19th Century Russia was not a fair or equal place. On the one end of the social hierarchy, millions of peasants had no choice but to eke out a meagre living through relentless, back-breaking toil. At the other end were the nobles, a tiny ruling class living in egregious wealth, whiling away the hours at lavish parties.
At the very, very, very top was the Tsar, an all-powerful hereditary plutocrat commanding the fates of nations from a set of staggeringly opulent palaces. Looking out of the window of a gilded carriage might be the closest they would ever get to poverty.
Forgive me if I think ‘Tsar’ is a terrible title for the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission.
The Tsar herself, Katharine Birbalsingh, was in the news a few months ago for comments she made about ‘reframing’ the conversation around social mobility. She claimed there was too much emphasis on a small minority of those from less privileged backgrounds attending Oxbridge or other elite universities and professions.
“We want to move away from the notion that social mobility should just be about the ‘long’ upward mobility from the bottom to the top – the person who is born into a family in social housing and becomes a banker or CEO,” she said in June.
In some ways, I agree with the sentiment. Social mobility should not be measured by the number of Oxbridge places given to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and we should not be bound by the narrative that success only means reaching the most elite professions. Success can look like many things.
However, this view implies a limit to aspiration, chiming uncomfortably with the attitude that those who come from less privilege do not belong in these elite environments and should not consider applying. To many, it seems like an attempt to put working class people ‘in their place’.
Birbalsingh had previously been criticised for claiming that girls were less likely to take physics A-Level because “they don’t like hard maths”. In her role as headmistress of Michaela Community School, she claimed her staff urged students to pursue philosophy or history instead.
There’s nothing wrong with history or philosophy, but it’s the same logic – don’t aim here, because it will be too hard for you – and it suggests that the solution to social mobility is to fix people, rather than fixing systems.
Birbalsingh is in a position to make recommendations to the government about university access or apprenticeship programmes. If she chose, she’d be able to play a part in knocking down the structural barriers to social mobility. Young people aspiring to, applying for, or already at university don’t need the additional barrier of being exposed to elitist social mobility discourse that is meant to deter them.
The narrative that progress should be made in a multi-generational, stepwise manner contradicts what should really be an aspiration to equality of opportunity.
For someone whose parents don’t have a job, is it success just that they end up employed?
Not if it isn’t what they want in life. Success should be the reaching of goals and the realisation of potential. We shouldn’t just be celebrating “small steps up the ladder”.
We should be working to create a society where anyone has access to the means of achieving their dreams.