How education reform can unlock social mobility

Adam Lehodey

August 20, 2020

Every year around this time, when GCSE and A-Level students receive their all-important grades, the issue of disparities in educational attainment and social mobility tend to come up repeatedly, and rightly so. It is a deeply liberal idea that an individual’s outlook should be defined by their character and the work they put in, rather than by their race, gender or the amount of wealth their parents accrued when they were born. As Rawls put it, a fair society is one in which “in all parts of society there are to be roughly the same prospects of culture and achievement for those similarly motivated and endowed,” regardless of whether they were born rich or poor.

A large part of social mobility and equality of opportunity lies in education – both that which children receive from their parents and that which they receive in school. The question then is how in Britain, which is one of the worst countries in Europe for educational inequality, to improve our educational system to tap into the full potential of the thousands of children going through it each year?

A major part of the answer lies in psychology. There is no school in the world, no matter how well endowed, that can deliver education to children who show no interest in learning. While there are other factors, psychology certainly explains why these inequalities persist despite the Government spending millions of pounds trying to address these problems. When children grow up in an environment where they are surrounded by peers with high-achieving parents, books and growth opportunities, it is a lot more likely that they will adopt the confidence and positive mindset required for success in the world of work.

Contrast this with life in the poorest parts of the country. Imagine growing up in an ex-industrial town where none of your peers see university, let alone Oxbridge, as an option, and where parents, for whatever reason, place little value on educational attainment and extra-curricular activities. This environment is a lot less likely to cultivate the skills mentioned above which are essential for success. It is not that children in these environments are less intelligent – it is that they do not even see these pathways as an option.

Part of the answer of how we can overcome this lies in having positive role models, whether it be mentors, singers or sports stars that students can identify with, giving them hope of a better future. The outreach programmes run by universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE for disadvantaged pupils are very positive in this regard and should be encouraged. Bringing students into the physical university for what may be the first time in their life and linking them with experts and tutors who encourage them means that bright but underprivileged students start to believe in themselves and in the fact they can make it if they try.

We should also recognise that our schools are in fact doing quite well, even though educational inequality remains high. As Levitt and Dubner illustrate in their classic book, Freakonomics, the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged pupils diminishes greatly over the school year. It is the time spent outside of school that bolsters inequality, as students from wealthier backgrounds will generally have access to summer schools, foreign holidays and private tutors over the summer which teaches them skills not taught in school and ensures they don’t forget what they learnt over the school year.

The poorest students, however, tend to stay at home and for various reasons (some of them monetary) do not participate in these activities, meaning they tend to forget what they learnt over the course of the year and fall back, widening these inequalities. This is exacerbated each summer.

I do not believe that we should shorten the summer holidays, which provide many benefits when used well. The solution instead could be for schools to ensure that all students have a plan for how they will make good use of their summer holidays, similar to how sixth forms currently have to ensure students have a plan for after they leave.

Schemes like the National Citizen Service are also very beneficial as they lead to social mixing which, as mentioned above, results in the spreading of ideas and cultures. Children realise there is less that divides them than they think. These schemes need not cost a fortune either. We should encourage students to volunteer or play sport to gain a place at university, as is the case at many American universities.

The above changes would majorly benefit students across the country by giving them the confidence needed to know that they can succeed. There are also, however, several structural changes that could be made to education which will majorly benefit students and the nation.

The re-introduction of grammar schools is one that comes up time and time again, the argument being that when the 11-plus test was prevalent and students were divided into grammars, secondary moderns and secondary technicals, social mobility boomed. It is true that even among remaining grammar schools, students are statistically a lot more likely to attend top universities, including Oxbridge.

But we should bear in mind that correlation doesn’t equal causation and that to be admitted to these competitive schools’ sixth form, students need a minimum of ten A*s at GCSE, meaning they were likely to do well regardless of what school they attended. Critics also question the fairness of selecting a student’s future based on an exam they sit at the age of 11.

An alternative suggestion is the re-introduction of assisted places at private schools. There is no reason why the state must supply schooling. This idea has caught on quickly in the US with the rapid rise of charter schools and is beginning to catch on here with the introduction of free schools by the Cameron government.

Another idea, proposed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, is the introduction of a “voucher system” in education where parents would be given an educational voucher and they would be free to spend this at whatever school they choose, public or private. The result would be that schools providing the best education would be rewarded, and those which under-perform would be forced to improve or face bankruptcy.

Even if some schools raise their fees as a result, it would also mean that middle-class families, who earn more than the threshold for a scholarship but less than the amount needed to be able to comfortably afford private school fees, would be able to send their children to private schools which on average, outperform state schools by topping up the voucher.

If the aim is to deliver the best education for our children, then we should not worry whether the school is publicly or privately owned, so long as it results in better educational outcomes. More experimentation in schooling, as we see in the USA with magnet schools, Montessori schools and home-schooling could lead to students developing a real love for learning, rather than studying for the sake of passing an exam. That, I would argue, will lead to a stronger and fairer education system for all.


  • Adam Lehodey

    Adam Lehodey is a penultimate year student on the Dual-BA between Columbia University and SciencesPo Paris, majoring in economics and philosophy. He was a Summer Honors Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and also interned at both the Institute of Economic Affairs and Adam Smith Institute.

Written by Adam Lehodey

Adam Lehodey is a penultimate year student on the Dual-BA between Columbia University and SciencesPo Paris, majoring in economics and philosophy. He was a Summer Honors Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and also interned at both the Institute of Economic Affairs and Adam Smith Institute.


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