Professor Andrew Peterson and Dr Garth Stahl look at how education policy can enable social mobility.

In the aftermath of last week’s UK General Election, it is worth pondering what the outcome will mean for education, and in particular for the role of education in enabling social mobility and/or reinforcing social immobility.

Across discussions on mainstream and social media, two immediate consequences of the hung parliament seem clear. The first is that while the position may have helped gain them vital support from young voters, even perhaps winning them the odd seat (of which Canterbury was the leading example), the Labour Party will not be in a position to implement their manifesto pledge to establish a ‘national education service’ which would have seen the scrapping University tuition fees.

The second, is that the Conservative Party’s desire to allow new Grammar schools is, if not completely untenable, likely to be either put on the back-burner, scaled-down into pilot form or replaced by an alternative.

But what of education policy more generally? Here, the new Conservative Party minority government is caught in a difficult position. On the one hand, the Party wants to be seen as a party of social mobility (it is precisely this rhetoric which has underpinned its dogmatic commitment to the expansion of Grammar schools in England), and also as the political party best placed to help those Theresa May termed the Just About Managing (JAMs) when she became Prime Minister last year.

On the other hand, England remains internationally low in rankings of social mobility, and high in associations between social class and educational attainment. Part of the explanation for this lies in the way in which recent governments have sought to present and address social mobility.

Furthermore, the problem with such rhetoric is that it individualises social mobility and implicitly assumes that social immobility owes more to poor educational choices and low aspirations than it does to inequitable choice and different or unfulfilled aspirations.

Government discourse and policies around white-working class education provides a ready example of this tendency to pathologise and blame. In other words, the current focus on choice and aspirations seriously underplays the effects of economic and structural inequalities.

In addition, such an individualising discourse subverts the focus away from the impact of other policies which hit the worse off hardest. Such policies include, among others, falling levels of per pupil funding for schools and issues with teacher recruitment / retention.

A key lesson of the (for now only) General Election in 2017 seems to have been that while voters may have been content with a period of austerity since 2010, their patience with continued austerity may be wearing thin. Whether this will lead to a major increase in expenditure on education remains to be seen, but even if it does it will require a concomitant shift in thinking away from a discourse of choice and aspirations and towards greater recognition of both the contexts in which young people and their families live, and the ways in which these are shaped adversely by government policies.


These issues and more will be discussed at a British Sociological Association Study Group conference entitled Social Mobility, Aspirations, Education and White Working-Class Youth, in Canterbury on Wednesday, 5 July 2017. You can find out more here.

Andrew Peterson is Professor of Civil and Moral Education in the School of Childhood and Education Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University. Dr Garth Stahl is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of South Australia.