should be asking if we will ever see commitment from politicians to fulfilling the radical ambition of removing significant barriers for working-class children?

'I think at the moment our government, and others, has made the mistake of believing that what’s right for one is also right for another. Whole communities have been devastated because they have been eaten out from within. Anyone who can get out is encouraged to do so, and those who are left are blamed for what has happened to their community.

'The charity Reclaim has done work to highlight this. It’s a youth leadership and social change organisation that believes that young people with lived experience of social inequality in the UK are also the key to social change. They are working to make communities stronger from within, which is what we need.'

This kind of work with communities at risk of extreme poverty is incredibly empowering. It’s a way to give people pride in their communities and meaningful, purposeful work.

'Yes, and it also helps to create mixed communities which is absolutely what children need. This is how we get integrated communities.'

Do you think there is too much focus on getting children out of communities and not rebuilding from within?

'I think there can be. The problem lies in having a profession that is predominantly middle class. How many teachers come from the background of the children they teach? True integration is difficult and yet there has to be integration for people to understand how other people live.

'Mixed housing is a good idea, including plenty of social housing for the low paid – council estates in the 1950s and 1960s were full of people who worked for low pay: there was a sense of pride. These people have been abandoned to market forces now and the stock of social housing depleted so that only the poorest can have them. That creates isolation and low aspiration.

'The kind of strength in communities that we saw in the 1950s and 1960s came in part from people valuing where they came from.'

And yet too often we talk to children about going away, or leaving home in order to make a better life.

'Perhaps what we should be talking to children about is what you can do when you grow up to make your community a better place. Education shouldn’t be about escape and separation. It should be about growth.'

This is about regeneration, not gentrification or social cleansing.

'Yes, and in education specifically it’s about finding areas of the curriculum where you can build pride in your locality. Look at day-to-day life for people living there and help children to feel that they stand on the shoulders of a strong community.

'Let’s help children to feel proud. Find the local heroes, the people running charities and food banks for example. Bring them into school to talk about what they are doing to make the community a better place. Make living history records and create documents about these local people. Or how about exploring what the town needs? How many doctors for example? Give children a sense of moral purpose that is linked to where they live.'

That sounds eminently sensible, but there can be a tension between the local and the global. We tend to zoom in and out of the local and global in schools.

'I think it’s about not encouraging the feeling that the best of life is ‘out there’. We’re not missing out if we commit to a community.'

Is there a risk that this might feed the accusation that teachers have low expectations for some children?

'I do get fed up with that rhetoric about low expectations. It seems like hand-washing by those in a position to do something. Poverty has to be tackled, there is no doubt. We have to look at the impact of extreme poverty on a child’s ability to remember, to retrieve information and to make connections. If we don’t do that, what are we doing?

'But strengthening and rebuilding a local community is not about having low expectations. It’s about having hope.'

Debra Kidd is the author of Teaching: Notes from the Frontline, Becoming Mobius: The complex matter of education and Uncharted Territories: Adventures in learning. She is also the founder of Northern Rocks.

More from Optimus

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The cost of educational underachievement

Spotlight on Northern Rocks

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