Interview - Professor Sonia Blandford

Monday, October 16, 2017

Chief executive, Achievement for All and author of a new book, Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View, which draws on her personal experiences.

How have your experiences shaped your views on social mobility?

I was born into poverty in the 1950s. While I was growing up on the Allied Estate in Hounslow, I was represented in the original Born to Fail study, which explored the experiences of disadvantaged children and the inequalities they suffered in comparison to ‘normal’ children.

Forty-four years on, and I see a society where social progress has stagnated and lessons of the past have not been learned. The one in six children who lives in poverty today is still labelled as ‘born to fail’. Based on both my professional and insider view of the working class, I’m urging society to radically rethink the approach to social mobility if all children are to have a fair chance to achieve.

You question the current view that the working class are seen as failing if they do not become more like the middle class…

Yes. It is one of the greatest social injustices of our time that the prevailing view, particularly by those in power, is that the working class are failing and need to be rescued from their situations or pushed down a path that results in university entry.

Initiative after initiative pedals the belief that for working-class young people to ‘get on’ in life, they have to ‘get out’ of their communities. We need to put the same time and resources into improving education and employment opportunities throughout Britain, instilling respect for local communities.

Your book argues that we need to re-define how we measure success for children and young people?

There is no evidence that the working class cannot achieve. What there is, however, is a curriculum that is built on middle class values and an obsession with testing and exam results.

We need to refocus teacher training and increase understanding of how working class, disadvantaged and children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) learn to effectively prepare children for learning.

It is time to value achievement in all its guises whether that is attending university, learning a trade, continuing with further education, working with the community, completing an apprenticeship or travelling the world.

What do you think early years practitioners can do in their own way to tackle social injustice?

Early years practitioners have a crucial role to play in bringing about social justice. I’ve seen the extraordinary success that comes not from ‘rescuing’ people from their situations, but ensuring children and their families have choices now and in the future. Early years units can be run like extended families, giving parents, carers and children a place and an opportunity to improve things for themselves and each other.

In the settings that provide opportunities for parent and carer education, I’ve seen how this atmosphere of trust and mutual respect instils the confidence in them to learn more so they can enhance not only their own lives, but also support their children more effectively.  

Go into a successful early years setting and there is a sense of community celebration that speaks to me more than anything else about social mobility and social justice.

Alongside this, however, I would like to see the Pupil Premium investment in early years education increased by 100 per cent and extended to include two-year olds. This will enable every setting to have access to staff training and development, reinforcing the growth and school readiness of children at this critical time.

How do you think we can break the cycle of disadvantage passing from one generation to the next, especially in areas where poverty is already so entrenched?

If we care that many disadvantaged children under achieve or fail, we must start to really listen to parents and carers, and view them as equals. They’ve been left at arms’ length for too long. 

Developing these mutual partnerships through structured conversations based on listening and understanding should be the first step for everyone on the path to social mobility. This can change the view disadvantaged parents have of education, increase expectations and empower them to share in the education of their child and enhance their life chances.

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