Social mobility seems to be the big idea of the moment. It is now seen as unambiguously good by all the major parties, with the former Education Secretary, Justine Greening, even declaring her commitment to social mobility as more important to her than ministerial office. With such wide and strong support, it is not surprising that FE colleges have been keen to label themselves as ‘key’ to increasing mobility and to position it as central to their mission.
Yet this analysis, while convenient, is only partly true, and contains real dangers for the sector. It is necessary both to take a more dispassionate view of what social mobility means; and what colleges can and cannot achieve.
It is undoubtedly the case that very many individuals of all ages are helped by FE to achieve more of their potential. This is thoroughly worthwhile and valuable work. In some cases, the learning achieved through FE helps them rise up the social scale, though since the supply of good jobs is relatively fixed those rising up do so at the expense of somebody else. While it is hugely important for the individuals concerned it must be remembered that at a system level, it is just shuffling the pack.
Increasing the skills of the workforce is, by itself, insufficient to create more good jobs as the experience of the last 30 years has shown. Yet increasing the number of good jobs or reducing the numbers of precarious, poorly paid and unsatisfying opportunities would do more to increase the sum of human happiness than simply allocating existing opportunities more fairly. Fairer access to good jobs is important; but it’s not the only, nor even the most important goal.
Politicians are keen to focus on social mobility because it helps them avoid having to confront the bigger challenge of delivering social justice and a more equitable society. That would require them to tackle issues like inherited wealth, the imbalance of power between labour and capital, and the institutions like private education that entrench privilege. It must be even more enticing to focus on social mobility when a disingenuous sector puts up its hand and declares itself ‘key’.
For if the sector really is key to increasing social mobility, it must also have a part to play in the failure to do so for the past 40 years. Furthermore, when factors well outside the scope of the sector to influence – such as bad housing, poverty wages, the old boy network – conspire to prevent any progress in future, the sector sits as a ready-made scapegoat. In taking on a challenge that is far beyond its means to tackle, FE invites decades of further ‘reform’ to combat alleged failure.
There is a further problem. In nailing its colours too firmly to the social mobility masthead, FE risks devaluing all of its other achievements. Colleges help people in more ways than advancing their occupational status, critical as that can be for many. It is equally important to help people tackle their existing jobs better; or to switch to one that is more congenial even if not ranked as higher up the occupational ladder. It is important to help people realise their full potential in other aspects of their lives, even though becoming a better parent or citizen does not count in conventional measures of social mobility. It can even help individuals cope with the consequences of a society in which mobility remains limited, by providing other outlets for their talents and different sources of satisfaction.
Colleges undoubtedly do help individuals become socially mobile: but there are limitations to what they can achieve in this respect; and at the same time, they do so much more.