In July 2016 Theresa May set forth her agenda for ensuring Britain was ‘the world’s greatest meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and hard work will allow’. It was rhetoric that reflected the post-Brexit idealism of the 51% - a Britain that knew no limits to success and thrived on the world stage. There is nothing new about this ideology, it’s one that places complete onus on the individual to ‘succeed’. The working class individual to ‘succeed’. It’s the kind of ideology that, should you focus on the word talent alone, excludes Britain’s working classes. The kind of talent that is actually synonymous with typically middle class traits : well spoken, well-polished and well networked.
A recent interview with MP Angela Rayner sparked a series of debates around the aspiration of white working class boys, who statistically, perform the poorest in schools and are the least likely to engage in higher education. Aspiration ties hand in hand with the concept of May’s meritocracy, it’s completely down to the individual to ‘do better’ - not least with various ‘intervention’ efforts – but the issue is more complex than the argument can even articulate. The way we view social mobility is flawed.
Successive governments have articulated the belief that in order to achieve relative levels of social mobility amongst the ‘left-behind’ we need to focus on raising aspirations, thus motivating young people to work harder and achieve success. Aspiration raising takes form in a number of ways, it can look to build self-esteem, target teacher practice and increase motivation for learning, yet these are shown to have little effect on educational attainment, in large, because aspiration already exists in working class communities, it’s the gap in achieving those aspirations that is the issue. This is not about working class young people not aspiring to go to university, it’s about the class implications that makes it unlikely for working class young people to even see it as a place for them. Social inequality in this country runs so far deep that plucking individuals from council estates and giving them a place as Cambridge just isn’t enough. It’s never enough because a place like Cambridge just isn’t ready.
The concept of social mobility in the U.K. transcends the idea of place-based identity. As a society, in order to ‘reach the top’, we expect working class young people to uproot and move away from forms of geographical, social and cultural familiarities. When your identity is entirely shaped by where and who you are from, how are you expected to fly in an arena that isn’t designed for you? It isn’t ok to be you anymore. Whether that is higher education, ‘professional’ employment or the arts, getting there is one thing, but that’s the first hurdle, cultural capital shaped round middle class Britain is thriving in these spaces – a space that can make working class people feel like they don’t belong. With that being said, is it any wonder that working class boys aren’t aiming for these roles? Because essentially we are asking them to change who they are to fit an ideal, an ideal that means we can label them socially mobile.
Professor Green has recently spearheaded the exploration of barriers faced by white working class boys. Speaking of his own experience, growing up on a council estate and entering an industry that branded him a success, he articulated the fear that almost all working class people feel: there is no safety net. It’s another avenue that our concept of social mobility fails to recognise, if working class people do gradually ‘make it’ there is still a constant anxiety that one wrong turn it can all be over. That you could be branded a failure. In part, this is the reason why some working class people don’t see themselves in higher education or professional employment, the risk of failure is too much. This particularly applies with the added pressure of being the first person in your family to see the inside of a university lecture hall, you have so much responsibility to not only be the one who ‘makes it’ but to also one day guarantee that the financial reward of university in the end is worth it.
Whilst the conversation around white working class boys is not without its pitfalls – we should be looking at all working class communities – it is successful in placing working class people at the heart of the conversation, drawing upon their experiences. Too often, working class people are spoken for. It’s everything about them but without them, and without significant platforms to have their voice heard, it is likely that the conversation will be dominated by the elite. It goes without saying that those voices need to be central to the debate because more often than not, as a society, we choose to listen to those voices when we have to. Too often when we have to, is in the face of tragedy. Grenfell: an issue we are too silent about now. There have been numerous articles stating that Grenfell should be seen as an opportunity to address the U.K’s social housing problem. Those voices in that debate were there before, from working class mouths, but we chose not to listen because we don’t value working class people as experts. When a voice like your own is continually locked out of conversations in corridors of power, it doesn’t feel like a Britain where everyone can ‘succeed’.
We need to change the way we look at social mobility as a concept and begin to recognise and reward the identity and lived experience of working class young people in the U.K. It’s time we took the onus off working class people to ‘better themselves’ and started to dismantle the systemic class inequality that holds them back. In order for a more fair and prosperous society we must ensure that working class people are represented at every level, levels that are free from deep-rooted elitist culture.