Voices: We get the message, Katharine Birbalsingh – don’t aim high if you’re poor

·5-min read
Birbalsingh will argue that we shouldn’t fixate on getting working class children to Oxbridge (Geoff Pugh/Shutterstock)
Birbalsingh will argue that we shouldn’t fixate on getting working class children to Oxbridge (Geoff Pugh/Shutterstock)

Katharine Birbalsingh, the divisive head of Michaela Community School and “Britain’s strictest headmistress” is expected to give her inaugural speech as chair of the Social Mobility Commission today.

It’s an odd role to hand someone who seems unwilling to acknowledge the systemic problems that undeniably impact attainment. But then again, it fits perfectly with the Tory narrative that personal responsibility trumps all else, because apparently we live in some sort of whistling vacuum, untouched by the wider context of, you know, society. If we don’t acknowledge the reality of how poverty and discrimination shape people’s lives and life chances, then we don’t have to do anything about it – right? How brilliantly simple.

Birbalsingh will argue that we should be looking at social mobility differently in Britain. Too often, she believes, success has been defined as a “caretaker’s daughter going to Oxbridge and becoming a top surgeon”.

In fact, “more attention should be given to those people taking small steps up the ladder – from the bottom and from the middle rungs”.

Basically, she seems to be saying to forget aiming high if you’re poor. Satisfy yourself with “small steps”, which could include “those whose parents were out of work getting a job; the son of a postman becoming a branch manager; the daughter of a care worker becoming a primary school teacher”. How patronising, how demeaning, how utterly belittling. To me, this isn’t about social mobility at all – it looks a lot like telling people from disadvantaged backgrounds to stop dreaming and stay in their lanes.

There’s a reason why we celebrate those who transcend the social barriers facing them to attend elite universities, where candidates from wealthy backgrounds – who attended private schools with long histories of placing students at Oxbridge – are still vastly overrepresented.

Overcoming obstacles such as attending a school where resources are scant and Oxbridge requirements aren’t even a conversation; not to mention being hungry or cold much of the time, having no space to study at home, living in a noisy or chaotic environment, or in insecure housing – things that a child taking even the most rigorous levels of “personal responsibility” cannot change – isn’t easy.

So, instead of appearing to tell kids from poor and marginalised communities that they should take smaller steps and temper their aspirations (no CEO ambitions for you, you’ll be lucky to end up as a Barclays branch manager!), perhaps the “social mobility tsar” should be devoting her energy to tackling social injustice and advocating for a fairer, more equal society, so that kids in Britain are able to achieve based on merit? Just a thought.

We’ve got to assume that Birbalsingh is aware of the facts here – that by the age of three, poorer children are estimated to be an average of nine months behind children from wealthier backgrounds. Perhaps they just need to take a bit more personal responsibility, but at three, that’s probably confined to refraining from belting another kid with a wooden block or endeavouring to get to the potty in time.

Just seven per cent of children in the UK attend independent schools, but they achieve nearly 40 per cent of all A* grades at A-level. It’s not because kids whose parents pay eye-watering sums for their education are inherently smarter or more conscientious or more able. It’s a direct consequence of unequal resource allocation.

I remember attending first year seminars at the Russell Group university where I did my undergraduate degree and being absolutely astounded by the level of confidence and self-belief that my new peers, fresh from famous, fee-paying schools, displayed.

They presented their largely unformed ideas with a sense of self-efficacy that was genuinely shocking to me, as someone who had attended a state school where answering a question in class was guaranteed social suicide and the attention of teachers was taken up by serious behavioural issues. They carried themselves differently too, as only kids who have been told they will succeed from the moment they’re able to lift their heads unaided can. Destined for greatness – and reminded of this at every opportunity.

Imagine Birbalsingh (or anyone, really) telling hyper-confident, self-important public schoolers cushioned by family money and influence that they should aim a bit lower, and be content with “taking small steps”.

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The reality is that your education (attending a private school and prestigious university) and family background (disposable income, family contacts, cultural capital) makes it more likely that you will be funnelled into a high-paying, prestigious industry: into a top job in law, politics, finance or media.

The “elite pathways” that Birbalsingh mentions exist because it is through those routes that, in this country, you take hold of power and influence. It seems to me that encouraging children from disadvantaged backgrounds to manage their expectations – to stop striving to get into those boardrooms or newsrooms – will only ensure that power still rests in the hands of the privileged few.

It feels like this is the wolfish defence of the status quo – and the entrenchment of inequality – in the sheep’s clothing of “levelling up”.

If Birbalsingh is in any way concerned about social mobility and those who are being “left behind”, she should address the policies of her political cheerleaders, the ones that have exacerbated poverty and inequality, such as the block on extending free school meals – factors that blight the life chances of young people.

Instead, it seems she’s telling poor kids to stay away from seats of power, and cap their expectations at modest acheivements. In other words, aim low.

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