A close reading of the Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers strategy for social mobility reveals some interesting hints as to the limits of the aspiration agenda and raises questions about precisely whose aspirations the government hopes to influence. As I have previously noted, throughout this policy document there are various references to the need to improve the attainment, skills and aspirations of young people from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ and promote ‘fairness’:
A fair society is an open society. A society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise. Where birth is never destiny. (pg 3).
The document sets out in great detail how social class and family income continues to impact on young people’s educational attainment, their access to higher education and their likelihood of achieving social mobility. For example,
Children from the most disadvantaged areas are only a third as likely to enter higher education as children from the most advantaged areas, and are less likely to attend the most selective higher education institutions. (pg 19).
The report even notes that when people from state schools do attend university they often outperform their peers with similar levels of attainment who attended independent schools. So far, so good. But then the report begins to look deeper at the trends affecting particular sub-groups of students and that’s where it begins to get interesting:
Participation in higher education by white British teenagers is lower than for many ethnic minorities, particularly the middle of the attainment range. (pg 21).
And, a little later, in relation to proposed improvements in vocational education:
There are already many excellent vocational training programmes but some courses currently offer little positive value in terms of earnings and career progression. This is particularly important for social mobility because young people who choose vocational routes come disproportionately from low income backgrounds and from areas of multiple disadvantage. Where young people from low income backgrounds are choosing low value vocational routes, this may serve to undermine future social mobility rather than improve it. (pg 45)
It is all very well to develop educational interventions that are sensitive to where particular groups of young people are already at, but it seems that for all of the present government’s talk of fairness and the importance of social mobility, these interventions seem to take existing differential levels of attainment for granted and will serve to reinforce not challenge them. The trajectory of the current policy proposals seems to offer different interventions for different groups of students that will reinforce existing classed and racialised divisions of labour, rather than offer equal opportunities for social mobility for all. White British teenagers (from families on modest incomes) achieving results in the middle of the attainment range will have their aspirations worked on with the intention that they should progress to higher education. Low achieving students from low income families in disadvantaged areas will continue to be encouraged to take up vocational training. Although this approach might enable absolute social mobility to the extent that the present generation of teenagers might be able to do better than their parents, I see little evidence that this strategy will deliver the promised relative social mobility whereby the comparative chances of people from different social backgrounds achieving social mobility will be improved.