At first glance, the comments of Katharine Birbalsingh, the government’s social mobility tsar, that we are too obsessed with disadvantaged students entering Oxbridge and instead focusing on smaller steps on the social ladder may make sense. Most students do not enter Oxbridge, and while we should not overlook the fact that elite professions are dominated by people who have attended prestigious universities, there are many ways to succeed and many ways to think success. But when we consider that part of Birbalsingh’s job is to be a “defender of the social mobility agenda”, his latest speech becomes incredibly worrying.
Common sense dictates that an essential part of its role should include learning about the barriers that prevent social mobility and – hopefully – engaging in the process of removing them. There is a lot of work to do. The charity, the Sutton Trust, concluded this month that “regardless of the mobility measure used, there are still large background differences in the likelihood of climbing the income ladder, ending up in a higher social class or getting a university degree”. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 blockades and have lost learning. The other day, the teachers’ unions wrote to the government asking them to feed the hungry children.
Despite this, a forthcoming report by the Commission on Social Mobility, led by Birbalsingh, will call into question the idea that social mobility is declining. Something. Our social mobility tsar is not just telling us not to expect poor children to come into Oxbridge. He tells us that there may not be the big problem with social mobility to begin with.
This reminds me of another government report on inequality. In 2020, when Britain had painfully honest discussions about race, the government did what it often does when a problem became so obvious and inevitable that people expect it to do something about it: they announced a commission (these are particularly intelligent, because they give the illusion that something will be done). The following year, the Racial Inequality Commission told us in a report that it found “no evidence of systemic or institutional racism.” Such was the setback that Tony Sewell, chairman of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Inequality, withdrew his offer of honors from Nottingham University. The UN also said the report sought to normalize white supremacy.
Commentators shared how upset they are over Birbalsingh’s comments. The one suggestion that we should expect anything but the best for our poorest children shocks many, including myself. But what annoys me most is that Birbalsingh’s statement seems to set the stage, so we do not expect very significant progress from the government in terms of social mobility. Why act on the basis of all the evidence that underserved children are having a terrible time right now when you can instead turn on the gas and behave as if there is no problem?
There is a phenomenon called the tyranny of low expectations. Simplified, this means that people do worse when something is expected of them. Its disadvantage is the Pygmalion effect, the premise of which is that high expectations lead to increased performance.
We owe it to disadvantaged children across the UK to expect better from the Social Mobility Commission. In the context of such blatant inequality, it must act immediately, decisively and effectively.
Expecting less from people is not always kindness. She probably expects Birbalsingh, who has become famous thanks to her reputation as Britain’s toughest principal – nothing but the best of her students, even though over 20% of them are entitled to free school meals – she knows that too. Which makes his comments and commission even more disappointing.