Growing up: children and social mobility in Britain since 1840

Session Abstract: Debates in 2016 surrounding the re-introduction of grammar schools reflected concerns that post-war social mobility has stalled, reigniting interest in a subject that has been at the forefront of public policy discourse in the UK over the last decade.  At the core of discourses about good nutrition in infancy, parental encouragement, academic readiness for and access to university education is the framing of social mobility in and through childhood as the key to life-long wellbeing and advancement. Histories of social mobility, however, drawing on occupational class data, have focused on adults and on large scale social trends rather than the processes and experience of being socially mobile.

This interdisciplinary panel will highlight the ways in which sociological and anthropological approaches can open up new questions about the history of social mobility, and suggest that historical analyses might raise new questions for contemporary research.  It will draw attention to the ways in which discourses of social mobility in Britain since 1840 have been framed in and through childhood, whilst also revealing how the impact of these discourses is influenced by gender, class, and family. The papers explore the social, cultural, and biological ways in which some children have been placed at the centre of practices intended to facilitate social mobility in Britain since the 1850s, as well as limits to these aspirations when dealing with other children. They uncover children’s bodily and emotional experiences of social mobility in the past and today, and, drawing on the work of Steph Lawler and Diane Reay, reveal the hidden social and experiential costs of social mobility. Together the papers raise questions about how the weight of expectation being placed on younger generations has influenced children, parents and other agencies caring for children in the past, and what implications that history might have in modern Britain.

Commentator: Steph Lawler, University of York

Paper 1 Abstract:  Great Expectations: childhood, family, and social mobility in the nineteenth century

Christina de Bellaigue, University of Oxford

This paper will demonstrate, however, that as the carriers of adult aspiration, children were central to mobility strategies in nineteenth-century England.  It will use the correspondence and papers of the Heywood family of Bolton, and the Tubb Family of Bicester as case studies shedding light on the experiences of children in mobile families of the industrial and commercial middle classes.  The paper will have two objectives, first it will seek to restore children to the history of social mobility. Expected to consolidate and confirm the achievements of their parents and grandparents, how was this burden of expectation conveyed by parents and experienced by their children?  What impact did these expectations have on the management of resources within the family? How were children’s bodies and minds prepared for the futures envisaged for them? Second, the paper will challenge the focus on individual adults in the study of social mobility, demonstrating the ways in which the families of the nineteenth-century industrial middle classes conceived of social mobility as a multi-generational familial project.  Children were the beneficiaries of family resources because the present and future standing of the family depended on the production of healthy and successful offspring.

Paper 2 Abstract: Social mobility and wellbeing: does ‘moving up’ lead to better health?

Karin Eli, University of Oxford

Health and social class are inextricably linked. On the population level, most health conditions follow a socioeconomic gradient: people of higher social classes are more likely to have better health. This gradient is particularly notable in obesity and type 2 diabetes, whose prevention is of central concern to contemporary public health policies. Given this socioeconomic gradient, it might appear that promoting school achievement among children would double as effective public health policy: if working class children become upper-middle class adults, they might be less likely to develop the metabolic conditions that affect their communities of origin at higher rates. Yet, as this paper will show, the relationships between class of origin, class of destination, and wellbeing in adulthood are more complex. Based on data collected through a new socio-epidemiological questionnaire developed at the University of Oxford’s School of Anthropology in collaboration with the Oxford BioBank, this paper will examine correlations between measures of social class in childhood, social class in adulthood, and adult wellbeing. With particular attention to body weight, eating practices, and distress – and taking gender into account – the discussion will focus on how classed childhood experiences, including experiences of social mobility, may mediate, and even invert, expected relationships between health and adult social class. [206]

Paper 3 Abstract: Girlhood and Social Mobility c.1950-1970

Eve Worth, University of Oxford

The landmark 1944 Education Act ushered in compulsory secondary education for all in Britain, determining the type of school children attended through a competitive selective examination- the eleven-plus. The classed impact of this education system and the extent to which it produced social mobility has begun to be explored by historians such as Selina Todd and Peter Mandler.  This paper builds on their recent work by arguing that educational and social mobility experiences were inflected by gender in this period. It draws on the set of thirty life-history interviews conducted with women born in Britain between 1938 and 1952 for my doctoral work. As well as grammar schools being dominated by the children of the middle-class, it is evident in these interviews that gender and the eleven-plus cannot be unentangled.  There were less grammar school places for girls. Even the results of the eleven-plus were adjusted so that girls had to get higher scores than boys in order to pass. There was therefore an implicit assumption built into the system that the more academic grammars were for boys- or were gendered masculine. This placed working-class girls in a liminal position; she had to negotiate her identity within a framework where she was neither the traditional girl, but not the boy, and no longer working-class, but not fully middle-class. The paper examines three aspects of working-class grammar school girls’ experience: the ways in which class was inscribed on the female body in these spaces; the impact on familial relationships of passing the eleven-plus; and the material outcomes of attending grammar school as they entered adulthood. The working-class grammar school girl in particular had the most to gain but perhaps at the highest cost to her developing selfhood.


Paper 4 Abstract: The Cruelties and Costs of Social Mobility, c.1950-2010

Diane Reay,  University of Cambridge

As Lauren Berlant (2006) argues in Cruel Optimism, attachments to optimistic fantasies can often become cruel. Cruel optimism entails the fantasy that our relentless efforts will bring us love, care, intimacy, success, security and wellbeing even when they are highly unlikely to do so because in doing so we are forming optimistic attachments to the very power structures  that have oppressed us, and our families before us. Social mobility is one such optimistic fantasy that ensnares and works on both the individual psyche and collective consciousness.  It has become the preferred cure for social ills and educational inequalities, promoted by politicians on both the right and left. In contrast, in this paper I argue that in deeply unequal societies like the UK it constitutes a social ill, one that harms both the socially mobile individual and the communities they grew up in. The paper draws on my own experience of growing up in the 1950s and 60s, and that of a young Bangladeshi boy who has been socially mobile in the 2010s.  Both are narratives permeated with fear, anxiety, and a powerful sense of conflict and inner turmoil. This is, in part, because, as Bourdieu (2014) asserts, ‘the individual ambition of climbing the social ladder and participating in the protection of the collective interests of one’s class are far from easy to reconcile. However, it is also because reception in unfamiliar, privileged fields such as school and university are often spaces in which workingclassness is disrespected and devalued.

Paper Five Abstract: Realising ‘the proper development of his character and abilities’? The relationship between social mobility and looked after children in post-war England

Jono Taylor, University of Oxford

Just four years after the introduction of the historic 1944 Education Act, a second important piece of legislation was passed in the form of the 1948 Children’s Act. Designed to significantly reform the care and support provided to children who were no longer cared for by their parents, the legislation required that a child living in local authority care be supported to ‘further his best interests’ and ‘afford[ed the] opportunity for the proper development of his character and abilities’. This paper argues that, during what is commonly thought of as a ‘golden age’ of social mobility, the statutory obligation to ensure that looked after children reached their full potential was rarely thought of in terms of facilitating social mobility. Concerns relating to social mobility, regarding children in care, arose most clearly in connection to fears of downward social mobility: the best interests of children in care were constructed in terms of preventing children at risk of harm succumbing to criminality. The vocational training often provided to children resident in approved schools, and the associated forms of employment that many care leavers entered, meant that few experienced the dramatic upward social mobility associated with this period. The fact this state of affairs was not thought to be at odds with local authorities’ statutory duty is suggestive of a system in which social stability was privileged more highly than social mobility.