Are Schools to blame for Low Social Mobility?

As we come out of the pandemic a big concern for schools is the extent to which the attainment gap has widened, adding to the ongoing issue of low social mobility in the UK.

Upward mobility may well be stagnant but is this really the fault of the education system? Certainly more school funding is required to help pupil premium students but school leaders and teachers cannot carry the burden alone. Disadvantaged families require support outside of the classroom if low social mobility is to improve.

Can students from low income families thrive in the education system?

Sir Peter Lampl reflects on his own experiences growing up and suggests that the same opportunities are not there for modern day students from low-income backgrounds due the failings of the education system. From our experiences working with schools, we would suggest that those opportunities are still there for the minority but more needs to be done to make them available to the majority. It is important to distinguish between the different types of families that could be included in the category of low-income backgrounds.

Earlier this year a government report found that different social and cultural factors as well as economic factors contribute to the varying levels of social mobility within impoverished areas. Children of migrant families often thrive in the education system dependant on what Professor Diane Reay refers to as their history of migration”. When migrants have arrived from countries where their families have historically enjoyed educational success they already have “social and cultural capital” and so although impoverished on arrival they have high aspirations for their family.

The government report claims that these new arrivals to the UK have achieved “remarkable social mobility”. However, if these families already had social and cultural capital are they really champions of social mobility? Rather they are champions of the excellent opportunities that exist in the UK for high-aspiring migrant families. Any discussion about upward mobility has to be about how we can help other disadvantaged learners in the education system to seize these same opportunities.

Are schools to blame for low social mobility?

It is well documented that each year a child spends in the education system the gap between rich and poor grows wider. 

As Sir Peter points out you have to be able to afford to live in the catchment area in order for your children to attend the best comprehensive schools, therefore education has become more socially selective.

Our survey on the difference between Ofsted ratings requires improvement and outstanding schools last year confirmed that the best indicator as to whether a teacher will experience challenging behaviour at a school is the location. We also noted that schools in the most disadvantaged areas are still far more likely to receive a “requires improvement” rating even when they are delivering innovative curricula.

Studies show that disadvantaged students taught in schools with a wealthier intake tend to achieve much better, but how far can the government go with this? Should we abolish independent schools and insist that every comprehensive school in the UK has an equal representation of disadvantaged students? Social mobility is often narrowly defined in terms of helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds access selective and high-performing schools and then progress to attend university. Without drastic measures this only benefits a small minority of impoverished families and doesn’t target the families most in need of intervention.

Teacher Discussion - Social Mobility through teaching

Can schools in disadvantaged areas do more for Social Mobility?

Schools located in deprived areas will be predominantly attended by pupil premium students and are more likely to be judged to be “requires improvement”, hence the perception that the schools are failing the students.  Is the quality of teaching in these schools really lower than schools in more affluent areas or independent schools? We often speak to highly talented teachers giving it everything in these schools, passionate about the difference they are making and jesting they are doing the “real teaching”.

Critics will say that the school system should not be providing different types of education for different social classes yet we wonder how teachers are expected to deliver the same lesson to a highly motivated class of pupils as to a class of disaffected learners who are constantly disruptive. How much can these schools do for the students without further changes outside of the school environment?

What can be done to improve upward mobility?

The fundamental problem is that disadvantage as well as privilege is perpetuated from one generation to the next and to think that school improvements per se can stop this cycle is fantasy.

If we assume that the groups that have achieved upward mobility already have “social and cultural capital” then a logical step forward would be to help other families in deprived areas to obtain this same capital through adult education. Intervention cannot change historical family attitudes towards education but it can certainly help present and future generations.

In a society that only really gives status to university graduates, many disadvantaged families feel that successive governments have not given them any consideration. This has exacerbated their disillusion with education and society. Supporting families to access adult education in the most deprived areas through guidance and funding could be a powerful tool in changing attitudes towards education for current and future generations as well as strengthening community cohesion.

A recent government report  also found family breakdown to be one of the main reasons for poor educational outcomes estimating that 40% of the overall development gap between disadvantaged 16 year olds and their peers emerges by the age of 5 and that the relative contribution of schools is smaller than that of parental and family factors. The report urges the government to look at initiatives that prevent family breakdown.


Schools can certainly play a part in helping to close the attainment gap and urgently require additional funding targeted at providing high quality interventions for pupil premium students.

However, schools are a place for delivering education. Should they really be burdened with fixing society’s ills in addition to this? Schools can certainly play their part but if upward mobility is to increase then more needs to be done outside of the classroom to help disaffected families feel a part of society.

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