How schools can help social mobility


Our guest contributor is Lydia Khechine, a year 13 student from East London who is planning to study history and politics at University of Oxford in the Autumn. We invited Lydia to write for our blog after hearing her speak in a panel debate on social mobility at a recent NESTA Education event. Lydia was representing Debate Mate, an organisation improving social mobility by teaching key skills through after school debate programmes for schools in the UK.

Education is a key tool in advancing social mobility and individual progress. However, cuts in education have made it increasingly harder to cater to the needs of all students and truly allow them to reach their potential. Nonetheless, schools can still - to varying degrees - maximise their students’ progress, attainment and potential for social mobility in different ways.

As I am reaching the end of Year 13 after having gone through different types of schools and engaged in many extra-curricular activities (the most vital of which was debating), I came to question what has allowed my academic progress and achievements, and in turn what allows certain schools to perform better than others.

In terms of what schools can do, it comes down to a tripartite approach: instilling aspiration, skill building and support - both pastoral and academic. To justify this, we need to examine how the absence of such elements can hinder social mobility, or, in the short term, academic achievement.

To know that something is possible is the first step towards its accomplishment. For students who are not made aware of their potential, there exists a wall between where they are and where they can be.

For instance, if, as a student, your background or physical environment (such as areas that are predominantly working class, under-funded, or where crime levels are high) does not expose you to aspirational positions, or even if you cannot relate to people in those places, it becomes increasingly easy to be put off from even aiming for them. If you feel as though people ‘like you’ cannot end up in company boardrooms, or in Parliament, or as accomplished authors, you are unlikely to aim for those positions in the first place, despite how well suited and capable you may be. The first step, therefore, is to make it clear that they are capable of, and deserve to occupy those places, and to stretch them in a way that shows them this.

Climbing the ladder

It‘s important for this sense of empowerment to exist within all kinds of students, and not just those considered ‘Gifted and Talented’ - from the overachiever to a student on the verge of expulsion, all must know of their potential. It is that self-empowerment that shifts the educational narrative from a draining task to something one can tackle with effort and hard work - something they can connect with. A reveal of the long-term possibilities can be massively motivating, and can assist students in ambitiously painting their goals and intentions for the future. Often, it can even be about identifying a certain passion that your student has and validating it.

So what does this look like? It looks like pushing a student past their target grade (and telling them they can do it!). It looks like painting their long-term goals - “You can go to x uni if you work hard.”, or “You seem very passionate about video games, have you looked into game design as a career?”. Other times, it looks like introducing them to more complex concepts if they enjoy the subject, ones that lie beyond the curriculum; if they seem to enjoy your Religious Studies lessons, introduce them to Kant or Nietzsche, and see what they think about their theories. If they are fascinated by your Physics lessons, show them your favourite theory and watch them try to grasp exciting new concepts. It’s about seeing where they are and taking them to the next level - if they are in for B grade, push them towards an A. If they aim to go to any university, push them towards the Russell Group. If they wish to apply for a Russell Group university, push them towards Oxbridge. Keeping students involved is the way to ensure they follow their passions.

Then, beyond empowerment, the role of skills building is pivotal. Of course, the role of good teaching is most obvious. However, schools should aim to build the skills of their students beyond the curricular.

From experience, one of the most important extracurricular skills students can acquire is debating. Impressive programmes like Debate Mate’s are monumental, although schools can also make it work on a simpler level. This can be in the form of a weekly after-school club where students discuss topics they are interested in - from the importance of school uniforms, to bullying, to racism or moral dilemmas. The unique perk of debating is that it combines the first two points - not only is it a valuable life skill for job interviews, analytical thinking and academic progress, but it also serves as a confidence boost and tool for empowerment. It can serve as a catalyst through which students discover their voice and potential. I know this has been the case for me.

My Religious Studies class during GCSEs exemplified this to me. Students in that class were of mixed ability, yet the discussions that came out of it were captivating. Despite the reputations of some students as ‘troublemakers’, they often contributed with deep and insightful points when it came to topics that resonated with them - bullying, religion, social cohesion etc. The difference here, is that they knew that their voices were heard, and that their points were valued, listened to and responded to. When students gain this ability, they are in turn able to apply this to other subjects and other aspects of their life - school becomes less of a chore and more of an interaction and a conversation in which they matter. When students feel listened to, it is not only their effort which is bettered, but also their behaviour and relationship with the institution, and in turn, their achievements.

When school becomes an interaction and a conversation, then, it contributes to the third major point: academic and pastoral support.

The former is self-explanatory - in order to maximise attainment and progress, it is essential that students are able to ask for help both in and outside of lessons, and that they receive it too. But the kind of support that is most often underestimated is pastoral support. It is crucial that a safe space is provided for students, especially at a time in which mental health issues are soaring - an issue which, as teachers know, is not helped by the crushing pressure of the new curriculum. Although exam-induced stress can be a good motivator, it often surpasses healthy levels, and in turn exacerbates and contributes to more serious mental health conditions, which undeniably hinder performance.

Students can find themselves consumed by difficulties with no healthy ways of coping; this is true in terms of mental health, family issues or financial issues and so forth (a lot of which disproportionately affect working-class students, when addressing the bigger picture of social mobility). Such hurdles can have an overbearing impact on student attainment; they can reduce self-confidence, demolish motivation and cloud their visions of goals and better times. The key is, therefore, to offer a support system that can help mitigate circumstances, restore confidence and teach students how to cope with difficult situations while saying on track to fulfilling their potential.

This is often provided by schools through counselling services, which work to varying extents. This is because the support service is intertwined with the school culture - does the school work towards spreading awareness and de-stigmatising mental health and personal struggles, or is the counselor’s office a taboo topic amongst staff and students? If they do not wish to see the counselor, can the Head of Year offer appropriate support, or can their Form Tutor? When students are made to feel like it is okay to speak about their problems, only then will they reach out, and only then will they be able to cope healthily and maintain their progress.

Overall, what is the point of this article? This is to say that for progress to take place, for attainment to take place and even for effort to take place, an all-encompassing approach must be used to tackle the complex intersection of impediments which hinder all of the above. It is understandable that schools are stretched by resources, but all of these approaches can be applied on the smallest of individual levels. It is about caring.

If a student is given a vision, the skills to use and hear their own voice as well as the support which helps them stay on track, they have the potential to change their lives.

Lydia Khechine

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