Social mobility is once again a recurring theme in the media and political world. Listening to a speech by a distinguished lawyer recently reminded me of how narrowly we define social mobility and how biased the current definition is.
The lawyer had grown up in poverty, but as she was bright she had been given a free place by her local authority at a direct grant school. When she reached 6th form the direct grant scheme was abolished and her mother (she had no father) tried hard to find a place for her. She heard of a local independent school which was offering bursaries and was fortunate to gain a free place there.
She came from a very poor family, who had had no further education, yet whenever she is asked to fill in a form about her background in connection with her legal and other work, the only question which she is ever asked is about her schooling.
Once she ticks the box for independent school, she joins the statistics of the elite, privileged and, by lazy assumption, wealthy, independent school-educated people who, we are told, dominate the professions and occupy places which should be given to those from poorer backgrounds.
A dozen or so years ago a television programme was made about the dearth of Black British students at Cambridge. At that time our school had eight Black British students on degree courses at Cambridge and most of them were shown in the programme. A veil was drawn over their schooling. Many of these held full bursary places at our school and thus might seem to have been experiencing social mobility – but not so.
If you attend an independent school on a bursary and come from an underprivileged background, then you are not counted in the social mobility data. You are from an independent school background and that is all that is recorded.
Commentators often quote the very low numbers of students at various top universities who have had free school meals. We, as do many independent schools, have a significant number of students who are eligible for free school meals and indeed receive them as part of their bursary.
Will any researcher ever be brave enough to survey students at top universities or in the professions and ask those who attended independent schools whether they held bursaries or means-tested scholarships?
As the election approaches, views are becoming polarised and the Bullingdon Club image of independent schools appears frequently. Many day schools in towns and cities are filled with children who are very similar to those in local state schools and they mix with one another both in and out of school – these are not ivory towers.
Many independent schools are actually acting as engines of social mobility, rather than impediments to it. In Southwark, we have an 11-year-old partnership with state and independent schools working together across the borough to promote teaching and learning and provide opportunities for all.
However, it seems to be more newsworthy to attack independent schools and to call for their abolition than to recognise any good they may do. Such aggression in the media creates a false impression of a divide which rarely, if at all, exists and stirs up notions of apartheid. It is good for cheap political points – unless you sponsor an academy you are the enemy!
The world is facing many serious issues at the moment – it is our young people who are our future. They need to work together, without prejudice, to solve such enormous problems. We should recognise that not all independent school students are “hooray henrys” and that many state and independent school students work and play happily together. We need the best talents to ensure our future and continually stirring the fires of prejudice will not make things easier.
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.