Social mobility or social wellbeing? Why it is time to change the social mobility narrative
10th June 2022
By: Dr Louise Folkes, Lecturer in Social Sciences
“Working-class people should aim ‘lower’ than Oxbridge, social mobility tsar to say” (Dixon, 2022)
On 9th June, The Telegraph published an article with the headline above, deliberately inviting provocation and outrage amongst many who work within education and work on social mobility. It does seem rather futile to be writing about social mobility at a time when large numbers of the population are scraping to get by in a cost of living crisis, barely able to afford essential goods and services (see this previous post for more). Although the headline invites anger and frustration (this was my initial response!), the argument being made by Birbalsingh isn’t all too different from what social mobility scholars have been saying for a very long time. Social mobility is about more than getting a few more working-class kids into Oxbridge. Having said that, we cannot shy away from the fact that the most powerful positions in our society are occupied by a small elite, and often mechanisms of ‘widening participation’ are only working to serve and maintain such elite cultures.
Elite cultures and reframing social mobility
“Although equality of opportunity is important, some notion of equality of outcome is also necessary, where the quality of life on a collective level is the ‘measure’ of success and social justness.”Folkes (2019, p.177)
In March, I attended a fantastic conference titled ‘Shaping Social Mobility: Education and Employment’ at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor. It was by no means lost on me the irony of attending a conference about social mobility within the Windsor Great Park, a royal park where Prince Andrew resides. As ‘we’ have just celebrated the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, there appears no better time to talk about elite cultures, wealth and inequality. Laura Clancy’s (2021) book ‘Running the Family Firm’ is an excellent analysis of how the royal family is complicit in reproducing entrenched inequality through their careful wealth and image management. At a time where care workers can’t afford to fill up their cars with petrol to get to work (Giordano, 2022) the opulence and wealth of the royal family (and other elites) just rubs more salt into the wound.
But back to the conference at Cumberland Lodge. This event brought together academics, teachers, representatives from charities and businesses, policymakers and young people to discuss what’s next for social mobility. It was refreshing to engage with such a wide range of experts and to hear a common consensus about the narrow scope of social mobility as it is commonly understood. We all understood that social mobility was not purely about getting more young people into higher education, after all, the massification of higher education has not seen a significant decrease in inequality (Bathmaker et al 2016; Reay 2013). The conference took a holistic approach to understanding social mobility, looking beyond the individual and metrics, to addressing inequality, value and legitimacy in society. The myth of meritocracy is evident now more than ever, and in such turbulent economic times it is crucial to ensure the social wellbeing and ontological security of all to ensure a fairer society. This requires rethinking what we understand as social mobility and reimagining social mobility as a collective endeavour (Folkes, 2022).
At Cumberland Lodge, we discussed ways to question the legitimacy of elite cultures and how we can extend what is seen as ‘valuable’. Questions of value are always shroud in issues of legitimacy and power- valuable for whom? Who benefits? There are many professions that are extremely valuable to society, care work to name but one, yet are so poorly remunerated. There are also many professions that are extremely financially valuable but whose contribution to society is negligible. Crucially, however, we must not reduce discussions about social mobility to individual access to higher education and earnings, but remember the bigger picture. Social mobility as it is currently conceptualised will never be enough to tackle the entrenched inequalities of the present neoliberal, capitalist ‘meritocracy’ (Littler, 2018). We require a large ideological shift to move away from our obsession with individual achievement to focus on collective, societal achievement (Folkes, 2019). In a country where so many people are struggling to makes end meet, the problem has seeped beyond the individual and requires collective action to improve living standards for all.
Elitist Britain- Why we need outreach programmes
Despite my call for collectivity when discussing social mobility, we cannot ignore the entrenched elitism in UK society. The 2019 Elitist Britain report produced by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission explores the percentages of the privately educated and Oxbridge educated in some of the country’s most powerful and influential occupations. Three key areas- politics, news media and judiciary, make up the three main areas where elites dominate (see the table below for a snippet of the data). When you consider that only 7% of the UK population are privately educated, it is staggering how overrepresented privately educated people are in these areas. These areas are also essential to how society functions which is why fair representation is such an important issue.
|Privately educated||Attended Oxbridge|
|Politics: Junior Ministers||52%||36%|
|Media: News Media 100||43%||36%|
|Media: Newspaper columnists||44%||44%|
|Media: BBC executives||29%||31%|
|Public Servants: Senior Judges||65%||71%|
But here’s the dilemma. I’m sure most people would agree that it is unacceptable for our powerholders to dwell from such unrelatable backgrounds to the majority of the population. Yet, how can we do anything about it? Social class (or socio-economic background if you’re afraid to talk about class) is the one demographic not protected by the 2010 Equality Act and so active monitoring of the social class make-up of institutions is not happening. It is of course difficult to define and ‘measure’ social class; some suggestions made at the Cumberland Lodge conference were around using proxy measures such as eligibility for Free School Meals, your main carer’s occupation at age 14, type of school attended, and if you are a first-generation student (being the first to go to university in your family). I am yet to be convinced, however, that 1) we can collect this information from some of the most powerful employers/institutions in the country and 2) that even if we could, naming and shaming them would make any difference. This may just be the pessimistic sociologist in me.
The one thing I do believe in passionately is in outreach. As a university we do fantastic work with schools, colleges and organisations to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to study with us, or more specifically, to study sociology with us. Using statistics such as those above, I use my outreach sessions to emphasise these inequalities and to spark anger and frustration within students. It is not okay that a small pocket of elites manage how the country is run and can use their power to maintain elite cultures. My aim is to hopefully encourage and maybe even inspire prospective students to take up the space they deserve and to consider becoming part of the next generation of powerholders. As a society it seems we have hit breaking point- change has to come.
Bathmaker, A-M., Ingram, N., Abrahams, J., Hoare, A., Waller, R. and Bradley, H. (2016). Higher Education, Social Class and Social Mobility. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Clancy, L. (2021). Running the Family Firm- How the Monarchy Manages Its Image and Our Money. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Dixon, H. (2022). ‘Social mobility should celebrate ‘small steps up the ladder’’. The Telegraph 09 June. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/06/09/social-mobility-should-celebrate-small-steps-up-ladder/ (Accessed: 09 June 2022).
Giordano, C. (2022). ‘Care staff ‘calling in sick because they cannot afford fuel to get to work’ The Independent [Online] 09 June. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/care-workers-petrol-fuel-prices-b2097910.html (Accessed: 09 June 2022).
Folkes, L. (2019). Collective (Re)imaginings of Social Mobility: Insights from Place-based, Classed and Gendered (Im)mobility Narratives. PhD Thesis: Cardiff University. Available at: https://orca.cardiff.ac.uk/id/eprint/125647/ (Accessed: 09 June 2022).
Folkes, L. (2022). Re-imagining social mobility: The role of relationality, social class and place in qualitative constructions of mobility. Sociological Research Online 27(1), pp. 136-153.
Littler, J. (2018). Against Meritocracy- Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility. Abingdon: Routledge.
Reay, D. (2013). Social mobility, a panacea for austere times: Tales of emperors, frogs, and tadpoles. British Journal of Sociology of Education 34(5-6), pp. 660-677.
The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission. (2019). Elitist Britain 2019 [Online]. Available at: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Elitist-Britain-2019.pdf (Accessed: 09 June 2022).
 It tends to be the case that people who refuse to discuss social class benefit from social class structures.