Born to fail? Social mobility: a working class view

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One in six children living in poverty will continue to be labelled as “born to fail” if Britain doesn’t overhaul its “exclusive” education system and radically re-think its approach to social mobility, according to leading education expert and CEO of Achievement for All Prof. Sonia Blandford. Reflecting on her new book, Born to fail? Social mobility: a working class view, Sonia explains what she thinks needs to be done to make our society more inclusive.


My ambition for Born to fail? is that it is read as an introduction to an alternative way of thinking about social mobility - a way of thinking that crucially listens to, engages and involves the working class in determining what their future should be. An alternative way that values partnership, mutuality and collaboration and which, by doing what is right, creates opportunities for all.

For middle leaders, this means a review of how we and our teams teach, in terms of content and pedagogy. The current school curriculum in England and its pedagogy are built on middle-class values. They lack social and cultural relevance for the most disadvantaged children and families.

Over the last six years, I’ve been involved in the Achievement for All programme that has reached nearly four million children and young people, their families and teaching professionals in a bid to support not only what they do but also change the way we think about education and its outcomes.  Crucially, I’ve learned from that work how important it is we focus on core strength and build social mobility from the inside.

Teachers know the power of aspiration, the ‘I CAN’, and how a culture of high expectations for all children – every child, every day and every lesson in every week – can make a difference. In contrast to other commentators, I don’t see aspiration as the child or young person thinking about what they are going to do when they leave school (though that can be a fun part of it), and it’s not about the child or young person thinking they are going to be the best dancer or footballer. Aspiration is about the here and now it’s the ‘I CAN ACHIEVE’.

For this to happen, we need children to access the ‘I DO’. The participation that makes learning real and which helps them to become independent learners. Teachers need – and most want – to understand what the barriers are for children and how they can be removed. Not the barriers outside their remit (they can and should be tackled in tandem by appropriate bodies in a socially just society), but those in the classroom. Teachers who have seen mutuality in action – where every child is included – see the whole class benefiting from a calmer, kinder and more inclusive atmosphere.

It’s about asking children, all children, and their families what would work for them and creating activities – tried, tested and supervised – to help children develop strengths and friendships outside the classroom and to build their confidence when they go back in. Schools tell me that once they start to model inclusive behaviour in this way, children model it too. Those children – the ones who are achieving well and don’t seem to face barriers to learning – build their own emotional intelligence as they become part of a wider community that values and supports everyone in it.  In schools, the I DO can be about a whole range of activities and interventions.

These children moved from the ‘I CAN’ to the ‘I DO’ to the ‘I HAVE’ - the ‘I HAVE’ being the opportunity to consider all that they have learned and reflect on the processes that will take them where they want to go (like a springboard to further progress). 

The initiatives that took them from the ‘I CAN’ to the ‘I HAVE’ are all things we can do or issues we can alter for children in our care right now. All things that can help close that attainment gap. And the result when they achieve is the ‘I AM’ - the feel-good factor that results from the internalization of learning and success. It’s about equipping children and young people to understand what they know and how to learn, and building a desire to engage with a future educational journey. 

The benefits I’ve seen - one child at a time and one school after another - are greater than the sum of all the stories I could tell you. The focus on what might be altered rather than what couldn’t be changed supported everything else these great schools were trying to do and properly utilised the stunning teaching skills they have.  

'Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View', offers a deeply personal and provocative insider view of the working class and is available from 

Further information on Achievement for All can be found at

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Professor Sonia Blandford
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Professor Sonia Blandford is one of the country’s foremost experts on Improving the education and aspirations of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. She is currently founder and CEO of the award-winning educational charity Achievement for All, and professor of education and social enterprise at UCL Institute of Education. 

Sonia was named in Debrett’s 2015, 2016 list of the Top 500 Most Influential People in the UK, and was among the 2016 Women of the Year. She is Chair of the Blackpool Challenge and also a Founding Trustee and Vice Chair of the Chartered College of Teaching. Sonia is currently a leading researcher in the European Agency OECD Raising Attainment project.

Follow Professor Sonia Blandford on Twitter @SoniaAFA3AS