7 min read
17 Jun

With child poverty at record highs we now need a new era of outward-facing leadership. Government social policy has failed. As a profession we need to take back control of the social mobility agenda and speak up for our communities. 

The recent report from the The Social Mobility Commission paints a grim picture. The report serves as an annual health check and asks the question: 'Is the government delivering on our recommendations?' Their State of the Nation report in 2018 raised concerns that it was not, concluding that matters had stagnated. Despite continued minister pledges, the commission was concerned that the government had taken little or no action towards one-third of their recommendations. 

The recommendations have been in place since 2013, so ministers have had ample time. It will not come as a surprise to many that the main reason why the government has failed is because of a lack of coherent strategy: 

"At present there is no meaningful coordination between departments on the social mobility agenda, and no single force championing social mobility across government."

Lack of leadership from the government is clearly to blame. Only this week, Boris Johnson stood up in PMQs, and twice denied to Keir Starmer that poverty had increased. On the contrary, claimed the PM, it had actually decreased. This was despite the fact that the commission report stated that an additional 600,000 children are now living in relative poverty under this government's watch. 

Not long ago I read a book called Teaching with Poverty in Mind by US author Eric Jensen. He defines poverty as “a chronic and debilitating condition that results from multiple adverse synergistic risk factors and affects the mind, body and soul.” He points out that there is a tendency to assume that poverty only affects the working classes and those pupils living in cities or in large metropolitan areas. This is not the case, and Jensen’s book reminds us of all the different types of poverty, including the more familiar ‘absolute’ (day-to-day survival) and ‘relative’ (when income is below a national average, as referred to in the commission report). 

Jensen also refers to the less familiar notion of ‘rural’ poverty, a concept that seems to be emerging more and more, in much the same way as 'coastal' has emerged as a similar cause for concern. In fact, Britain is divided into a number of regional 'hot' and 'cold spots'. According to the Social Mobility report, "Young people are twice as likely to go to university from a social mobility ‘hot spot’ (27%), compared with remote rural cold spots or former industrial areas (14%)." 

A word of caution. We must not fall into the trap of assuming that every deprived child comes from a dysfunctional family. Being poor does not mean being unable. It does not mean there is a lack of ability, aspiration or support at home from parents. As a FSM pupil myself, coming from a working class coastal council estate, I know only too well how dangerous and damaging it can be to write off pupils purely on social status. So let's keep this in perspective as we now briefly explore the different types of capital. 

I put out a highly scientific Twitter poll earlier this week asking whether teachers knew what social capital was. A third responded that they did not. Only 60% said that they knew how to build social capital. On this basis, if schools are to take the lead on championing social mobility (given that government social policy has failed), the challenge is perhaps even greater than we first thought. 

It is essential therefore that teachers are aware of what social capital looks like. There are many theories available, but the one that I always find most useful was developed by the influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It's as good a starting point as any, and as with any social theory, the usual caveats apply. 

I actually revisited Bourdieu's work a few years ago when researching a chapter on Identity that I wrote for The Working Class. Bourdieu first coined the term in the 1970s when attempting to construct a new social capital theory eventually crystallised in his classic study of French society called Distinction (1986). He even suggested that it is social (and cultural capital) that have the biggest influence over a child’s chances in school. Data suggests that the position remains unchanged. 

Before we explore cultural and social capital, we need briefly to mention ‘economic’ capital. According to Bourdieu, economic capital exists very much at the interchange of the two. Economic capital is essentially the total of all the assets that an individual may own and is very often an indicator of money or wealth. However, this also includes material wealth. On the surface, a person may appear to be economically wealthy but in fact they are not. 

This is often applicable to the families in our schools. They may well have a car, go on holidays and have a Sky Sports subscription. But because their social and cultural capital are locked up, they themselves remain disadvantaged because they don’t have access to the full range of opportunities available to those with greater social capital.

According to the theory, the more capital (or resources) a parent has in their possession, the more power and agency they have. In turn, the more advantaged they become. Social capital gives them a much-needed foot up the ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to 'trade' with and invest in. 

Social capital concerns itself with the connections we have in our lives. The more connections we have, then the more control. A person with lots of social capital is likely to have a number of friends and acquaintances at their disposal, some of whom may be colleagues they work with, ex-alumni or community members.

However, for too many of our families, the only acquaintances a mum or dad may have are those other parents they stand with on the playground. This may well be the sum total of all they have, especially if new to the UK. That said, these parents may still be able to release social capital through family connections. 

Social capital in the family home is often as important as economic or financial capital, especially when strong relationships exist between family members and parents act as strong role models. More importantly, an abundance of social capital exists in our schools. We just need to know how best to release it so that parents in turn pay it back. 

According to Bourdieu, once a person has a reasonable amount of social capital, they can then start to trade it in for cultural capital. Cultural capital includes those assets that are non-financial such as education, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, dress and even age. All of these are known to promote social mobility. 

Reciprocity is essential so that people know how to bargain, compromise and live in a more tolerant and pluralistic society. Cultural capital has always been the mainstay currency when passing on social norms, values, traditions or oral history down through the generations, be it around the campfire, on cave walls, through music or on social media.

More recently, much has been written on the role of schools in building social capital. A good starting point would be Flipping Schools by John West-Burnham and Malcolm Groves, published earlier this year. Contrary to this blog, the authors argue in fact that schools should not necessarily focus solely on social mobility. Instead, they should seek to place equity at the heart of school leadership (very different of course to equality). 

To do this, schools need to re-examine their role in relation to their communities, particularly in MATs that cover a wide geographic area. To assist with this, the book contains a number of case studies to help leaders turn their schools inside out and begin to build social capital.

Most importantly, Flipping Schools calls for a complete overhaul of the current model of accountability. Research has long shown that schools have little or no chance of ever closing the attainment gap, even more so post-lockdown, especially when the key driving force appears to be more to do with government social policy than traditional school improvement. When we add into the mix the fact that we have a Prime Minister in denial, the scale of the problem appears almost insurmountable. 

The attainment gap has hardly moved during the past decade or so at secondary school, so unless something fundamentally changes during the coming months we'll just go back to the way things were. And as for Ofsted... Well I won't even go there. That's for another post. But their days must be numbered as a regulator, given the complexity of the challenges schools now face, both within and beyond the classroom. 

But there is a glimmer of hope. I do genuinely believe that when it comes to building social mobility, schools can make a difference. If we believe they don't, then we may as well pack up and go home. I make this claim because we know from research that one of the key characteristics of communities and schools with high social capital is trust. If we can continue to engage meaningfully with our families and build on this, then we really can begin to chip away at the problem. 

The best schools have turned this to their advantage during lockdown. Throughout the crisis, they have provided strong, purposeful and outward-facing leadership, often being the only beacon of hope for their community. Clarity, consistency and competence have been the key. 

If we are to build on this, we can no longer rely on government. Schools themselves need collectively to become that force that champions the social mobility agenda. If we don't, nobody else will. 

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