Working class people saying to aim lower? What a huge mistake

Cambridge degree

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I often feel inexplicably anxious when Katherine Birbalsingh hits the headlines.

Described as Britain’s ‘strictest headmistress’, her reputation precedes her and although I have never been to any of her schools – nor have I met her – every time she appears in the press I have the immediate feeling being put in an arrest.

She has the kind of unmistakable principal energy that will calm you down and take notes, but unfortunately the message in her classes is often, in my opinion, off the mark.

Ms Birbalsingh has recently assumed a new role as the government’s new czar for social mobility, and yesterday in her first speech as chair of the Social Mobility Commission, she said people from poor backgrounds should take “smaller steps” as they climb the ladder , from the bottom rung to the center instead of aiming up.

Of course, there is nothing better than a “goal lower” message to inspire a meeting hall to achieve its goals.

Her proposal caused understandable excitement.

After all, it’s not the posh, rich, privileged people whose enthusiasm dampens them, but the working class who strive for excellence.

It sounded to me like she was advising people from disadvantaged backgrounds to tone it down a bit and settle for an attendance sticker rather than a gold star.

To hear the government’s own czar on social mobility suggesting that we aim for smaller steps, ie less mobility in the short term, was more than a little depressing.

Condescending as it sounded, I didn’t contradict everything she had to say.

“We want to move away from the idea that social mobility should only be about the ‘long’ climb from the bottom up – the person who is born into a family on social housing and becomes a banker or a CEO,” she said.

Ms Birbalsingh continued: “We want to promote a broader view of social mobility for a wider range of people who want to improve their lives, sometimes in smaller increments.”

I agree that people who want to improve their lives should be celebrated for all their achievements, no matter how small, not just those that break the glass ceiling of class divisions.

It is unrealistic to set a standard where working-class people are only recognized when they get a place at top universities or become CEOs of global companies.

Social mobility should not be about the number of steps that can be jumped, but about the overall improvement in the lives of all involved.

It is vital that we increase opportunities for those who strive for the highest levels of education and employment, regardless of background.

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Telling them to take smaller steps is a step in the wrong direction, but that’s not the way to go about it.

Once again, the responsibility lies with individuals to rein in their ambition, not with university administrators and top employers to think outside the box and provide more opportunities and support to those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

However, I think it makes sense to reassess what we consider to be the “pinnacle” of achievement and the top of the social ladder itself.

In the UK we always seem to regard Oxford and Cambridge as the best indicators of educational success and the biggest indicator of social success.

Maybe it’s because Oxbridge really is the best place to educate the ‘best’ minds in the country – or does society just see it as making students less likely to turn down a place in favor of another university?

When someone in the Tory party celebrates the fact that a council student got a place in Oxbridge, my cynicism radar goes into high gear.

Of course, such an achievement should be recognized and celebrated, but when it comes from the Tories, I think it only serves to reinforce their idea that hard work and talent can break down class barriers, when in reality few people are more likely to do so slipped through the net.

Exactly the net that is supposed to separate us from the elite.

And there’s not much more elitist than calling the Social Mobility leader a “Tsar,” literally.

Perhaps I could embrace Mrs Birbalsingh’s views on social mobility if she hadn’t said controversial things about class in the past.

She once said that one of her 12 golden rules for students is not to let them listen to dirty or drill music as it will ruin their lives.

According to her, “white middle-class people don’t get it because their kids can get in and out and it’s not a problem. Whereas your black kid downtown — it could literally destroy your life.”

While I broadly agree that we should celebrate those who achieve success, big or small, I can’t help but think that Ms Birbalsingh’s message is effective in encouraging people to “achieve lower goals” in life.

I think a far more important message should be sent to universities and employers to improve the level of opportunities available to people who may have previously overlooked them.

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Justin Scacco

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