‘Juxtaposed with U’ – The problem with Social Mobility and Levelling Up

Article Piece 1/3 Written By Chris Bayes

Shifting Sands

The political landscape does not stand still for very long.  Labour’s most successful 20th century Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (Yes, he won four elections to Tony Blair’s three and unlike BLiar managed to avoid tarnishing his legacy by keeping Britain’s involvement in Vietnam to lukewarm verbal support and no military aid) famously quipped that “A week is a long time in politics”.  Looking back further in time, Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain was recorded in 1886 as having said: “In politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight.” 


The modern political era (since the 2010 election) has seen the political winds of change reach almost gale force proportions.  It has seen an era of coalition politics, one of austerity and of multiple referenda.  It has seen the coming and going of Corbynism.  It has seen the UK leave the European Union.  Associated to this cataclysmic shift, the period has also seen the latest reboots of “one of the most successful political parties in the democratic world”.  The party that has for much of the 20th and 21st centuries been seen as “the natural party of government”[1], The Conservative Party or The Conservative and Unionist Party, as they have cleverly rebranded themselves at points when it has suited their agenda to do so.

Given the rapidity at which administrations have come and gone, there has been an unprecedented turnover of holders in roles related to education.  Since 2010, there have been no fewer than eight Education Secretaries, six of which (including the current incumbent, James Cleverley) have served less than two years.  A notable mention here goes to an old friend of widening access, Michele Donelan, who now and for the foreseeable future, holds the dubious honour of being the shortest serving Secretary of State for Education, having held the post for two days in July.  During the same period, no fewer than nine people have held the following roles:

  • Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities (2010-15)
  • Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation (2015-19)
  • Minister of State for Universities (2020-21)
  • Minister of State for Higher and Further Education (2021-22)
  • Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills, Further and Higher Education (present role)

This is confusion, am I confusing you?’

Given the frequent turnover of roles and post holders within this space (even before you factor in the impact of a Global pandemic); it is therefore perhaps little wonder that our current educational policy landscape has become reminiscent of shifting sands. Various strands of policy seem increasingly at odds with others, which has resulted in a confused hotch potch patchwork.  Within Widening Participation (WP), this crucially undermines the government appointed regulator’s stated ambition of taking an evidence-informed approach in which “Compelling evidence should underpin every provider’s strategy to improve access and participation.”[2]

Myself and other PURSUE colleagues have spoken at previous events about our collective disdain for the term ‘Social Mobility’, preferring to frame our work through the lens of ‘Social Justice’.  Last year, our friend and esteemed educationalist (Andy Griffith) delivered an excellent webinar on how schools can seek to build cultural capital appropriately and effectively and become organisations working to a compelling definition of equity and equality here.  One of the twentieth century’s seminal educationalist works was ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire.  In this text, Freire argues that oppressed people can regain their humanity in the struggle for liberation, but only if that struggle is led by oppressed people.  Such an approach is central to our vision for PURSUE, in that we seek to[

“Encourage and support working class practitioners within our Widening Access agenda, to make their voices heard at all levels.” [3] 

Linked to the above, it was interesting to see a recent presentation at NEON’s Summer Symposium suggesting that the vast majority of WP practitioners are not classified as working class.  The presentation ‘Who widens participation?’ was delivered by Dr Jon Rainford, Dr Ruth Squire and Professor Colin McCaig, who have recently collaborated on the forthcoming publication ‘The Business of Widening Participation’.  Within this presentation, they highlighted how within their research, both Rainford and Squire had interviewed WP practitioners to understand (amongst other things) their demographic background and personal motivations for working within the WP space.  

69.88% of respondents working for a UniConnect partnership and 69% of respondents based in HEIs stated their parental occupation as falling within NS-SEC classes 1-3, which consist of the following roles:

“1        Higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations

 1.1 Large employers and higher managerial and administrative occupations

 1.2 Higher professional occupations

2          Lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations

3          Intermediate occupations”[4]


[1] https://www.gresham.ac.uk/watch-now/conservative-party

[2] Office for Students, 2019

[3] https://workingclassinwp.com/about/our-seven-endeavours/

[4] https://www.ons.gov.uk/methodology/classificationsandstandards/otherclassifications/thenationalstatisticssocioeconomicclassificationnssecrebasedonsoc2010

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