This is what I really said about social mobility

13 Jun 2022, 16:32

Social mobility is complex, as FE providers know. The Telegraph’s headline about my speech was the opposite of the truth, writes Katharine Birbalsingh

You may have read that last week we launched the “fresh approach” which we want the Social Mobility Commission to take over the next few years.

The Commission has a statutory duty to report to Parliament on social mobility and can make recommendations about areas to improve.

It has the potential to influence policy, and has done some excellent work in the past. We want to make it more effective and we want to shift the focus. 

The headline which dominated on the day was the Telegraph’s rather odd spin, that “Working class people should aim ‘lower’ than Oxford” (the headline has since been changed).

This was not what was said or implied (you can see my speech here). In fact, quite the opposite.

You only have to look at the institutions my deputy chair and college principal Alun Francis and I both lead to see how high we encourage our students to aim.

We want them to be the very best they can be, and want to live in a world where no-one is held back by their background.

And we acknowledge that there is a lot of very important work going on, in schools, colleges and universities, and among employers, to improve the opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to excel.

It is fantastic that this is happening. But what we’re saying is… it is not enough. 

Social mobility is a very complex term. People have their own ideas of what it means for them, but in sociology and economics, where much of the measurement work goes on, the definitions and data are complex. 

And in policy terms, the problem of social mobility is usually framed in a particular way. 

It tends to focus on a very small group of very talented people making huge leaps from the ‘bottom’ to the ‘top.’

Of course we should strive for this to happen as much as possible – and indeed my own sixth form is all about getting disadvantaged kids into Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities. 

But there’s also brilliant work being done in the FE sector with young people who are achieving other things and who have different talents.

Not everyone can or wants to be a rich banker in the City

Well done to the FE providers supporting those 16 year olds who leave school without brilliant GCSES, who want to find something they are good at, and want to build a decent life in the place where they grew up – but either can’t or do not want to go to university! 

And well done to those supporting adults returning to learning, who want to improve their literacy and numeracy or other basic skills, or their vocational competence.

These are precisely the people that further education is devoted to.

But while many working in FE have the best of intentions when it comes to social mobility, on the current measures, most of their efforts – and more importantly, most of what the learners achieve – do not show up in the measurements.

Their progress only gets counted as social mobility if they are among the exceptional few, who leap from the bottom to the top – usually through extremely high academic achievement.  

The focus we want to bring to the Social Mobility Commission is how opportunities are being improved for everyone – but especially those who are often overlooked and ignored. 

Some may want to say this is lowering expectations. But that’s not what we’re saying at all. High expectations are the foundation of great learning. 

Aspiration matters too. Of course we want to celebrate those who go to Oxbridge or become top lawyers.

But we also want to celebrate those who don’t follow those routes. Life isn’t just about becoming a top banker in the City – we should celebrate that fact, and recognise that there are great achievements to be had in other careers and other parts of the country too. 

Not everyone can or wants to be a rich banker in the City – but they still want opportunities. 

And while we want to encourage and inspire everyone to be their best, we also need to avoid prejudiced views about occupational hierarchies and places – what a “good” job is or where you should aspire to live.

It really is great to see those who break from the circumstances in which they were born, to become stand out superstars in their chosen field. 

But this isn’t only about the few who are academically excellent – it has to be about the wider range of talents which FE typically discovers.  



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