Social Mobility in the UK lags behind the rest of the world – who is surprised at that? Denmark and Australia are two countries where if you are born poor you have a better than decent chance of making it up the food chain to a successful life. Now, I know virtually nothing about Denmark – other than Prince Fred married Mary Donaldson, an ordinary Australian girl, which must have seriously helped her social mobility, or his – but I do know a fair bit about Australia and feel experienced enough to offer some comparisons on the gap between social mobility in Oz and the UK.
First of all, the gap between rich and poor in Australia is nowhere near as vast as it is in Britain. We have no royalty or massive indolent indulged group at the top. Most uber-rich and successful Australians have got there themselves – usually the product of social mobility (well most of us began life as criminals so how much more socially mobile can you get?). Most of our super-rich are media barons or mining magnates – have been for some time. Yes, we now have dynasties therein – Murdochs, Packers, Hancocks, etc but build on the back of work and sweat and not a lot of university educations in the founding generations. Fortunately for the burgeoning ego amongst this lot, every once in a while on of them comes utterly unstuck and ends up in jail. Most Australians are enjoying the current discomfort felt by the Murdoch gang.
Witness Alan Bond, the epitome of a self-made Australian. He was a painter with ambition, got into land deals, made a fortune and it was his syndicate that first won the America’s Cup from the Yanks back in 1983. He was a national hero, a testimony to hard work, self belief and ambition. He didn’t go to university and was feted by his countrymen. He blew it though: too many dodgy deals and ended up in jail for a while. He landed on his feet again but this story is a reminder to those who over-stretch their reach and forget about the law. Alan Bond is a good lesson to Australians on many levels. Dream, believe, work hard but stay within the law, or you’ll get yours. We love justice in Oz and no-one’s too big for that here.
Celebrity culture in Australia is nowhere near as invidious or all pervasive. We have our footy heroes and movie and rock stars, but they don’t earn the money that a Beckham or a Rooney does. They’re more likely to be Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, far more the actor than the star – still one of us, still accessible, even if living OS more than at home. Even Kylie, one of uber-stars is one of us – she got cancer and has troubles with her men, so very much mortal. Yes, we indulge in reality TV and kiddies dream of easy riches quickly gained but most know it’s not likely and the only way they’ll have a life is through a job.
Our politicians are as useless as the English but don’t come from an exclusive club that went to private schools and elite universities. We have some clever pollies, but most of ours do not come from the privileged elite– they tend to know the price of milk and they avoid the entrails fiddling in education that is favoured by the likes of Gove. A Michael Wilshaw simply doesn’t exist in Australia. We also avoid the plethora of Sirs and Dames and have limited respect for those with such titles – it keeps the playing fields and work places more even, more democratic. More based on merit, not so much connections.
Let’s to education, then as a main lever for social mobility. In truth I never heard the expression ‘social mobility’ until I moved here in 2008. In my naivety I thought schools were about preparing children for the world of work and to be decent individuals who would contribute positively to the world and lead a happy life. It didn’t mean everyone had to go to uni (or be a failure if they didn’t) and it didn’t mean schools were responsible for all the ills in society. (Although to be fair to Australian education systems – federal and state – they have, like their British cousins, believed this too. If only teachers were better then we’d all be rich and happy and nothing terrible would happen to anyone ever again – nor anything exciting or interesting come to that.)
Australia doesn’t have league tables, or anything approximating Ofsted, nor do they constantly inspect, observe or rate teachers. There is performance management and teachers pursuing promotion willingly undergo scrutiny, as do all new teachers into the various systems. Other than that we just get on with teaching the curriculum (constantly under review and change), marking, assessing, preparing for the next stage, developing relationships, keeping control, meeting deadlines, writing reports – doing our best. We don’t have much truck with data – that belongs to a boffin in an office somewhere. We simply teach children our subject area to the best of our ability. We expect students to take responsibility for their own learning.
This scenario describes both government and private schools (both of which I have spent years in). Unlike England there isn’t always a clear division between the quality of either camp. In the NT for years the government schools were clearly superior to any private educational establishments. In Tasmania the private sector was favoured over the government, despite A level equivalent honours results being evenly distributed between both sectors. It wasn’t just about results or getting into university – parents were concerned about the whole child approach that is the raison d être of private schools – music, sport, debating, drama, trips – that caters better to the individual child.
I’m going to say that again – Australian schools expect students to take responsibility for their own learning.
I never knew that was a radical idea until 2008, when a Year 9 child gleefully told me that if I don’t make them learn I’ll be sacked. I still have my job and that child is not at university. But that comment, flung across the room one cold January afternoon symptomises the state of play in English education. The teacher is responsible not only for their teaching but to make the child learn, to take responsibility for that child – and the other 28 in that class (plus your other 3-4 classes if you’re a high school teacher).
Ofsted fails teachers if students are not learning, if a child is sitting in your room doing nothing, off task, unengaged, for whatever reason. In Australia, the teacher does all they can – examines their own teaching, consults a senior colleague, contacts the parent (who either doesn’t care, or is struggling more with the child), negotiates with the child, does what he/she can and that’s it. The teacher is not held accountable for the child’s unwillingness or refusal to get involved in their own learning. The child has the democratic right to failure. Some do fail, leave school sooner rather than later, but some get their act together. It may not be in your class, in your year but something will go ‘ping’ and they’ll understand they have to make the moves.
This idea of personal responsibility is quite significant to me because if the covert curriculum is to inculcate certain values – which society tends to agree are worthwhile – such as co-operation, trying hard, persevering, coping with set-backs – the much vaunted resilience – then by making the teacher responsible for all that happens in a classroom you are failing the child and consequentially failing society.
You end up with what England has now – a passive underbelly which believes it is owed a living. That a job should be exciting and well paid and the employer should be grateful the employed have simply turned up to work. If schools in the UK have been running the no-responsibility approach to education for students (and their parents) for many years now this is the natural consequence. People expect to be given to, not to work for things, not to earn things, but to be given – as they were (and are) in school. The current approach simply tells students they aren’t responsible, it’s someone else’s role to make them… whatever.
Let me tell you a story from Australia, from a private school. Tim was completely off the wall in Year 9 – he hated school, didn’t co-operate in any lessons, let alone mine. He ruined my lessons, when he was there and the worst report I have ever written in my life was about Tim. His parents were educated and caring – they’d lost him too. All they wanted was that he was at school and safe until he was old enough to leave and in the meantime we hoped for some sort of miracle. Well a miracle did not eventuate but Tim made it through to university entrance subjects – we met up again along the way and while he had immense difficulties putting his now quite amazing and insightful ideas to paper he was growing up and becoming quite an actor. Between myself and his drama teacher we kept him going; she found him a course post year-12 and he was free of school, now a socialized and decent kid – a young man with prospects. He didn’t make it to uni but he makes a living and looks after himself – his friends love him and he remains close to his family. Is Tim a success story? He’s not a failure, he took responsibility for himself and lives a life independent of state support, still being an actor, if not a terribly successful one just yet.
These days I meet too many 12-16 year olds who think school is about being entertained, that if they are asked to complete a task that they deem boring they have the right to complain and refuse to do it. I meet too many children who have no idea how to deal with their emotions, who think it’s their right to be angry and sulk because they’ve been reprimanded for something inappropriate they have done or said. I meet students who have no idea about manners, taking turns, listening, respect for others and who think they don’t have to worry about such things. I meet too many children who have to be literally stood over to work, to put their pen (if they bring it to school) in their hand and put it to the paper.
I meet students who will not read. Despite visits to the library, to support from an excellent librarian, in a library with a plethora of books for teenagers, these children – and it is girls as much as boys – will not read. They’ll sit and look at the cover, pretend to read while staring out the window and someone, somewhere says this child must get a C+ in English to be able to go to University so they can move up the social mobility ladder.
The more governments fiddle with economics and education (health too) the worse they become. Australia is strong on personal responsibility – on being independent and able to look after yourself. You can be who you want and do what you want. Part of ‘The Lucky Country’ belief in self still exists. We have a healthy disrespect for authority, we hate being told what to do, we don’t care about titles. We believe in hard work, in not being a ‘bludger’, we don’t expect others to take responsibility for us.
Perhaps the difference in social mobility between Australia and the UK is more about national character than anything else. The resistance by teachers to be told what to do by successive governments, such that we can teach individually and creatively – across the states, across the government/private divide and students are not constrained by the insane examination culture that measures – well, what exactly? In Australia you learn, you don’t learn, in the end it’s up to the child with the help of their parents and the school. It’s not about the teacher, not on their own, not at all.
The current UK government seems to concentrate on three of the seven truths about social mobility –
1.Breaking the cycle through education…
2.Through the quality of teaching
3.The belief that University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key
Which is all well and good. But it ignores at its peril –
1.What happens at home before age 3
2.The importance of out of school time (like trips and clubs, the home environment)
3.Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing
These matters are not within the remit of the current educational climate of England. The relentless drive for progress, for C+ at GCSE, to pass exams means children know very little of any worth and their skills set is short term. In too many schools their grades are not their own (have a read of the TES chat rooms from time to time). League tables make this happen – make teachers scaffold work to such an extent that all students do is regurgitate their teachers words and interpretations. It is not really the teachers or even head-teachers fault, this is the system they know and even though they know it’s flawed have no idea how to work without Ofsted looming over their shoulders, tracking progress through numbers and passing exams.
Why do the English think schools need to be inspected? Is there some belief, some inherit distrust of teachers and schools, that says they won’t do their job unless someone is coming to check on them? How many professions suffer this indignity???
Take a long look England, David Cameron, Michael Gove, Michael Wilshaw – your education system is failing the most needy children. It’s not doing much for the bright ones either, but that’s another blog. Your systems do not enhance social mobility, they do not equip students for the world of work, further education, life long learning or how to be a good citizen. Have a long hard look at Denmark if you wish, but look at Australia too. Our education system is flawed for sure, but children are making it through their education to go onto better things. Perhaps that tells you something??
Social Mobility is not about schools, it’s not about teachers who can’t make students learn (learning is what you do for yourself– where you, the individual acquires knowledge). It’s much much bigger than that. So give teachers a break – look at your society, your massively unequal society, your massive inequity between the rich and poor and do something about that.
According to the Sunday Times Rich List 2012 those with a fortune between 330 – 750 million pounds have enjoyed increases of 7.8% while the poorest households have seen their income drop by 1.5%. Do you think this might impact on social mobility in this country? Do you really think any government is going to tackle this?
Don’t, for God’s sake, introduce more tests and benchmarks and hoops to jump through, especially not for the poor. Consider what to do about the fact that in the last twelve months the rich have got richer, the poor poorer – that would be the bold thing to do, the brave thing. The right thing to do. Go on, I dare you…