Achieving social mobility

Publication Date01 December 2013
AuthorMichael Connolly
Date01 December 2013
Achieving social
mobility: The role
of equality law
Michael Connolly
Since it came into office in 2010, the British Coalition Government has shown concern
over the nation’s declining social mobility, highlighted in Opening Doors, Breaking Bar-
riers: A Strategy for Social Mobility, which identifies the private/state education divide at
the root of the problem. However, despite this educational inequality and segregation,
successive governments have not seen equality law as a tool of redress. This may
because by tradition, distributive inequalities are dealt with only by political initiatives.
The purpose of this article is to question this ‘tradition’ and evaluate whether using
equality law in Britain as part of a social mobility agenda is justifiable, especially in
education. The article concludes that discrimination law, based on school background,
could play a significant part in employment, but technical issues make this less likely in
education. However, a public sector equality duty extended to education could have a
significant impact.
Social mobility, equality, discrimination law, socio-economic, education, opening doors,
breaking barriers, Michael Gove, top jobs, Sutton trust, privilege, segregation,
educational apartheid, university admissions, A-Level grades
Since it came into office in 2010, the Coalition Government has shown concern over
Britain’s declining social mobility, highlighted by its publication of Opening Doors,
University of Surrey, Guildford, UK
Corresponding author:
Michael Connolly, School of Law, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, UK.
International Journalof
Discrimination and theLaw
13(4) 261–291
ªThe Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1358229113496947
Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility.
In the meantime, the Minister for
Education acknowledged his concern that social mobility was worse than in any compa-
rable country.
This concern is not unique to the Coalition Government. The previous (New Labour)
Government voiced similar concerns. And, nowadays, all the main political parties agree
that Britainneeds more social mobility.
But an interestingchange of policy towards social
mobility appears to have come with the Coalition Government. New Labour focused on
social inclusion, that is, tryingto bring those with no stake in society at least onto the bot-
tom rung of the ladder.
However, the Coalition has shifted the focus somewhat to the top
of the ladder and the domination of the top jobs by the private schools. The Conservative
Minister for Education has identified the private/state education schism as the focus for
attention. At various times he has declaredthat a problem at the heart of English education
is ‘inequality’;
the private schools’ dominationof public life was ‘morally indefensible’,
that England’s ‘dark secret’ was ‘one of the most stratified and segregated education sys-
tems of any developed nation’, and as well as the ethical objections, this waste of talent
was ‘economic madness’ in an increasingly competitive world.
Having identified the principal problem as private school students being disproportio-
nately represented in the nation’s top jobs, the Government wanted to raise standards in
all schools, narrow the attainment gap, and raise aspirations in state schools.
To these
ends, it proposed, inter alia: funding teacher-training only for graduates with at least
a 2:2 degree;
special help for disadvantaged schools and pupils;
and ‘impartial’ career
advice on further and higher education, and apprenticeships, with an aim to provide high
profile, inspirational speakers.
Whilst these are laudable initiatives that may narrow the gap, they fall well-short of
closing the gap, and will leave some inequalities unaddressed. The teacher-training ini-
tiative does not bar the recruitment and retention of less-qualified teachers. Moreover,
the policies make no comparison with more tangible signs of quality, such as private
school funding, teacher qualifications and pay, and staff/student ratios. And whilst help
for disadvantaged schools and pupils is welcome, its aspiration can only be to bring those
up to the standard of the average state school, which the document itself acknowledges is
inadequate and part of the problem.
The careers initiative is again welcome, with the
added discipline of a destinations measure to monitor its success.
But much will turn
on the values of this measure.
At the heart of the shortfall is the Government’s reluctance to equalise, or even inte-
grate, the state and private systems. Whilst Opening Doors is happy to compare the out-
comes of state and private schools, and laud the ‘world class’ standing of the private
it fails to compare and contrast their practices, which are more likely to be
at the root of the diverse outcomes and inequality. It is apparent that the rhetoric identi-
fying the problem – inequality, segregation – is not realised in any of the initiatives. This
coincides with the legal shortfall: the absence of any equality law to address what would
seem to be its natural targets: inequality and segregation. This may be because, by
tradition, distributive inequalities are dealt with only by political initiatives.
The purpose of this short article is to question this ‘tradition’ and evaluate whether
the Government’s reluctance to use equality law as part of its social mobility agenda is
justifiable, especially in education. To do this, it is necessary to explore, first, the
262 International Journal of Discrimination and the Law 13(4)

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