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The success paradoxWhy we need a holistic theory of social mobility$

Graeme Atherton

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781447316336

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447316336.001.0001

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Going beyond attainment

Going beyond attainment

(p.65) Four Going beyond attainment
The success paradox

Graeme Atherton

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at how the idea of success in the education system in England is arrived at, and what may need to be done to try and adapt this idea so that social mobility can be defined differently. It examines the interaction between the three essential parts of the system: what is taught explicitly in the curriculum, what is taught implicitly through schooling and what happens in the home. The chapter concentrates on how these three elements manifest themselves in the 2010s in the context of social mobility debates. Where the curriculum is concerned this is via the debate around the classical curriculum vs 21st century skills. In the nature of schooling the rise of character as a defining feature of educational success is examined. Finally, there is the increasing importance placed on the early years and the role of parenting in shaping what happens over the life­course. The chapter argues that it is crucial to make every effort to increase educational attainment in particular for young people from lower socio­economic groups. However, the unquestioning pursuit of higher attainment may not be the best way of preparing young people to progress in their lives in the 21st century.

Keywords:   skills, classical curriculum, parenting

The children that are at the schools in Shanghai are doing three years better than children at schools in England.… That’s the reality of the situation. I’ve seen it for myself.… We have stagnated in terms of our maths performance for the last 15 years, while other countries like Germany and Poland have been learning from the East.

(Gander 2014)

Zhang Yang, a bright 18-year-old from a rural town in Anhui province in China was accepted to study at a prestigious traditional medicine college in Hefei. But the news was too much for his father Zhang Jiasheng. Zhang’s father was partly paralysed after he suffered a stroke two years ago and could no longer work. He feared the family, already in debt to pay for medicines, would not be able to afford his son’s tuition fees. As his son headed home to celebrate his success, Zhang Jiasheng killed himself by swallowing pesticide.

(Sharma 2013)


These two quotations highlight the problem faced in developing an educational system that supports these broader (as opposed to narrower) forms of social mobility. China is lauded in the West for its achievements in the international PISA (Programme of International Student Assessment) tests. However, this obsession with attainment comes at a cost for countries such as Korea and China. Nor are those in these countries entirely happy with what their own education systems are doing. Yet they are greatly admired by education policy makers in the UK. Increasingly we now share their obsession, but the idea that England should emulate these countries should be considered carefully.

Academics and politicians both see educational achievement as central to social mobility. Even accepting the doubts outlined in previous chapters regarding the limitations of education in terms of the problems it can solve and the returns it provides, it would be perverse to suggest that improving the attainment of learners from (p.66) lower socioeconomic groups is not crucial. It would be equally perverse to criticise or ignore the efforts that are going into closing the gaps in attainment between social groups. While the coalition government slowed down investment in education, from 2010 to 2015 it built on Labour’s commitment to reducing attainment gaps through initiatives such as the Pupil Premium, which has allocated funding to every child from a disadvantaged background, and the creation of the Education Endowment Foundation, which works to fund, identify and disseminate innovative, leading practice in work to raise educational attainment. But it is not the intention of this book to document the work on closing these attainment gaps; there is an ever-growing body of research that looks at this and links these efforts with reducing social mobility. The focus here instead is to examine what that success should look like, not to look at how to make individual pupils and the system itself more successful.

Education will become increasingly important to social mobility, however it is defined. While doubts regarding the returns to education are well founded, the alternatives are both unrealistic and undesirable. Do we wish to return to a nepotistic regime, where labour market reward is based entirely on family or community ties? Our present brand of meritocracy may have a huge strand of nepotism of the cultural variety running through it, but the ability of education to break down much of what would otherwise be more rampant inequality means that it is impossible to see a way round it as the route to more sustainable societies. The realisation by the majority of the public that education is the better of two evils means that it is highly unlikely that we will see a reversal in the extent of educational participation in Western countries, or indeed globally.

Such a reversal would anyway imply a dramatic reversal of what happened in the 20th century (Schofer and Meyer 2005). Over 70% of 17-year-olds were in full-time education in England in 2102, compared with less than 10% in 1953, while over 80% have five A-C GCSEs or equivalent, compared with less than 10% in 1953 (Bolton 2012). We are a far more educated society now than we have ever been.

Like most advanced capitalist countries, the UK has moved inexorably, as Young predicted in 1958 in The Rise of the Meritocracy, from an ascription economy, where economic opportunities are mainly awarded on the basis of the financial and cultural influence associated with socioeconomic position, to an accreditation economy. Influence still matters, but it is now translated into economic opportunity through qualifications.

(p.67) Finally, increases in healthy life expectancy (ONS 2012b) and a need to work to an older age to pay for an ageing society will pull up the age at which young people enter the labour market. It will also imply the need for more lifelong learning as workers seek to retrain and (hopefully) participate in education to enhance their quality of life.

There should not be a reverse in participation in education, though. A broader, sustainable conception of social mobility requires an education system that supports that goal, but this means aiming to prepare young people for progression across a number of domains. At present, it is not doing this – a narrow definition of what success means in the educational system is acting as the foundation for the unsustainable definition of social mobility.

This chapter looks at how the idea of success in the education system in England is arrived at, and what may need to be done in order to adapt this idea so that social mobility can be defined differently. It examines the interaction between the three essential parts of the system: what is taught explicitly in the curriculum; what is taught implicitly through schooling; and what happens in the home. In particular, this chapter concentrates on how these three elements are being made manifest in the 2010s in the context of social mobility debates. Where the curriculum is concerned, this is via the debate around the classical curriculum versus 21st-century skills. In the nature of schooling, the rise of character as a defining feature of educational success is examined. We begin, however, by exploring the increasing importance placed on the early years and the role of parenting in shaping what happens over the lifecourse.

Home, school and the ‘early years’ evangelists

In the 2000s, detailed research started to emerge that focused on the importance of what happens in the early years of a child’s life in defining how well they will do in the education system. Research in the UK purported to show that differences in aptitudes for academic success can be identified as early as three to four years old between children from different social backgrounds (Feinstein and Duckworth 2006). These differences in achievement never close over the lifecourse (Goodman and Gregg 2010); in fact, they widen. This evidence has had a significant impact on the educational policy discourse (Saunders 2012). It has brought a real focus on what happens in the early years of a child’s life in terms of both policy and investment. This work in the UK has been combined, as we have seen before in the social mobility debate, with work from the US, to make a policy case.

(p.68) James Heckman is a US economist who has become one of the leading academic advocates for early investment in the development of non-cognitive skills. He argues that such investment prevents poverty, crime and school/college drop-out. He starts from the position that US society is becoming even more polarised and divided, and is fearful of the consequences. Rather than solutions based on distribution, however, he favours pre-distribution-based approaches centred on prevention. Drawing on a range of studies, he argues repeatedly that attitudes and personality traits are at the basis of differences in life trajectories by social group. Heckman offers a broad definition of these non-cognitive skills: ‘character skills such as increasing self-confidence, teamwork ability, autonomy, and discipline which are often lacking in disadvantaged youth’ (Heckman and Mosso 2013: 9).

Heckman paints a pessimistic picture of the chances that young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have of social progression at present in the US. Family backgrounds have ‘deteriorated’ over recent decades as incomes have stagnated for the poor and there has been a fragmentation in family and community structures making parents from some social groups less equipped to instil in their children the attributes necessary for success (Heckman 2008). However, Heckman also believes that if interventions can be made early enough, in particular to improve parenting, then things can change. His analysis of the pay-offs in terms of income and career benefits of the national Perry programme in the US has been used to justify significant investments in pre-school education in the US (Heckman et al 2009). This programme combined both additional schooling with low pupil:teacher ratios for three- and four-year-old African American children from disadvantaged backgrounds with home visit support, to encourage parents to work with their children.

Heckman is keen to point to the financial pay-off in terms of higher wages and economic growth in raising the skills level of all young people. However, he ignores the labour market side of education, and does not engage with the evidence outlined earlier in Chapter Two, that future labour markets will not generate unlimited higher-earning graduate jobs without a battery of non-education-related interventions, if indeed at all.

The kind of non-cognitive skills that Heckman focuses on also remain hard to define. In his 2006 paper, he states that: ‘Common sense suggests that personality traits, persistence, motivation and charm matter for success in life’ (Heckman et al 2006: 15). The subsequent analysis draws on standardised studies of self-worth used in the US to examine how this range of traits relates to wages and adolescent risky (p.69) behaviour (Heckman et al 2006). In the conclusion Heckman adds to the list of non-cognitive skills to include motivation, persistence and self-esteem.

The lack of real clarity regarding what these non-cognitive skills are – and how they are accumulated – also means that it is not clear what the balance between investment in formal pre-school education and parenting should be. While there is a weight of international evidence to support the impact of pre-school education, there are also exceptions – especially in Finland, where children do not start school until the age of six. It appears that there are broader cultural factors associated with the way in which children are raised from birth, and the role of educational activity and education within this culture, that are most important here.

To a significant extent, the common-sense proposition that Heckman makes above is one that he can support through evidence. The concept of investing in the ‘whole child’ through pre-school home and family activities offers a glimpse of an alternative understanding of what success could mean. He does not address, however, the broader questions of where the increased intensity in parenting at early years could lead and the nature of the parenting model. To a degree, his work is a little like that of the sociologists and economists cited earlier in Chapter Two: there is a greater focus on measuring the extent of difference between groups than explaining what could cause this difference. This means that the potential of the Heckman approach is not being fully realised. If the focus on the importance of parenting and what that means could be developed in such a way as to see the outcomes as broader than just economic success, then the drive to enhance non-cognitive skills could be a springboard for a different view of what constitutes success.

The rise of ‘hyper-parenting’

Unfortunately, rather than opening up a debate around what parenting means and its different forms, the focus on the importance of early years has actually narrowed the understanding of ‘good parenting’. It has contributed to the intensification of the efforts of those in middle-class positions to parent in ways that can be described as not just economically defensive, but also economically offensive.

The central importance of parenting in the early years model has been embraced enthusiastically by many parents in the UK and extended across and into post-secondary education. Aware of the importance of educational attainment to future success, those in higher socioeconomic groups are investing more time and resources in explicitly educationally (p.70) focused activities for their children at a younger age. This is a kind of ‘hyper-parenting’, where success in parenting is not measured by the quality of the relationship between parent and child, but by the quantity of effort put in to ensure that children are able to participate in as many stimulating activities as possible and to succeed in school in comparison to their peers. The goal is not just to ensure that the child does well enough to maintain the social position of the parents, but that the child beats the other children and actually does better than the parents. To paraphrase Cowen from Chapter One, average is over in a quite different way here (2013). This manifests itself most clearly in the much greater attention being paid to school choice from primary level entry onwards. And the importance that parents place on school choice is well documented by research (Vincent 2012).

This kind of ‘hyper-parenting’ is focused mainly in higher socioeconomic groups, but it has become the dominant model of ‘good parenting’ that all groups are being compelled to adapt to. The consequences of this model are an ‘educational arms race’ that all cannot possibly win. Furthermore, as this model extends to all socioeconomic groups, it only intensifies the efforts of the more affluent to gain advantage. The concept of all schools being good ones, for example, and therefore it not being an issue which one a child attends, does not work in the 2010s. Even in areas where all the schools score above the national average in all metrics, the competition to enter the best is still fierce. House prices in areas where the ‘best schools’ reside in London are up to 245% the average (Tobin 2014). This model is not one where ‘excellence for all’ works; it is excellence for some that is at the heart of it.

Pierre Bourdieu, Raymond Boudon, parenting and cultural capital

Differences in parenting by socioeconomic group are not new. Pierre Bourdieu (1992) built a comprehensive theoretical framework to explain not just parenting, but the whole nature of how inequality is perpetuated via the behaviour of individuals based around the ideas of capital, field and habitus.

Archer et al (2007) describe habitus as: ‘an amalgamation of the past and the present that mediates current and future engagement with the world, shaping what is perceived as ab/normal, un/desirable and im/possible’ (Archer et al 2007: 220). Habitus is deeply rooted in the culture of particular groups in society (Bourdieu 1992). For middle-class groups, their habitus fits easily with the education system, while (p.71) for those from working-class groups there is a friction, which leads to the view that education is always somehow unnatural for ‘the likes of us’. Cultural capital is the manifestation of habitus. The attitudes and dispositions that form it are translated into knowledge and skills, which middle-class groups can use to succeed in the education system.

Addressing disparities in cultural capital is not straightforward, if indeed it can be done within the context of a capitalist economic system (which many writers in this area seem to doubt). Cultural capital is also hard to measure and define (Goldthorpe 2007). Goldthorpe prefers to explain the differences in educational progression by reference to Raymond Boudon’s work (Goldthorpe 2007) who sees two different kinds of impact on educational success arising from social class background (Boudon 1974). The primary effects relate to children’s academic ability, which stems from economic differences that are both cultural and material, such as access to computers or the internet. The secondary effects pertain to class-related factors that affect educational decisions for children with the same level of academic ability. It is the latter on which Boudon focuses. He was interested in why young people with the same level of ability would choose educational progression in the case of those from higher socioeconomic groups, and leaving the system in the case of their peers from lower socioeconomic groups. He explained it in terms of rationality – the fear of downward mobility is what motivates decision-making and underpins what is perceived as rational. Those in the middle-class groups saw the loss in terms of economic and social status as higher than the costs in terms of tuition costs, extra work and so on; the reverse was the case for those from lower socioeconomic groups. Boudon proposed that the only way to address these problems was to make society less unequal and to reduce the number of ‘branching points’ where students could exit the system.

Boudon’s theory provides a more than plausible description of the behaviour of the hyper-parents described above. However, much of the investment (both in money and in time) that more affluent groups place in education is not defensive: it is also offensive. There is a strong element of wanting to progress as much as not wanting to slip down any social scale. Boudon’s work may need augmenting in the 2010s by the idea of ‘hyper-parenting’.

The theoretical debate among sociologists regarding the merits of Bourdieu versus Boudon is a long and complex one (and there is no space to tackle it here). Both Bourdieu and Boudon provide a rationale for differences in approach to parenting that is grounded in economic inequality at the societal level. In both cases it is a ‘rational’ response to (p.72) the environment within which parents parent and their children live. Hence, it is less amenable to change by exhortation – and indeed, why should it be? By contextualising parenting, Bourdieu and Boudon open up the debate regarding the merits of different models of parenting and their worth. Is it possible, for instance, to develop models of the ‘good parent’ in the present context that do not necessarily prioritise academic attainment in schooling above all else?

Schooling and confusion over character

A consequence of the increased focus on early years education has been the rise in the importance of ‘character’ in understanding educational attainment. Shaping the ‘character’ of pupils was one of the central concerns of the education system in England at its inception in the 19th century (Owen 1813, Newsome 1961). It continued to be an important theme in what education should seek to achieve to the mid part of the 20th century. In the latter half of the 20th century it became associated with particular kinds of challenge-based outdoor activities, and featured less prominently in mainstream education. It is no coincidence that, as the state started to exert greater control over the education system, it returned to prominence.

However, the more recent interest in character differs somewhat from that in the 20th century and when it first reappeared under New Labour. The interest in character is now less to do with the formation of a set of citizens with certain moral attributes, and more to do with character and now also ‘resilience’ in terms of how they can support attainment in schools and then progression afterwards. Supporters of the role of character draw on the work of Heckman and Feinstein as well as that of US writers such as Paul Tough and his best-selling ‘popular sociology’ book, How Children Succeed (2013) to justify its importance in defining success.

However, what character actually means is contested. The APPG is a group of politicians who have come together from across political parties to contribute to the social mobility debate. They have no formal role, but have been able to influence the debate. They have been vocal proponents of the importance of character, linking it explicitly to what happens in public schools as well as to Heckman’s work. Their 2014 Character and Resilience Manifesto is vague on exactly what they mean by character, however: ‘character and resilience is used here as an umbrella term for a range of concepts variously categorised as aspects of social and emotional development and as non-cognitive or – somewhat incongruously – soft skills’ (Paterson et al 2014: 11).

(p.73) They quote a 2011 report by Demos (Birdwell et al 2011) to try to give a more accurate definition:

  • Application – the ability to stick with tasks and see things through.

  • Self-direction – the ability to see one’s life as under one’s control and to effectively shape its future course; the ability to understand one’s strengths and weaknesses accurately; the ability to recognise one’s responsibilities towards others.

  • Self-control – the ability to monitor and regulate one’s emotions appropriately.

  • Empathy – the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes and be sensitive to their needs and views.

(Paterson et al 2014: 11)

It is noticeable that empathy is at the bottom of this list. There is an echoing of the Heckman problem here, where the actual skills or capabilities described are done so in overlapping and interchangeable ways. There is also a real shortage of detailed considerations of how they might differ and what the order of importance may be. It is quite possible that character could be an educational trend and could fade in the medium term (a little like personalisation in the 2000s, for example). In the mid-2010s it is certainly in vogue, being picked up by both major political parties offering different, and in some cases new, examples of what character means and its importance to fuel the debate (BBC News 2014a).

The basic idea at the heart of the quest for character – that there is a broader range of capabilities that young people need to develop via schooling than learning about particular subjects – supports holistic social mobility well in principle. However, the risk is that while the potential is there for character to do this, it is not being realised. It is becoming a way of encouraging the development of a very narrow set of skills purely in order to drive better attainment. Calling for improvements in character does not acknowledge that there could be differences in character by social background and that they could be quite valid. The existence of character is being measured by a set of standards constructed on the basis of what very affluent and powerful people do. Resilience, self-control or any other components wedged into the character ‘box’ are being associated with what happens in private schools. When politicians and others make this link, they only contribute to the ‘character problem’ that they are allegedly setting out (p.74) to solve, as they ignore where the real ‘character’ is being displayed on a day-to-day basis. Those in lower socioeconomic groups show determination, character and resilience every day to survive on low incomes and in unrewarding, low-paid jobs.

To borrow from the ideas of Bourdieu outlined earlier in this chapter, this resilience is not translated into success in the same way in the educational system; and to borrow from Boudon, such success is not seen as important as for higher socioeconomic groups. This does not mean, though, that they lack character. For sure, young people in private schools experience problems. Adolescence is no respecter of class, and these problems should not be ignored. But it would be bizarre if those in schools which cost thousands of pounds to attend had bigger problems to overcome than those in schools beset by challenges of poverty and inequality.

However, it may not just be politicians and those on the political Right who do not recognise the above. In the desire to apportion responsibility for educational inequality with the system, it could be argued that sociologists especially have not paid enough attention to the strengths of working-class culture as opposed to what it lacked. There is a long history of working-class achievement in working-class-led education going back to the 19th century (Simon 1998). Research commissioned by the government and produced by Siraj-Blatchford et al in 2011 argued that parents from children in lower socioeconomic groups were able to provide just as much educational support for their children as those from higher socioeconomic groups. This research looked at how children who succeeded ‘against the odds’ from lower socioeconomic backgrounds had to show determination, belief and resilience.

The deficit model of education, where those from lower socioeconomic groups are concerned, is damaging and counterproductive. The idea that those from such groups do not have educational aspirations for their children, for example, continues to inform policy. As Cummings et al (2012) found in their review of the literature on educational aspirations, the reality may be somewhat different to the perception:

[C]hildren and parents from low income families have high aspirations and value school, and … parents by and large try their best to support their children’s education. There is evidence that teachers and other professionals may underestimate the aspirations of socio-economically disadvantaged children and parents and not appreciate the (p.75) importance with which school is viewed.

(Cummings et al 2012: 8)

There are some fundamental issues with using the term ‘character’ to encapsulate the non-cognitive skills that young people are supposed to accumulate through schooling. It refers to something that is unique to every individual. Everyone has a character; it is not, as such, something that has a set, unitary definition that you can develop. (When the development of uniformity of character has been attempted before, it has been called ‘indoctrination’.) This is not to say that the capabilities that the supporters of character advocate developing are undesirable, but to describe the process as the accumulation of character is wrong. It would be far better to explicitly define the capabilities that young people should develop in far more detail and to stop associating them with qualities that are, to an extent, inherent and should be individual.

There is a role for character-related education, but it should focus on supporting the development of the individual’s distinctive character rather than on the accumulation of a set of skills called ‘character’. This means enabling young people to better understand the kind of person they are and want to be. This kind of work would support holistic social mobility, and would give young people the tools to work out what success means for them in life, and to understand that it comes in more forms than the one they are being sold at present.

The return of the classical curriculum

The changes introduced into the school curriculum in England in the 2010s, driven forward by the very interventionist and very powerful former Education Secretary Michael Gove, is a radical departure from the existing template left by the previous Labour government. Gove adopted a philosophy that you need to go back to go forward, and was happy to use the ‘global race for talent’ metaphor to support his position (Gove 2013). In order to prosper in this context, it is necessary to return to a curriculum that has a narrower range of subjects, more rigorous testing and a focus on learning facts. The changes that Gove introduced have been radical to an extent: reducing the numbers of qualifications offered and changing the way in which examinations are to be graded. These changes have drawn from a history of conservatism in the school curriculum in England that began to reassert itself robustly in the late 1980s with the introduction of the national curriculum (Ball 2011).

During the 1990s and 2000s Labour did not move far away from the template they had inherited. While there may have been a broadening (p.76) of the curriculum offer, they lacked the political courage to move to a national baccalaureate when the opportunity presented itself in the mid-2000s. In 2003, the government commissioned the former chief inspector of schools for the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), Mike Tomlinson, to look at how the overall system of assessment from primary to post-16 could be revised. His recommendations, while not accepted universally, garnered a relatively large degree of cross-sector support (Working Group on 14-19 Reform 2004). Central to these recommendations was that the existing examinations be replaced by a national baccalaureate, giving much more equal weight to academic and vocational qualifications. It was rejected, in the main because it would involve the scrapping of the academic A-levels, perceived to be very popular among middle-class voters (Porter 2007).

Nor did Labour do anything to reduce the role of competition as the driver for system improvement introduced by the Conservatives and manifested in the form of league tables. The introduction of league tables, together with the accumulation and dissemination of ever-increasing amounts of data on schools in combination with the ever-increasing power of the school inspecting body Ofsted, did more than anything else to reinforce a narrow idea of success in education. Schools responded as predicted to the incentive structure within which they operated. Unless a particular element of the curriculum was measured, be that by league tables or Ofsted, it was hard for it to be prioritised.

The best example here relates explicitly to social mobility. The government invested heavily in the 2000s in activities to support progression to higher education for those from lower socioeconomic groups via the Aimhigher programme (Atherton 2012). However, much of the funding and control was with higher education institutions (HEIs). It was a constant difficulty to try to get schools to find the time in the curriculum for visits to HEIs. One of the primary reasons was that such work did not usually relate to attainment, and was therefore not measured. The coalition government from 2010 to 2015 recognised this issue and introduced a new measure of progression at post-16 (SecEd 2014).

The product of a zealous minister building on a culture of educational conservatism in England was a narrow curriculum prioritising a small range of academic subjects, with little room for subjects that fall outside this narrow range, and/or for activities to support the explicit development of the non-cognitive skills deemed so important by some for academic achievement (Garner 2013). Non-cognitive (p.77) skills, parenting and the classical curriculum form an imperfect storm where holistic social mobility is concerned – they combine to close off alternative ways of thinking about success in the educational system. For those who lack the ability or desire to conform to a certain set of culturally constructed behaviours and attitudes, they offer little hope. A blog post by a member of staff from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission courted controversy when he suggested that the way to succeed now was for everyone to become ‘middle class’ (Brant 2014). However, he was only saying what many others were thinking but we’re afraid to say.

Are 21st-century skills solving or adding to the problem?

The chances of navigating a course to a form of education that embodies a different idea of success depend on coming up with a different way of understanding parenting, non-cognitive skills and the curriculum. This will inevitably mean reforming the curriculum.

There is no shortage of ideas here. For the last 20 years or so, there has been a constant flow of research, reports and policies aiming to imbue learners with ‘21st-century skills’. On the surface it offers a good starting point for holistic social mobility. It is at least looking forward (as opposed to the present curriculum, which is looking back). It could also be interpreted as meaning a range of competencies that enable young people to progress in the 21st century. This means skills for life as well as work. However, in the main it does not do this. Despite claims of being new and forward-looking, the traits within it echo much of what has gone before. It appears that the 21st century continues to be seen as a way of better preparing learners for a changing labour market, and not a changing society.

As with the other areas of non-cognitive skills examined before, the discourse on 21st-century skills is a confusing form of consensus, where a range of similar terms are repeatedly deployed in slightly different combinations, and what these terms mean is usually not explored. Again, as with the non-cognitive skills described by Heckman, and with character, the difficulties with measuring this range of skills means that they are not defined to the same degree of precision as more ‘cognitive’ ones. The Assessment & Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATCS) project at the University of Melbourne (sponsored, interestingly, by Cisco, Intel and Microsoft) pulled together the work of 250 researchers from across the world in an attempt to define better what 21st century skills are. It came up with 11 skills divided into four categories:

(p.78) Ways of thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning

Ways of working. Communication and collaboration

Tools for working. Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy

Skills for living in the world. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility

(Brinkley et al 2010: 18)

Suto, writing for Cambridge Assessment in 2013, takes a more detailed look at the work analysed by the ATCS project, examining specifically reports from the US, the UK and Europe. A similar scenario emerges as was observed regarding character described earlier. The same terms appear repeatedly but with slightly different interpretations and emphasis. The evidence base to support the proposition that such skills are more important in the 21st century is usually constructed from an analysis of present employer skill demand, and then extrapolation of such trends into the future. As with the classical curriculum model, however, there is less of a willingness to consider the implications of the changing labour market demand for skills (mapped out in Chapter Two). There is no provision for the possibility that, in the medium term at least, there could be a change in the nature of the overall demand for knowledge-based workers and/or the kind of ‘digital Taylorism’ that Brown et al (2008) describe.

Neither are the skills described above ‘new’ as such. As Silva (2009) argues, critical thinking and creativity are skills that were identified as important to success as long ago as the time of Socrates and Plato. They have appeared repeatedly in government policy since the 1980s, especially in relation to the needs of employers. The 21st-century skills discourse is being constructed as a mechanism by which young people can become more employable. It reinforces the exclusivity of the association between education and employment, and not necessarily in a positive way. Skills such as flexibility, which while not in the ATCS list is ubiquitous in most of the 21st-century discourse, as well as communication and collaboration (which are on the list) are also frequently hijacked in this way.

The development of these skills in young people could be construed as a methodology to prepare young people for more insecure employment and to adjust to the kind of labour market described by Brown, Cowen and others earlier in Chapter Two. It is obviously (p.79) important that young people are adequately prepared for a changing labour market – social mobility of any form would be difficult without such preparation. The danger is that 21st-century skills become a way of repeating 20th-century problems. Employers are continually pointing out the inadequacies of those leaving education in the UK (Federation of Small Businesses 2013, Paton 2014). This is not new, contrary to how it is presented in policy discourse; they have been doing this throughout the 20th century (Payne 1999). Unlike their counterparts in some other countries, employers have been less willing to become involved in a more constructive dialogue with education providers, and bear joint responsibility for the skills that workers obtain. The view predominates in the UK that it is the employers’ needs that should be served by the education system. As long as this remains the case, it will be difficult to extend what social mobility means. To reiterate, this is not to say that young people should not be prepared for the vagaries of the 21st-century labour market – but that is a different objective from meeting the needs of employers. It implies developing skills that enable young people to cope and deal with risk and uncertainty in the 21st-century labour market, starting from the employee up, rather than the employer down.

But such a change in itself is not enough. The purpose of education in the context of the challenges outlined in Chapter Two should be to enable young people to meet the challenges of 21st-century life – not just the labour market. The 21st-century skills discourse has the potential to make a positive contribution to how social mobility is understood, if it can empower young people to navigate a more uncertain labour market and a more risky society. However, it could also take things in the opposite direction, and act as a mechanism to narrow even further the objectives of education.

Is there more to school than attainment?

The theory of ‘maximum maintained inequality’ was developed with reference to higher education participation, but it applies well to the secondary education system. Maximum maintained inequality, or MMI, was defined by Boliver (2010) as ‘expansion in and of itself is unlikely to reduce educational inequalities simply because those from more advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds are better placed than others to take up the new educational opportunities that expansion affords’ (2010: 1). Shavit and Blossfeld (1993) tested the MMI theory and undertook research in 13 different countries covering a range of political regimes, looking at educational participation over long periods (p.80) of time. They found that only when the higher socioeconomic groups had colonised a point in the system would participation increase by those from lower socioeconomic groups increase, by which time, advances in technology and increases in supply had reduced the relative value of these qualifications. Even at the rate of increase in GCSE attainment of the late 2000s (which has now stalled), it would be well into the mid-part of the century when all young people achieve five A-C grades at GCSE (or any newly demarcated equivalent ‘matriculation’ point in the education system in England). As Lupton and Obolenskaya (2013) show through the 2000s the gap between learners from different socio-economic backgrounds in terms of 5* A-C GSCE increased when English and Maths were included. While the percentage of learners in receipt of free school meals achieving this level increased from 20% to 30% from 2006 to 2010, the percentage of learners not in receipt of free school meals who achieved at this level increased from just under 50 to 60%.

By the time those most disadvantaged learners reach this ‘matriculation stage’, the point of labour market differential between groups will be at least degree level. Having five A*-C GCSE grades or any new equivalent will be akin to being able to read and write – an essential skill, but not one that enables significant economic progression on its own. It is possible that there could be a significant acceleration; for instance, London has significantly outperformed the rest of the country since the early 2000s (GLA 2013). If the London phenomenon spread, universal matriculation at 16 could possibly be reached much sooner. But by then the more affluent groups would more than likely have pushed their way even further ahead.

The present focus in schools on social mobility, which is to drive up attainment of those from lower socioeconomic groups, is at best not fully thought through and at worst a deceit. It will help the minority, who will be able to access the knowledge-rich, well-paid jobs available, but it cannot assist the majority to access such jobs, as there are simply not enough of them. This is a difficult problem to address – too difficult for politicians (this is an area where there is a consensus), who will not admit that educational inequality will always exist, and that the number of knowledge-intensive jobs is finite.

The only realistic approach is to try to change what educational success means, so that inequalities in achievement can become differences in achievement. This means looking beyond attainment as the sole defining feature in how compulsory education is designed.

(p.81) The vocational problem

Vocational education has always been subjugated to narrow, academic-based curriculum models, and suffers in the eyes of many parents because of its association with ‘lower status’ job outcomes. One of the accusations levelled at the English system since its inception has been the weakness of its vocational routes (Wolf 2011, Green 2013), especially in comparison with countries such as Germany, which England has been repeatedly encouraged to mimic in this regard. Setting aside some of the inherent problems in ‘policy borrowing’ stemming from the cultural and structural embeddedness of education (Phillips and Ochs 2004), there is no doubt that vocational education could be better.

However, the assumption that it is somehow ideally positioned both to ensure that a country will be able to compete in the global economy and meet the needs of those who do not achieve a certain set of academic qualifications is seriously flawed (Keep 2013). Improving clarity regarding what vocational qualifications can do and what they lead to would be beneficial, as would improving their quality by regulating who delivers them. But they will always be a victim to the bigger problem of what constitutes success and achievement in compulsory education. Until this can be changed, vocational education will not provide a panacea any more than attainment will, but enhancing its status does present part of the way forward.

The biggest step that could be taken in the medium term to enhance the vocational route would be to reform the assessment system and introduce a baccalaureate that covered a broad range of capabilities and gave them more equal weight. This was proposed both in the 2000s and in the 2010s (Anderson 2014). But it has to be one baccalaureate for all students, and it must contain more than just a narrow range of academic subjects and include non-cognitive skills as well as the kind of character-building described earlier.

Education for holistic social mobility

Curriculum reform alone, though, will not dampen down the desire of the more affluent groups to help their children progress – it will just change what they focus their energies on. It is noticeable that one (political) metric of success for the investment in the government’s new apprenticeship programmes in the early 2010s has been the willingness of middle-class parents and their children to engage in apprenticeships rather than higher education (Paton 2014).

(p.82) Alongside any curriculum reform there needs to be a national debate on parenting that is unprecedented in its scope and longevity. It cannot just be about early years and school readiness. What comes from this debate must be backed up by long-term policy commitment. The focus of the debate should be on getting parents from higher socioeconomic groups to think about adapting how they parent just as much (if not more so) than those from lower socioeconomic groups. The aim should be to get them to focus as relentlessly on the emotional well-being of their children as they currently do on their academic attainment. This might mean doing less, as opposed to doing more, and creating the space for engagement and consultation with children regarding their future wishes and desires, rather than assuming that parents can always define this.

Education for holistic social mobility requires underpinning everything that is done with a step-change in the engagement of young people. This needs to begin from a very early age, making children partners and co-producers in their own learning experience. This means practical strategies to integrate the ‘student voice’ into curriculum development and delivery, pedagogy and institutional strategy. It means drawing on examples of work from across the world in the informal educational sector, such as the ‘children as change agents’ model (see Atherton and Jenkins 2015).

The benefits of co-production with student voice work are well documented, as are its shortcomings (see, for example, Raymond 2001, Rudduck and Flutter 2004, Noyes 2005, Street and Temperley 2005); it is not another panacea. But if young people have a much stronger voice in education, it is highly likely that what constitutes as success will be seen differently, as we know that the reality is that what success means differs from individual to individual.

This will be particularly effective if student voice is supported by the establishment of a comprehensive and universal system of information, advice and guidance (IAG) on post-school opportunities. The decline in IAG support in England in recent years has been startling (Langley et al 2014), even though it began from a low point – it is not an area where England has excelled historically. However, this dialogue with learners from primary age upwards on their futures after school is fundamental. The space for it does not exist at the moment, nor do the resources to support it. Each young person should have the individual one-to-one support to talk regularly about what they want from life, why they want this and how to develop the capabilities to think about these issues. This is more important than the achievement of a slightly better grade in the end-of-school examination. (However, (p.83) for this statement to be true in practice, the entrance system to higher education may need to be addressed; ideally, it does not have to be one or the other, of course.) The views of young people are much more considered, serious and varied than the popular misconception often presented by policy makers and the media (Hannon and Tims 2010). The evidence shows that young people are already having these conversations about success, progress and life from primary level, but unfortunately it appears that they are not being supported in doing so (Atherton et al 2009).


The study of social mobility has largely ignored any critical analysis of the nature of the educational system. A holistic approach to social mobility requires a break from such an approach. Any attempts to broaden the discussion on social mobility, and also any aspirations to make it genuinely attainable, depend on broadening the goals of education. The unquestioning pursuit of higher attainment in a narrow range of subjects provides the basis for the narrowness of the social mobility discourse. The scope of the challenge cannot be underestimated.

Education is located within a historical set of institutional and cultural relationships (which is why it is so difficult for one country to transplant the approaches of other countries into their own). In some respects, the education system in the UK has changed very little since the 18th century. Green (2013) examines the historical roots of education in England, France, Germany, the US and the Pacific Rim countries. He argues that the relatively late realisation in England of the importance of education to the development of nationhood has undermined its position as a public good. The marketisation of the system in the last 30 years has only built on the idea that it is appropriate for the state to have an arm’s-length approach to how education is delivered. While this passivity with regard to the role of the state may now have reversed, the regressive reforms introduced by the coalition government since 2010 have been possible because they mine a rich vein of sepia-tinted nostalgia mixed with ignorance where education is concerned.

Bringing education into the 21st century from the mid part of the 20th (where it is seems to be stuck) requires a more systematic and more honest engagement with social mobility. Equally, if social mobility is to remain relevant to the 21st century, it requires a quite different approach to education. (p.84)