Employment

UK social mobility tsar tells working class people to lower their ambitions

Katharine Birbalsingh has said that people at “the very bottom" with low levels of basic literacy and numeracy are “unable to access higher paid work”.

Katharine Birbalsingh proposes moving away from the "Dick Whittington" narrative of social mobility that puts fame and fortune as the goal. Image: Policy Exchange

Working class people should lower their ambitions and focus on taking small steps up the career ladder, the UK’s social mobility tsar has announced.

Katharine Birbalsingh, who is also a head teacher, has said too often success is defined as someone from a working class background going to Oxbridge, rather than celebrating “those taking small steps up, like those whose parents were unemployed who now have a job.”

Birbalsingh made the comments in a speech given to set out her “new vision of social mobility” which she intends to implement in her role as chair of the commission, tasked with making sure that circumstances of birth do not determine life outcomes of people in Britain.

Birbalsingh argued that under her leadership, the social mobility commission would move away from the “Dick Whittington” narrative of social mobility which which encourages the idea that people from the north should leave their home town for fame and fortune in London.

“If a child of parents who were long-term unemployed, or who never worked, gets a good job in their local area, isn’t that a success worth celebrating?” she asked.

The head of the Michaela Community school in north London argued that more needs to be done to help “those at the very bottom – particularly those with low levels of basic literacy and numeracy – who cannot therefore take advantage of higher learning and are unable to access higher paid work”.

She promised that the committee would focus on presenting a more “nuanced” picture of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to social mobility, because “social mobility has many forms”.

 James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust which champions social mobility through education, agreed that “Social mobility is certainly not only about access to the elites,” but he added that “it is also crucial that we make sure that young people from low- and moderate-income backgrounds gain access to the most selective schools, universities and professions.”

“Ensuring the most sought after and influential roles are in reach of these young people matters not only for individual fairness – everyone should have a shot at the top – but also because these positions have an impact on all our lives,” he continued.

Reaction online has been scathing.

“I’m from an extremely deprived area in North Belfast, was on free school meals, went to Oxford, stayed and did a PhD (DPhil) and am now a fellow of an Oxford college,” tweeted Sarah Cullinan Herring, a classics tutor at Oxford Universirty. “Probably should have aimed lower though, thanks for the advice.”

Nazir Afzal, one of the country’s most high profile and respected lawyers, tweeted: “I never went to Oxbridge & nor did my kids but I do not see why working classes should not What kind of social mobility tsar is against social mobility? This Govt’s one.”

In appointing Birbalsingh as chair of the social mobility commission last year, equalities minister Liz Truss, said “by expecting high standards and not indulging the soft bigotry of low expectations she is producing amazing results at Michaela school and giving children the best chance in life.

Birbalsingh also came under fire recently for saying that girls are less likely to choose physics A-level because it involves “hard maths”. The head teacher told MPs that it was not a subject girls “tend to fancy”, and that in her view ” they don’t like it.”

Just 16 per cent of A-level physics pupils at her school were girls, she said, but she is not “campaigning” for this to go up.

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