Zahawi backs social mobility tsar telling working class to aim 'lower' than Oxbridge

9 June 2022, 23:11 | Updated: 10 June 2022, 02:07

Nadhim Zahawi has backed Katharine Birbalsingh
Nadhim Zahawi has backed Katharine Birbalsingh. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has backed the social mobility tsar after she suggested people from disadvantaged backgrounds should take 'smaller steps' before aiming for Oxbridge.

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Katharine Birbalsingh argued that there was too much focus on poorer people getting into top universities and elite jobs.

In her inaugural speech as chairwoman of the Social Mobility Commission she argued that the UK needs a radical shift in how it views social mobility.

She said that more attention should be given to stories of social mobility where there is less of a stark rags-to-riches ascent - such as someone whose parents are long-term unemployed getting a job, or the daughter of a care worker becoming a primary school teacher.

Responding to her comments in an interview with LBC's Ben Kentish, Nadhim Zahawi said: "What Katharine Birbalsingh was saying is exactly the right thing and, actually, I identify with it.

"When I came to this country at the age of 11 and couldn't speak a word of English, I had to learn to speak English – a baby step forward.

"By the time I was able to think in the language, I then discovered I'm quite good at maths and chemistry and human biology. And then to the next baby step forward.

"Add all those baby steps and they make you Secretary of State for Education.

"That's what Katharine talking about. She says make sure that you take the steps and build that foundation for you to be able to succeed in life."

When asked whether students from deprived backgrounds were being told not to aim as high as they should be, Mr Zahawi added: "There should be no glass ceiling. Smash through that glass ceiling.

"Again, an immigrant boy from Iraq has become Secretary of State for Education. I don't think Katharine is saying anything other than people should go for it.

"People should absolutely chase and deliver on their ambition because they are equally talented whether they in Stoke-on-Trent or Stratford-upon-Avon.

"The thing to remember is to take the steps to get you there. That's what you should focus on."

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Ms Birbalsingh also discussed her support for the Government's Levelling Up agenda and how she wants to create more opportunities in the regions so that young people do not feel compelled to come to London or the South East to get a good job.

"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," Ms Birbalsingh, who is also headteacher of Michaela School in London, said.

"We want to promote a broader view of social mobility, for a wider range of people, who want to improve their lives, sometimes in smaller steps," she added.

"This means looking at how to improve opportunities for those at the bottom - not just by making elite pathways for the few - but by thinking about those who would otherwise be left behind."

Speaking at an event hosted by Policy Exchange, she added that there is no "one size fits all model of social mobility".

"If a child of parents who were long-term unemployed, or who never worked, gets a good job in their local area, isn't that a success worth celebrating?

"Would we really say that it doesn't count as social mobility because they are not a doctor or lawyer?" she asked.

Ms Birbalsingh and Alun Francis, her deputy, argued that the widening of access to university has not always helped social mobility while the 50% of pupils who do not go on to higher education have suffered from a lack of public attention.

"What can we do for those young people and adults who have not followed the higher education pathway but still need a route to high skills and good occupational opportunities?" she asked.

"And what more should be done about those at the very bottom - particularly those with low levels of basic literacy and numeracy - who cannot therefore take advantage of higher learning and are unable to access higher paid work?"

Ms Birbalsingh argued that social mobility is not getting worse and that the picture is more "complex", with the latest analysis from the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) revealing that occupational mobility has been stable or improving slightly for decades, although there is less consensus on other areas such as income and housing, which the SMC intends to explore next year.

Ms Birbalsingh, who set up the high-achieving Michaela Community School in Brent, was appointed as the chair of the commission in 2021 and is known for making controversial comments.

In April, she was urged to apologise for telling a Government committee that girls did not take up A-level physics because they disliked "hard maths", and she has championed strict approaches to discipline such as silent corridors in schools and a campaign against mobile phones for toddlers.

The SMC State of the Nation 2022 report will be published later in June and will set out a framework to revise how social mobility has traditionally been measured. A new social mobility index will track social mobility by occupation, income and other outcomes across the UK.

"It means being clearer about the instances where mobility is working well - and being clearer about the various factors which help make this happen," Ms Birbalsingh said.

She set out priorities such as education, employment, enterprise and the economy as part of the SMC's work.

"We passionately believe that with a sharper lens, which really spots where the problems lie, we can find out what works and start making a difference," she said.

"We want to champion a fresh approach which sees social mobility as the process of enabling everyone to find and apply their talents in ways that they enjoy and gives them purpose, and for our wider society and economy," she said.