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Despite our best efforts, social mobility in the UK does not seem to be improving. Diane Reay, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, will be speaking at Hay about the hereditary curse of the English education system and her developing vision for a “socially just” replacement.

As long as children continue to be educated apart from their peers from different class and ethnic backgrounds, and 'a good education' remains the prerogative of the upper and middle classes, social class will continue to be the curse of the English, and beyond that the British, education system

Dr Diane Reay

Social mobility, recent research tells us, has ground to a halt. Not just that, it has actually slipped backwards since the 1950s with the chasm between classes even wider than ever. There are many ways of measuring social mobility, of course, and one of them is education.  Achievement within the education system is seen as one of the critical benchmarks for social mobility.

The latest figures paint a dispiriting picture. A report by educational charity the Sutton Trust earlier this year argued that the top comprehensives were even more exclusive than the country’s remaining grammar schools with only 9.2% of children at the top 164 comprehensives coming from "income-deprived" homes, even though those schools drew their pupils from areas where about 20% were poor.

Only last month government watchdog the Office for Fair Access called for sweeping reforms because working class pupils now have less chance of getting into the most sought-after universities than 15 years ago. At seven of the Russell Group universities – the UK's 20 leading research institutions – less than 5% of students came from low-participation neighbourhoods.

The relationship between society and education is an area that has fascinated Diane Reay, Professor of Education at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education, since she was an undergraduate at Newcastle. Why? “Because I was brought up in a working class mining community and inequality of all kinds has been a lifelong concern,” she says.

Reay forged her career in teaching, working in London primary schools for 20 years before taking a PhD and moving into academia (South Bank Polytechnic, King’s College London, London Met, Cambridge – “quite a mix”). She’s made her name as a sociologist, who takes a feminist ethnographic approach – in other words, she embeds herself within her research field to observe, analyse and record the communities she’s studying.

Her priority, she says, is to engage in research with a strong social justice agenda to address inequality in all its guises. The projects she has undertaken over the past 10 years are set against backdrops that range from inner city schools to the most selective universities - with the accent on “social class, gender and ethnicity and how they play out in people’s actual lives”.  In academic circles her best-known work is a study of home/school relationships and she is acknowledged for her innovative work in analysing social class.

Prompted by a concern about educational inequality, Reay’s latest work revisits economic historian RH Tawney´s conclusion in 1931 that social class is the hereditary curse of the English educational system, constraining a sense of social solidarity and limiting freedom. "Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows" as he famously put in his book Equality.

R H Tawney was a pioneer of adult and workers’ education – though himself educated at Rugby and Oxford. As an activist, he devoted his intellect and energy to putting into practice his passionate belief in social justice. He joined the Workers Education Association (WEA) and travelled up and down the country teaching at trade unions and working men’s institutes, lecturing at Stoke-on-Trent one day and in Rochdale the next. This he described as having two-way benefits. “The friendly smitings of weavers, potters, miners and engineers, have taught me much about the problem of political and economic sciences which cannot easily be learned from books”.

Tawney was convinced that true democracy could be achieved only through the “elimination of all forms of special privilege which favour some groups and depress other.” In his book Equality (1931) he argued that difference between groups (which should be valued) was no reason for not seeking the largest possible measure of equality of opportunity, environment and circumstance.

Reay believes that many of the barriers to equality that Tawney identified almost a hundred years ago continue today – both within and beyond the educational system. Her analysis of the relationship between education and social class in contemporary Britain throws up many interesting questions – and turns some accepted thinking on its head.

A paper in collaboration with other researchers explored the positive decisions of middle class parents to send their children to urban comprehensives as a result of their beliefs in the principle behind non-selective state schools. In the course of in-depth interviews it emerged that many of these parents saw the mixed environment of their local schools as a resource that would benefit their children for “coping in the real world” or “toughen them up”– and that genuine mixing of social groups was only rarely taking place.

In a later project Reay looked at the question of “fitting in or standing out” for working class students at four contrasting universities. Although her sample was not statistically significant, her findings that high-achieving working class students often under-perform and feel disappointed, and that their pathway to top universities is often more a question of “luck and happenstance” than planned design, are particularly pertinent set against recent data. This shows that the percentage of students from the two lowest socio-economic groups gaining places at Cambridge was just 3.7 and at Oxford a mere 2.7 (Higher Education Statistics Agency report).

Social mobility is a problematic phrase bringing assumptions and implications. The underlying concept is of movement upwards and downwards. At the bottom of the heap sits the working class with council estates, manual jobs and low aspirations among its youngsters; at the top stand the upper/middle classes with glittering careers, large houses and young people with unassailable self-confidence.

Life just isn’t as simple as that – and real people don’t fit into neat categories. Modern sociology recognises more dimensions and cultural subtleties in the shifting social roles that people move into and out of. As Reay points out, the area of education in most urgent need of reforming is vocational training where Britain lags way behind its European partners.

“The reality is that any current growth in the jobs market is in the service and care sector – and that’s an area that’s been badly neglected,” she says.

Just back from a Nordic Federation Sociology of Education conference in Iceland, Reay speaks warmly about Finland where children don’t start formal school until they are seven years old and there’s “no setting, no streaming and no testing”. It’s a country where teaching is the second most prestigious profession - and its children come top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league for literacy and second for numeracy. “Private schools educate only 2% of children in Finland, and those that do exist were set up to provide an alternative kind of education,” says Reay.

Reay is tremendously excited about her next project which is writing a paper for The Journal of Educational Policy describing her vision for a socially just education system – “a fantastic opportunity”. On a broader and more pragmatic front, she fears that the new coalition’s proposal to extend choice will further empower already powerful groups in society “although the pupil premium for poorer students may genuinely help to redistribute resources”.

Reay makes no bones about the fact she’d like to see private schools abolished - as did expensively-educated Tawney. “As long as children continue to be educated apart from their peers from different class and ethnic backgrounds, and 'a good education' remains the prerogative of the upper and middle classes, social class will continue to be the curse of the English, and beyond that the British, education system,” she says.

Professor Diane Reay will be speaking at the Hay Festival on June 3rd, at 5.15pm.

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