Feature

THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION: SOCIAL MOBILITY

The purpose of education is currently being considered by the Education Select Committee. So for the next few weeks, I will be blogging about the issue, considering a different perspective each week.

In its broadest sense, education is every society’s way of transmitting its canon of knowledge to the next generation – knowledge which is interpreted through the predominant culture of the age. It’s about preparing young people for a place in adult life. Whether it’s a tiny, stable community of hunter gatherers teaching their children the skills they need to live, or a large industrialised nation with a sophisticated and complex education infrastructure, the principle remains the same.

So what happens when an education service becomes consumed by ideologies which threaten to divert its wider purpose into narrow channels? That’s exactly what is happening at the moment, as successive governments become obsessed with social mobility and economic growth as the twin benchmarks of a successful education.

Wikipedia defines social mobility as ‘the movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between social strata in a society. It is a change in social status relative to others’ social location within a given society’. It should be a straightforward piece of social engineering: provide equal access to an outstanding education and the next generation becomes upwardly mobile. Except that it isn’t that simple.

The government fails to understand that we are educating people, not programmable units. People live in relationship with each other, in families and in the communities which form our wider society. There’s a high price to be paid for social mobility. It means no longer belonging in the community where you were raised and which gave you your values. Even when they’re proud of the achievement, it leaves parents and families feeling betrayed and hurt that what they gave wasn’t good enough. It means no longer belonging where you started life and often not belonging where you end up. We each speak a language with a cultural subtext derived from our upbringing and social mobiles spend their lives watching, listening and assimilating things that you take for granted when you’ve always belonged. Social mobility strikes at the very roots of identity.

And what of the lost relationships? I have spend most of my working life in inner city and estate schools, and I’ve lost count of the number of times parents of bright children have told me that they hear what I’m saying, but they don’t want to lose their child. Social mobility is seen as success for some; for others it’s the catalyst for unbearable loss.

It’s a downside that journalist Reeta Chakrabarti considered more than two years ago. Writer Damian Barr describes the sense of loss as an emotional tax that every social mobile has to pay. Presenter Terry Christian reckons that the promised land isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either, because ‘the skill sets that help you become socially mobile aren’t you being smart, or being very good at your job, it’s all about you being ambitious, greedy and very competitive’. He suggests that it’s the model of social mobility, with its relentless drive for more money, that’s faulty.

It’s also a model that fosters envy. Where does upward mobility stop? If the measure of success is your relative place in the social strata, then there’s always someone higher than you. Should we be striving for a better life, or for a more contented one?

And that’s the question that many twentysomethings are answering, with a response that makes them downwardly mobile by the government’s measure. Even if they’ve gone to university, they have no realistic prospect of achieving the successful economic future they were promised. So they are opting for a very different life from that of their parents. They are taking manual work in shops or call centres to earn enough to pay the bills, then spending their time doing the things they love – art, music, community gardening, conservation and church work are just a few that I’ve heard of recently. It’s a substantial rejection of the values that underpin the current social mobility model. Despite government policies, Millennials looks set to define a new set of social values based on having enough but no more; contentment; fulfilment; collectivism, and contribution to the common good.

So, what does the Bible say about social mobility? Nothing, but it does lay out principles about the values that inform the ideology. The Bible tells us that our equality is not based on money, possessions or social standing. It’s based on the fact that we are all created by God with equal dignity, value and inherent worth, because we are made in God’s image. The Bible also has plenty to teach us about equity, or the fairness and justness of our society. It’s encompassed in Christ’s call to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). That’s not about feelings. It’s about valuing others as we values ourselves; caring for others as we care for ourselves, and creating opportunities for others and not just for ourselves. In education terms, it’s about creating a service which gives every unique individual an equal opportunity to flourish in whatever way best matches their skills and aspirations. That might be to remain within the context of family and community. It might not. It might be in a context where paid work provides enough but no more, or one where ambition to achieve yields a substantial income.

The key is to provide an education that facilitates informed choice and then to respect and value every choice as being of equal worth, regardless of the social status it affords.