Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Class Ceiling

I have just caught up with this excellent radio programme about class and social mobility. The first of a series on the subject, it sets out to ask what can boost or block a child’s chances of breaking the ‘class ceiling’ at home, school and university.

The programme opens with an analysis of social mobility in the UK. Presenter and journalist Polly Toynbee questions whether she would have made it into her profession if she had not come from a family of writers and academics and been surrounded as a child by books and discussion. Middle class parents demonstrate how they are providing platforms for their children from the earliest age that will open doors: buying them stimulating toys, taking them to baby yoga classes and to rhyme times in libraries (great to hear these being publicly valued), later making sure they get a good education. We are left in no doubt about the importance of family background: a baby’s environment has a permanent effect on her or his growing brain; class differences are evident in levels of achievement at twenty-two months; the gap between the verbal skills of rich and poor children widens by 50% between their third and fifth birthdays; 77% of middle class children get five good GCSEs, while just 32% of working class students do.

Interventions can change things. Reading is mentioned as a game-changer a number of times. Two mothers talk movingly about the impact of the early years PEEP project on their parenting, and on their children’s confidence and abilities. Both single out the importance of sharing books with their children. Gavin Kelly, Education Adviser to the previous government, discusses the success of the Every Child a Reader programme, and laments its scrapping in many areas. David Willetts, who sits on the present government’s social mobility committee, tells us that children with high ability from low income families must never be written off, that interventions are relevant at every stage. However we also hear that not all interventions have the desired consequences: the opening up of university education has largely benefited the middle classes. Not exclusively though. Cockermouth School has an outstanding record of getting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into top universities as a result of intensive mentoring and individual guidance sessions. The possible effect on social mobility of the rise in university fees is left an open question.

Important listening.