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What is social mobility? Drawing on different perspectives, assess the impact of the education system on opportunities and life chances on the basis of social class. What implications does this have for the work of helping agencies?
Social mobility simply describes how people move along the social ladder. For this to happen there must necessarily be some form of social class in place. Social class occurs everywhere, even in the poorest communities. Take a typical village in Ghana for example, you will find that probably the village palm wine tapper or renowned farmer may be at the top of the social ladder; by village standards, they are the rich guys; these in addition could also serve as money lenders or movers and shakers. In the middle of the social ladder in the said village you might find the middle class who constitutes probably the majority of villagers with average incomes making just about enough from their farming or other vocations to make ends meet. Of course, at the bottom of this ladder will be the lower classes that have no jobs or qualifications and are at the mercy of the rich palm wine tapper.
Social mobility describes how the classes move from their level of class upwards or downwards. This movement could involve the acquisition of new skills or education in the bid to get better jobs and hence get more income. Sometimes movement is caused by for example winning the lottery, an inheritance from parents or relatives or any procedure either deliberate or accidental which moves a person from one class to another.
“Social mobility – or ‘intergenerational mobility’as economists prefer to call it – measures the degree to which people’s social status changes between generations. It is seen by many as a measure of the equality of life opportunities, reflecting the extent to which parents influence the success of their children in later life or, on the flipside, the extent to which individuals can make it by virtue of their own talents, motivation and luck.” (Blanden J et al 2005)
The Sociology guide has described Social mobility as a “vital part of social stratification and an inseparable part of social stratification system because the nature, form, range and degree of social mobility depending on the very nature of the stratification system. Stratification system means the process of placing individuals in different layers or strata.”
In a social mobility paper Stephen Aldridge describes social mobility as a
“movement or opportunities for movement between different social groups and the advantages that go with this in terms of income, security of employment, opportunities for advancement etc.” (Aldridge, 2001)
There are types of social mobility. Intra-generation is when there has been a change in a person’s social position. A typical example will be clerical assistant who works his/her way up in an organisation. However, if a person’s social position changes over a generation it is called inter-generation mobility. An example is Margaret Thatcher and many others. She became prime minister as a grocer’s daughter.
“There appears to be significant intergenerational mobility in the United States, although perhaps less than is sometimes believed. Origins significantly affect destinations. Specifically, adult sons and daughters are more likely to look like their parents – in terms of occupation or income – than one would predict on the basis of chance. Still, there is considerable mobility. Indeed, even when occupations or income categories are broadly defined, a majority of adult offspring occupy a different occupational or income category than their parents.”(Daniel P et al 1997)
Horizontal mobility is another type of social mobility where a person changes their job-related position but does not change social class. An example is where a clerical assistant moves from Wellingborough to London and becomes an administrative officer. Vertical mobility on the hand takes the stage where people change their job-related position and change their social class as well. An example of vertical mobility will be for example a street cleaner becoming a solicitor or an army officer becoming a cleaner. They have fundamentally changed their socio-economic position.
There are types of vertical social mobility. If someone moves down the social ladder it becomes downward mobility. When they move up on the social ladder it becomes upward mobility. For example if an Army officer is promoted in rank it becomes an upward mobility. The magazine Business Week in 2007 wrote an article about how mobile phones in Africa are creating high standards of living and boosting upward mobility.
“Only a few years ago, places like Muruguru didn’t even register in the plans of handset makers and service providers. What would a Kenyan farmer want with a mobile phone? Plenty, as it turns out. To the astonishment of the industry, people living on a few dollars a day have proven avid phone users, and in many parts of the world cellular airtime has become a de facto currency. The reason is simple: A mobile phone can dramatically improve living standards by saving wasted trips, providing information about crop prices, summoning medical help, and even serving as a conduit to banking services.” (Business Week, 2007)
Another recent example of downward mobility is in this article in the telegraph.
“Though she is married to a builder, the 27-year-old housewife has rickety wooden planks for walls and covers her roof with plastic sheeting to keep out the rain in Harare’s Hatcliffe suburb – far from the neighbourhood where she used to live. “Right now I don’t have a housing lot, but we are paying money to local co-operatives (to save for a down payment) so we may get lots to build houses,” Chama said. And she is far from alone. According to official estimates, around two million Zimbabweans in this country of 12.2 million need accommodation.” (Reagan Mashavave, 2009)-
Another type of social mobility is structural mobility which involves vertical mobility but its movement is brought about by a major disorder. It can also be brought on by changes in society that brings improvement to a large number of people. Typical examples will be industrialisation, expansion of education and computerisation. These changes have all brought improvement to people in the UK and around the world. People have through it acquired higher social status and found higher paid jobs than their parents. There is also individual mobility which involves people being hindered from taking opportunities because of where they were live, their colour, gender, religion, their educational background, job, wellbeing and many others.
The impact of the education system on opportunities and life chances on the basis of social class is enormous and hasn’t changed much since education began. It is still difficult for working class children to access grammar and good comprehensive schools as the middle class and upper class have populated areas where these schools are placed.
“Children’s social class is still the most significant factor in determining their exam success in state schools, the Government’s head of teacher training acknowledges today. In an interview with The Independent, Graham Holley, the chief executive of the Training and Development Agency, said: “The performance of a school and a child in it is highly linked to social class. “If you turn the clock back on pupils in school today 15 years and predict their outcomes from where they were born, you can do it.” (Garner, 2008)
Working class families are tied to the low paid jobs and often live in areas where schools are failing. Jobs are hard to find in these areas and its inhabitants are usually heavily dependant on benefits. Their lives are occupied with how to manage everyday living and not on reading to their children and giving them music and language lessons.
“The poorest children still have little chance of becoming lawyers, doctors, senior civil servants and financiers, a report published by the Liberal Democrats today shows. The Social Mobility Commission, set up by the party, said billions of pounds spent on improving social mobility over the past decade has helped middle-class rather than working-class children. Last year only 35% of pupils eligible for free school meals obtained five or more A* to C GCSE grades, compared with 63% of pupils from wealthier backgrounds.”(Shepherd J, 2009)
Disadvantaged children have little chance of watching educational programmes on television nor do they have the chance of reading the broad sheets. They are simply not patronised in their households. Libraries are rarely used and mobile libraries are not highly participated in working class areas. Areas in London for instance have seen various housing developments but they are not in the reach of the low paid. Overcrowding has many implications for the already struggling families as there is often no where to do homework. After school clubs charge for their services leaving low paid families out in the cold. Therefore chances of disadvantaged children reaching high levels of achievement in school are slightly dim.
“Young people in manual social classes remain under-represented in higher education in Great Britain. Despite increasing from a participation rate of 11 per cent in 1991/92 to 19 per cent in 2001/02, participation remains well below that of the non-manual social classes. Participation rates for the non-manual social classes increased from 35 per cent to 50 per cent over the same period.” (http://www.statistics.gov.uk)
The consequences of the manual or low class remaining under-represented in higher education is unthinkable as children from these background will experience either downwardly mobile or not move on the social ladder at all as a result of them not entering higher education. Today’s job market is very competitive and even those with good qualifications are finding it difficult to hold onto their jobs. It means that most all white collar jobs will be held by the middle class and upper class families.
“All the independent evidence shows overall standards to be rising. But the bad news is that when it comes to the link between educational achievement and social class, Britain is at the bottom of the league for industrialised countries. Today, three-quarters of young people born into the top social class get five or more good GCSEs, but the figure for those born at the bottom is less than one-third. We have one of the highest university entry rates in the developed world, but also one of the highest drop-out rates at 16.”(Independent, 8 September 2003)
Anthony Giddens writes in Sociology and Social Mobility that education is not necessarily a means to an end. Education would have to work with other factors to foster social mobility.
” Education shouldn’t be seen as a panacea for all society’s problems. It has a significant role to play, but we can’t hold schools and Universities solely responsible for promoting social mobility. It’s important not to think of the education system as if it works in a vacuum – factors like changes in employment and the economy, and the social determinants of children’s educational attainment, are critical in determining patterns of mobility.”(Giddens, 2007)
However, education definitely has opportunities for people to progress along the social ladder by providing relevant new skills, information, courses and therefore creating opportunities in life for them. A few years back a hair dresser did not need know too much about what she/he did as a hair dresser but in today environment he/she would have to know all the science there is to cutting, dressing and managing the business. Technology and other factors have raised the standard of work so high that without continuous professional development opportunities are not stretch far.
“In this new labour market, the value of college degrees overall is greater than ever before. Between 1984 and 2000, employment in jobs requiring a college degree grew by 20 million in the US, accounting for two-thirds of total job growth. Over the same period, wages for college graduates increased. In contrast, high school graduates in America who did not continue with education saw their wages fall below middle class levels for the first time. As a consequence, the opportunities for Americans with terminal high school diplomas are less than a generation ago.”(Social Mobility Foundation, 2008)
Although a small percentage of poor families are accessing higher education there is evidence that the UK government for instance is working frantically to improve the chances of the less privileged through innovations like Every Child Matters. This innovation is to give every child the chance of accessing education and other services in the community to give them better outcomes in life. Hence the establishment of Surestart Centres which is a one stop service for early education, childcare, health and family support.
“This Government has invested heavily in policies designed to give all children the chance to succeed. There have already been significant improvements in educational achievement, and reductions in teenage pregnancy, re-offending and children living in low income households. Today’s children and young people experience wider opportunities and benefit from rising prosperity, better health and education than those in previous generations.”
The implications on the work of helping agencies are many. Helping agencies like Children’s Centres pick up the brunt of any inequalities that lay in society. We bid or vie for large sums of money to run various courses and projects that underpin social mobility. In the bid of helping families read we have set up ‘borrow a chattersack’ in our children’s centre. This is to encourage parents who might otherwise not access libraries or buy books for their children. The books and toys are expensive but we charge a very minimal fee for them.
Often people bring to us various problems like divorce, debt and housing issues which we do our best to refer to other agencies for further assistance. We hold classes with Citizen Advice Bureau to advise people on budgets and other financial incapability. Many of our clients are lone parents or young families struggling on low incomes. They are often in debt and or have little financial knowledge. They often live on large council estates where aspirations are not that great. The recent recession has hit these areas hard and some people are experiencing downwardly mobility. This comes with various demands like counselling, retraining and financial loss.
“Equality of opportunity is a sine qua non for any modern society and, in Britain, is a principle supported by all mainstream political opinion. Despite this, household income remains the biggest single predictor of a child’s future success, and a recent report by the Sutton Trust found that, all too frequently, young people from financially disadvantaged backgrounds end up in a “cul de sac of opportunity”.” (Social Mobility Foundation, 2008)
Below is an example of some the types of work some helping agencies do. They use government funds to bridge the gap between rich and poor by organising trips to parks, educational establishment to boost confidence and increase knowledge.
“Nearly 175,000 bright children on free school meals will be given a chance at the age of 11 to visit a university as part of a drive to lift the aspirations of working-class people and increase stalled social mobility in Britain. Young people in the top 20% of ability based on test results, and who are eligible for free school meals, are about half as likely to go to university as those who are not eligible for free meals. They will now be offered two chances to visit universities.” (Wintour, 2007)
We organise sporting activities that will encourage the less privileged to put their feet in door of expensive sporting activities. We work with other agencies to bring information and understanding to parents who in effect calve their children’s place on the social ladder.
“A new report by the British think-tank Demos has hit the headlines, with its claim that ‘Parents are the principal architects of a fairer society’. Based on research from the Millennium Cohort Study, the report argues that how children are parented has a more significant impact upon their future life chances than just about anything else, including poverty and the social class into which they are born”. (Bristow J, 2009)
Helping agencies are faced with many demands for services they can and cannot provide. At our centre for instance there is the demand for certain services like computer classes, some sort of back to work training, cooking classes but we haven’t got the facilities and the man power to run such courses. We are therefore forced to send clients to other children’s centre’s in that losing their business. If we do manage to run any of the courses that put pressure on our facilities then we have to limit the numbers which in turn causes us to run the courses several times to fit everyone in. There is also a steady demand for information on sensitive family matters like finance.
Education seems to be one the important factors manipulating social mobility. In today’s society, education is becoming increasingly important as it used to ascertain the jobs people will end up in. Education is also used to determine people’s social class position. The recent government for instance has introduced many initiatives. Free child care for two year olds was trialed for sometime and is going to be offered to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Back to work incentive of £500 and the investment into early years, FE schools and workplace training are all initiatives which research has suggested that has not boosted social mobility.
“In 1999 Tony Blair told the Labour Conference: “If we are in politics for one thing, it is to make sure that all children are given the best chance in life.” A decade on, the Government has had to admit that billions of pounds of investment in nurseries and schools and on training has failed to bridge the class divide, and that social mobility in Britain has stalled.” (Bennett and Bahra 2007)
As mentioned before there are many factors contributing to this fact. One such fact is the advantage that middle class families have over poorer families when it comes to education.
Daniel P et al (1997) Intergenerational mobility in the United States [online] Available from: http://www.urban.org/publications/406796.html [Accessed 16/12/09]
http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_39/b4051054.htm?campaign_id=rss_tech[ Accessed 27/12/09]
http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/everychildmatters/about/background/background/ [Accessed 16/12/09]
http://www.statistics.gov.uk/STATBASE/ssdataset.asp?vlnk=7308 [Accessed 27/12/09]
Jennie Bristow (2009) There is more to human character than sharing toys [online] Available from: http://www.parentswithattitude.com/parentsforum/tag/social-mobility[19/12/09]
Non Web Sources
(2003), Class still counts in Britain. Independent, Monday Sept 8
Bennett and Bahra (2009), Social mobility: Labour tries to revive flagging crusade to help poor children. The Times, Wednesday Jan 14
Blanden J et al (2005), Social Mobility in Britain Low and falling, Centrepiece 2005
Mashavave R. (2009) Downwardly mobile in Zimbabwe. Telegraph, Tuesday Dec 15
Richard G (2008), Social class ‘determines child’s success’. Independent, Thursday Sept 18
Shepherd J (2009), Social class still determines success. Guardian, Monday
Social Mobility Foundation (2008) A national project for social mobility
Stephen A (2001), Social Mobility , A discussion Paper , Performance and Innovation Unit
The Sutton Trust (2008) : Social Mobility and Education. London
Wintour P (2009), Social mobility drive focuses on schools. The Guardian, Wednesday Jan 14
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